Several years ago, our family of five went to the movies together. At the time, our kids were around five, eight, and eleven, and the movie involved a robot that became the best friend of the lead character. You see where this is going already, right?
At the end of the movie, the robot sacrifices himself for his human friend, and our family was a wreck. The movie had spent the better part of two hours making us feel deeply for the machine, only to rip it out from under us at the end. We were all in tears… except the five-year-old. And his brother and sister were offended:
“Why aren’t you crying?” they asked.
“Didn’t you think it was sad?” they asked.
His response was straight to the point: “Guys, it’s just a robot.”
True enough. And also a good example of the fact that some of us are naturally more sympathetic than others. But real sympathy is more than just shedding a few tears; it’s really feeling along with someone else, and doing so deeply. This is one of the things we are supposed to do in the church – to feel with one another:
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15).
This command comes in a series of short, rapid fire admonishments Paul gave to the church at Rome. Alongside practicing hospitality, hating what is evil, and showing zeal, we are told to feel with one another. And once again, some of us are more naturally disposed to following that command. But what about the rest of us? Surely there must be some way we can cultivate the kind of sympathy Romans 12 describes. Here are three suggestions to do just that, if you’re not feeling particularly sympathetic:
One of the reasons we don’t feel with one another is because we are moving too quickly to do so. Our lives are a constant flow of information in from every direction, and because they are, we rarely take the time to actually stop, think, and then feel what is happening to another person.
Rather than listening or reading what they are saying and then considering the implications of it, we are very quickly off to the next text or post or conversation. In this sense, one of the things that most easily robs us of sympathy is our pace. We have to slow it down if we want to feel.
Okay, so we slow down enough to actually hear what is happening to another person. If we still want to cultivate more sympathy, then we have to engage the person further. We have to actually talk to them.
There is something unique that happens when you speak to a person, especially face to face. It is a natural side effect to not only hear their words, but to see their body language. To take in their tone. To more fully embrace the level of pain or elation they are feeling. And the closer you are in proximity to someone, the harder it is to be unsympathetic toward them. Our lack of sympathy, then, is not only a symptom of our pace; it’s a symptom of our proximity to others.
Then, of course, there is the most important way we can grow in sympathy, and that is by prayer. Now that prayer can take two forms, each of which will help us in this area.
Firstly, we can pray for the person. We can go to God on behalf of the person, either in thanksgiving or in supplication. We can praise the Lord for what’s happening to them or we can ask God to bring about some change in their circumstances. In either case, it is very, very difficult to remain emotionally unengaged with someone you are praying for.
Secondly, though, we can pray for our own hearts. We know we should be feeling with this person more deeply, and yet we know that our hearts are hard to that emotion. So we go to the one person we know has the power to change the human heart, because He has already done it in us when we became Christians. Now we come asking Him to soften the new heart he has given us in Christ so that we might feel more deeply for our brothers and sisters.
Just because we aren’t feeling sympathetic doesn’t mean we are released from the responsibility to be sympathetic. And it also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actively pursue it. As we do, we will find ourselves feeling more and more with those around us, even as Jesus is sympathetic with us in all our experiences.
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