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The New Testament uses three words related to feeling or expressing sympathy, a total of only five times:

sumpascho – to suffer with or like another [1Corinthians 12:26; Romans 8:17].

sumpathes – sympathetic [1Peter 3:8].

sumpatheo – to sympathize with [Hebrews 4:15; 10:34].

These words derive the verb pascho – to suffer, to be emotionally impacted. The related noun is pathos – suffering, and/or the related emotion or passion.

When Peter, in summing up what submission looks like in the church, commands us to ‘be sympathetic’ he is commanding us to enter into the sufferings of our fellow believers – to feel with them what they are feeling. This sympathetic entering into each other’s suffering is an expression of the unity of mind that Peter has already commanded.

Paul wrote about this. Using the image of a human body he taught that if one member of the body suffers all members of the body are impacted [1Corinthians 12:12-26]. In this context Paul says of the church, the body of Christ: ‘that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other’. Not one of us should see ourselves as an individual removed from the sufferings and hurts experienced by others, but rather, we should feel with them their burden of sorrow, the pressure of their temptations, their vulnerability to doubts and fears. As Paul instructs us in Romans 12:15, we are to ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.’

Jesus himself lived out this sympathy.

In the context of human sadness:

‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept.’ [John 11:33-34]

Even though he knew that he was about to raise the dead Lazarus to life, Jesus entered into the deep sorrow of Mary and the Jews. He felt their deep emotional pain. He cried tears of grief. He agonized along with them. Their deep sorrow was his deep sorrow.

In the context of our human spiritual predicament Jesus took sympathy to its deepest level:

‘... we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize [sumpatheo] with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ [Hebrews 4:15].

Jesus became one of us. He lived a real human life – complete with the same kinds of pressures and challenges to faith that all humans suffer. He knows what it feels like to be tempted by sin and pressured to give in and give up and take the easy way out. He knows what it feels like to be poor, to be tired, to be misunderstood, to be unrecognized, to be rejected. He has felt our pain. And because he knows, he sympathizes.

Jesus did not hold himself aloof from our suffering. He entered right into it.

It is therefore quite out of order for any of us to hold ourselves aloof, to act as though we are beyond suffering, removed from the common human lot. Rather than our union with Christ putting us beyond the reach of suffering it plummets us deeper into it as we align with both his mission and his compassion [Romans 8:17].

It is even more out of order for us to stand in superiority over a fellow believer and express that kind of erroneous theology that makes a direct connection between their suffering and either personal sin or defective faith. Rather, we should help them in their weakness, agonizing with them and for them as the Holy Spirit does [Romans 8:26], restoring them gently because we know that we also share their weakness [Galatians 6:1-3].

Peter condenses this to two words, instructing all of us, in our attitudes to our fellow believers: ‘be sympathetic’.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2018