One of the marks of the confusion of our age is that we have come to value feeling the right thing over doing the right thing.
That actually may be giving the current mood too much credit. It would be nearer the truth to say we value professing to feel the right thing over doing the right thing. We live in an age of sentimentality where feeling the joys, or particularly the pains, of another (or at least expressing that we do) is considered virtuous in itself.
But surely sympathy, while often commendable, is not the main point.
Lesson from Christology
This was brought home to me recently while reading William Shedd’s treatment of Christ’s temptations and impeccability. It is sometimes argued that being “tempted in every way just as we are” (Heb. 4:15) means Christ experienced the exact temptations we face in the exact way we face them. But Christ was never tempted to spend too much time on an iPhone or to give his wife the cold shoulder. Jesus didn’t face precisely the same temptations we face.
More importantly, he didn’t face temptation in the same way. Our temptation is often tainted with sin, arising within us as an expression of original or indwelling sin. Christ could not experience temptation just as we do and still be a sinless Savior. What Hebrews means instead is that Christ knew the kinds of weaknesses, sufferings, and afflictions we know. “In order to sympathize with a person,” Shedd writes, “it is not necessary to have the exact same affliction that he has. It is only necessary to have been afflicted” (Dogmatic Theology, 669). And Christ was certainly afflicted in suffering and in temptation. We may not know the internally psychology of our impeccable Savior as he was tempted, but he was genuinely tempted, even if the temptation did not arise within him, like ours often does, from the power of indwelling sin. Christ can sympathize with afflicted human beings because he too was afflicted.
The good news in having a sympathetic high priest is not that Christ sprained his ankle as many times as I’ve sprained my ankle, nor is the good news more generally that Christ continues to hurt when we hurt (let alone that God suffers when we suffer). No, the good news in having a theanthropic person in heaven—the God-man—who knows our weaknesses is that we can, therefore, with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and grace in time of need (Heb. 4:15-16).
It is a glory beyond measure that the incarnate and perpetual God-man is able to sympathize with our weakness, but sympathy itself is not the point (interestingly, the text doesn’t say he sympathizes with us, but with our weaknesses). The point is that because of the Son’s identification with his brothers he can help us. Surely, it’s significant that the two great Christological identification passages in Hebrews—chapter 2 and chapter 4—conclude with the reassurance that our faithful high priest will help us (Heb. 2:18; 4:16). The emphasis is not on Jesus feeling the right thing in heaven. Rather, the good news is that because he has felt what we felt, he will surely come to our aid. The doctrine of our sympathetic Savior should not be construed as the triumph of sentimentality.
What Is Love?
Of course, understanding Christ’s love for us has ramifications for how we understand that nature and exercise of Christian love for others. To be clear, sympathy can be a very good thing, but it is good because of what it may prompt. That may seem a harsh judgment, but consider: if Sam is sick and Andy hears about it and, unknown to Sam, cries himself to sleep every night over Sam’s predicament, how is Sam helped? The mere experience of sympathy with suffering does not by itself help the sufferer. That doesn’t mean sympathy is nothing. When Andy’s sympathy moves him to send a text or bring over a home-cooked meal, that will mean something to Sam. If a stranger feels what I feel and I never know about, the stranger’s experience of sympathy may make him feel better, but it has no effect on me. What helps is the movement that sympathy makes toward the person. It’s the word of comfort, the gesture of kindness, the written card that helps. Doing the right thing matters more than feeling the right thing. Again, Shedd puts it well: “The strength and reality of sympathy are seen in the amount of self-sacrifice that one is willing to make for the miserable, rather than in the mere fact that one has felt precisely the same misery himself” (669).
In other words, sympathy may lead to the tangible exercise of the Spirit’s fruit, but it is not by itself the work of the Spirit. While it requires an unusual cruelty to be completely indifferent to the sufferings of others, it does not require a work of the Spirit to feel sorry for people. There’s a reason that reality shows and sporting events like to provide sad back stories for athletes and contestants. Sympathy is a relatively easy emotion to come by—especially in the age of social media where such expressions are a click away. That makes sympathy a powerful ally in doing the right thing. It also makes sympathy easily manipulated so that people do the wrong thing based on what seems to be a right feeling or simply conclude they have already done the right thing by feeling what they feel (or at least saying that they do).
Rejoicing and Weeping
What about Romans 12:15, you may ask. There we are told to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep.” Isn’t this basically a command to sympathize with others?
Yes and no.
For starters, consider the inherent difficulty in being obligated to feel happy every time you are around happy people and to feel sad every time you are around sad people. In such an arrangement, no doctor could care for sick people or counselor work with the grieving. Neither, for that matter, could hurting people throw birthday parties for children. Paul’s instruction is not an absolute command to have chameleon-like feelings.
Surely, the saying is a type of proverb, a maxim, a saying of virtuous wisdom. The point is not to train your emotions to match every emotion you encounter, but rather to be a thoughtful, considerate person who doesn’t sing a dirge at a wedding or bring a kazoo to a funeral. I remember after the last presidential election hearing some Christians say that other Christians were obliged to weep with them as they grieved the outcome of the election. Romans 12:15, it was said, commanded others to share in their sorrow. But of course, on that application, Christians were also obligated to celebrate with those who cheered the results of the election.
I’m not suggesting Romans 12:15 had no application in that moment. No doubt, Christian maturity, if not basic human decency, would suggest that we would all be wise to remember that others may not have felt the same way we did. Love is not rude, which means obnoxiously mismatching the mood of those around you is quite often a sin. But Romans 12:15 is less about feeling the right thing than about maintaining the warmth and unity of Christian fellowship. That’s why verse 15 is followed by commands like “live at harmony with one another” (v. 16), “do not be haughty” (v. 16), “do what is honorable,” (v. 17), and “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (v. 18). Raining on parades and dancing at gravesides does not help keep the peace.
Doing Over Feeling
Why all these musings on sympathy? Because I believe too many Christians share our culture’s preference for feeling over doing. Listen, I’m not against feelings—Dutchman though I am! I think I live my life with a healthy range of emotions. What’s more, many of the right things to be done are prompted and motivated by our emotions. But feelings are not infallible. Sensitivity is one thing, sacrosanct is another. I am always responsible for what I do; I am not always responsible for how you feel. If emotional ineptitude is a problem for some, then emotional blackmail is for others.
We too quickly attach exalted praise to easy expressions of sympathy. And on the flip side, we rush to judge those who may be quietly acting the part of a good neighbor in private but do not loudly profess the right sympathy in public. We demand of people proper emoting, and when they don’t oblige we condemn them more harshly for what we think they have not felt than for what they did or did not do. The internet exacerbates these tendencies. We are more aware of human suffering around the world than ever before, and likewise we are asked to express sympathy—often from strangers and often for strangers—in quantities that outstrip realistic human capacity.
And yet, the Bible never says “the greatest of these is sympathy.” Love may be related to sympathy at times, but it is far from identical. Just look at our Lord who was known to feast when others were fasting and ask impertinent questions when blood was spilled and towers fell. There are higher virtues than feeling what others feel and higher callings than legitimizing the emotional opinions of others. We have made sentimentality our chief moral duty, when cheap would be the more operative word.