Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: sympathy

The myth of incompetence

“It’s just not my gift to witness to other people about my faith. I get all flustered and nothing comes out right. Other people can do it, but I just can’t.”

Have you ever said something like that? I don’t know if I’ve ever said it, but I’ve certainly felt that way. After experiencing those feelings for many years, a little light began to flicker in my mind and the illumination has increased with time. I have been comparing myself with the wrong people all along. I have looked enviously at people who were smooth-talking and self-assured and thought that I needed to become like them. At the same time, just being around them made me feel inadequate.

There is good news for me, and you, and all the other believers who feel inadequate. Those people we envy and wish to emulate may not be the most effective witnesses for the Lord. We can do it. We can visit about most anything else, why not about the thing that is most important in our life?

The way we listen is more important than the way we talk. The questions we ask are more important than the answers we give, because our questions reveal whether or not we are really interested in the person we are talking to.

Being a good witness for the Lord has to start with noticing the people around us and being interested in them. Show some interest in the people who serve you in stores, coffee shops and restaurants. If you see them frequently, get to know their names, ask them about their family or how their day is going. Don’t be nosy, just friendly. Take time to visit with people, find what their interests are.

Eventually you may sense an opportunity to go a little deeper. Don’t be pushy, let the Holy Spirit guide you. Ask questions, listen, be sympathetic, but don’t be too quick to jump in with suggestions on how to fix things that aren’t working out in their lives. At some point the Spirit my prompt you to share a personal experience. Tell it simply, giving honour to God and not yourself.

Be patient. Keep trying a little friendliness with people you meet. If we come across as superior or pushy, people will clam up, or push back. We might then conclude that the people around us are not interested in the gospel and there is no purpose in trying to talk to them. If we hold back and don’t make small efforts to reach out to others, we come to the same conclusion.

It is comfortable to think that there is no use trying. The Holy Spirit really doesn’t want us to get comfortable with that kind of thinking. That may lead us to direct our efforts into materialism and recreation beyond what is healthy for our spiritual life.

The Holy Spirit wants us to step out beyond our comfort zone, but He is only going to ask us to take one little baby step at a time. We may find that those baby steps take us a long way, into territory that we used to think was completely inaccessible. A little effort can open up whole new vistas for us.

A tactless conversation starter

There was a Bible College in the city where I was living forty years ago.  At that particular time, there was an emphasis in this school on overcoming the inhibitions that would prevent one from freely following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  At least that was the intention.  A lady in the church my wife and I attended at the time talked about how this emphasis of the college was leading her young brother to act in a rude and pushy way, without much consideration of others.

I was working the afternoon shift in the Post Office, sorting the mail that came in on trucks from the city, rural towns and on semis from across the country.  The Assistant Postmaster’s son was a student at this college and had been hired as a temporary summer worker.

One evening, I went to the lunchroom as the same time as a lady who was another recent hire.  All I knew about her was her name and that she was Roman Catholic.  There was no one else in the lunchroom as we sat down and opened our lunches.

“He told me I looked like a horse!”

“Huh?” was the most intelligent response I could come up with.

“That young man.  He looked at me and he said ‘You look like a horse.'”

She was obviously hurt.  This time I couldn’t come up with any response, intelligent or otherwise.  Tact had evidently become a casualty of the college’s quest for spiritual liberty.

“He’s going to Bible College.  What are they teaching him there?  Why is he going to Bible College?  Does he want to be a missionary or something?”

We talked a little about what had happened and agreed that it did not appear that this young man was learning any skills that would be useful on a mission field.

I hope she was somewhat comforted by my sympathy, because this lady had been hurt by a young man who really had no clue of how a Christian should relate to others.  Saying the first stupid thing that pops into one’s head is not the same as the free leading of the Holy Spirit.


Is anybody listening?

Christians who suffer from depression or other emotional or mental distress often face disapproval if they try to find help in psychologists and pills.  It is true that there are dangers with both.  What kind of help are we offering them?

“Why do Christians shoot their wounded?” was the title of a book published some years ago.  The question is entirely valid.  Why do Christians in a fragile emotional or mental state find it so difficult to talk openly with fellow believers of their struggles?  Isn’t it largely because we are apt to make them feel worse?

I believe there is a time and place for professional help and pills.  They can help someone through a crisis.  But many mood-enhancing pills carry warnings that suicidal thoughts may be a side effect.  Some people find that these drugs make them feel worse.

These people need someone to listen to them.  That is probably the biggest benefit from psychological counsellors.  If you pay them, they will listen.  Why can’t we learn to listen to people with emotional struggles?  We may not be able to identify with their struggles, but would it really hurt to listen?

Our listening should not be passive, neither should it be judgmental.  We will make things worse if we tell people to just snap out of it and stop always looking on the dark side of things.  If they could just snap out of it, they would.  We need to remind them of God’s love and our love.

If sin is somehow involved, it needs to be faced and repented of.  But if we begin with the conviction that every emotional or mental disorder has a spiritual root, we will be miserably useless counsellors.

Years ago an older man began attending the congregation where we were members.  He had spent time in a mental hospital and had been given electro-shock therapy.  He was searching for peace, but in a horribly muddled way.  His strong point was that when he was in a struggle, he had to talk about it.  I was one of the brethren he called.  Sometimes we wondered if his mind was damaged too much to ever find his way through, but after several years and many struggles he found the peace for which he had been searching most of his life.  He had a peaceful and calm trust in God.  He was baptized and we enjoyed his fellowship for a few months and then the Lord took him home shortly before his seventieth birthday.

His son also got converted and was baptized, but in one crucial way his nature was the opposite of his father’s — when something went wrong in his life he would disappear.  He could not face the brethren and admit he had slipped.  One day I happened to meet a man who had known the family years earlier.  He said this son had always wanted to be strong, he exercised, rode a bike and lifted weights to increase his strength.  A light went on for me, he was trying hard to be a strong Christian, too.  He has hit some serious lows in life by always trying to be strong.  Things are going better today.

For twenty years now my wife has had almost daily phone conversations with a lady in another province.  This lady had a miserable childhood and seemed very paranoid when we first got to know her.  I will give my wife a lot of credit for the fact that this lady is doing much better today.  My wife has not agreed with the psychotic suspicions of this lady, but has been sympathetic and supportive and has repeatedly pointed out to her that God is more powerful than all the forces of darkness.

We need to let people know that it is OK to be weak.  The Lord told the apostle Paul “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

We are not being an enabler of another person’s unbalanced state of mind when we listen in sympathy.  Their suspicions, fears, and bizarre dreams seem like reality to them.  By listening with love and patience, not giving a lot of critical advice but rather offering them truths from God’s Word, we can help them discern between their troubled feelings and reality.

Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations (Romans 14:1).

We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Romans 15:1).

Imaginary Sympathy

Around 50 years ago The Readers’ Digest carried an article suggesting that the  word “sympathy” had become so degraded in common usage as to make the word unacceptable to many people.  As I recall, the writer felt that “sympathy” had taken on too much of a connotation of superiority towards the person one felt sympathy for, and thus it was high time to find a replacement.  And of course the writer had just the ideal word in mind.  The word he suggested was “empathy,” a word that up to then had mostly been used by psychologists.
While I might agree that many people use “sympathy” in an improper way, I am not at all convinced that the suggested replacement is an improvement.  I think it is rather a step backward, at least for Christians, to replace “sympathy” with “empathy.”
Let me explain.  I believe that words have consequences, even if we don’t fully understand the etymology and meaning of the words we use.  The more that we use a word, even if most of us don’t fully understand it, the more we are in danger of being led, individually and collectively, towards embracing the concept embedded in that word.
Sympathy, compassion and empathy are all formed from the Latin word pathos, which means feeling.  The following definitions come from the Gage Canadian Dictionary:
Sympathy (syn– together + pathos feeling) 1. a sharing of another’s sorrow or trouble; a sharing, or ability to share.  2. an agreement in feeling; the condition or fact of having the same feeling; 3. an affinity between certain things, whereby they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence.
Compassion (com– with + pathos) feeling for another’s sorrow or hardship that leads one to help the sufferer; sympathy; pity.
Empathy (en– in + pathos) Psychology. the quality or process of entering fully, through imagination, into another’s feelings or motives, into the meaning of a work of art, etc.
Note that while the first two words describe a condition of the heart, the last one is merely a state of mind.  Sympathy, at its root, describes a heart that is tender and responsive, and will instinctively “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
Could it be that the hearts of many people have become shrivelled and hardened to the point that Psychology now offers the alternative of imagining that which they can no longer feel?  Or is Psychology actually the culprit here, leading us to analyse and intellectualize rather than to feel?
Let’s put it another way: sympathy and compassion describe real feelings having very real value.  Empathy is just a cheap man-made imitation.

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