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A Study of Exhortation - Romans 12:15

This article continues an on-going, verse-by-verse series on the exhortations in Romans 12.

Christian Sympathy

15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

In this verse, Paul continues his exhortations that concern our behavior in the midst of an evil world. The fact that we live in a fallen world guarantees the fact that we will experience "ups" and "downs". Here Paul exhorts us to stand with others in Christian sympathy. We are to "rejoice with those who rejoice" and "mourn with those who mourn."

To show sympathy is to be like Christ. It was from sympathy that "Jesus wept" after the death of Lazarus, "when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her were also weeping" (John 11:33,35). It was through sympathy that Christ came to save us: "In all their distress He too was distressed, and the angel of His presence saved them" (Isa. 63:9). It is through sympathy that we have a High Priest who can represent us before God with mercy: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). He chose to live as a man, in order to better sympathize with us.

The best of God's people show great sympathy. Jeremiah, in pain for the afflicted of Israel, cried: "Since my people are crushed, I am crushed... Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people" (Jer. 8:21; 9:1). Paul showed sympathy for all the churches: "Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?" (II Cor. 11:28,29). David was able to sympathize with even his enemies: "They repay me evil for good and leave my soul forlorn. Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting" (Psalm 35:12-13).

Sympathy is an important aspect of Christian love. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and sympathy is a manifestation of such a love. To be able to sympathize is to show true love, from the heart. Sympathy is the basis of the golden rule, and as such, sympathy nearly always leads to action. If we genuinely feel for another, we act as we would if we were in the same situation. We "rejoice with those who rejoice", celebrating as if it were our victory. We "mourn with those who mourn" and do what we can to remedy the sorrowful situation. Those who truly sympathize do not hesitate to visit those in prison, or to serve those who are bedridden, or to show love for those whom no one else can love. Such love is to "do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matt. 7:12).

While Paul's exhortation certainly has general application, in context, Paul seems to be exhorting us to have sympathy for our enemies and for those who persecute us. In context, Paul says: "Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Rom. 12:14-15). Through sympathy, we can carry out Paul's exhortation to bless those who persecute us. If we truly try to put ourselves in our enemies footsteps, we can sympathize and understand the thought processes that led to their persecution of us. And so, through sympathy, we can find forgiveness.

Along the same lines, through sympathy, we realize that we are no better than the worst sinners. We find the same attitude that John Bradford (1510-1555) had who, when asked what he thought of the horrid sinners who were being taken to their place of execution (the askers no doubt expected John Bradford to chastise the sinners), said: "But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford." Yes, through sympathy, we realize that if God had not brought us out of the darkness and into His light, and if we were placed in the same situation and given the same occasion to commit those heinous crimes, we too would be on our way to the gallows. Our hearts are as dark as theirs and, but for the grace of God, our path would be as dark as well. So, through sympathy, we can find compassion for the worst sinners and pray, not for their judgment, but their salvation, that the light of God would illuminate their dark souls.

Now, Paul exhorts us to show sympathy in two ways. We are both to "rejoice with those who rejoice" and to "mourn with those who mourn." Paul needs to give us both exhortations because for some it is more difficult to "rejoice" with others, and for some it is more difficult to "mourn" with others. We find it difficult to mourn with others because we do not want the added burdens of their lives upon our already burdened existence, but Paul tells us in another place: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). We find it difficult to rejoice with others, especially with those who persecute us, because of envy. We can't bring ourselves to lend a hand of congratulations when our rivals achieve. So, in ourselves, these exhortations are difficult to carry out; but by the Spirit of God working in our hearts, we can find the moral strength to truly sympathize with others.

So, Father, give us the strength to sympathize with others, including those who persecute us. Help us to realize that, but by Your grace, we would too be mired in darkness, persecuting Your people. Instill in us Your love and compassion by Your Spirit. We pray these things in the name of our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, Amen.

(In the next issue, we will continue our study in Romans 12 by looking at verse 16)

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