Sympathy literally means to suffer alongside. To be a recipient of sympathy means that you are not alone. It means that someone is walking beside you, literally or figuratively, helping to shoulder the burden. But is there such a thing as divine sympathy?
If God has sympathy for us then why does it feel like we always suffer alone, someone might ask—or more likely— some might think. Such a question strikes most of us with all the force of heresy and we tend to avoid vocalizing thoughts and feelings that make us stand out in Sunday School class. But the Psalms don’t seem as concerned. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” the Pslamist asks. Jesus even quoted this passage while on the cross.
In her book The Psychology of Sympathy, author Lauren Wispé defines sympathy as consisting of two components: (1) a heightened awareness of the feelings of another person; and (2) a desire to do all that is necessary to help them in their plight. “Thus, sympathy is both a vivid awareness of the person’s pain,” Wispé writes, “and the altruistic urge to end it.” If this is what human sympathy is can we say with theological certainty that God is sympathetic in this sense?
For example, where was God in Nepal this last weekend when a natural disaster injured over 7,000 people and claimed the lives of over 4,000? Was God walking alongside the Nepali people on Sunday when the ground began to shake? Is God walking alongside the thousands of dust covered relief workers frantically lifting chunks of broken asphalt searching for survivors?
And why do we call such events an “act of God” if it is indeed not God’s fault? Does he not care? Is he not able to help?
This makes me think of one of the most powerful verbal couplets in the New Testament. The Apostle John punctuates the dialogue surrounding the death of Lazarus with the simple words “Jesus wept” (John 11). A noun and a verb: the respective meaning of both is common when used in isolation. But joined together they have an explosive power much like mixing vinegar with baking soda.
Jesus: Fully man. Fully God. Born of a virgin. Died on a Roman cross. Buried on Good Friday. Risen on Easter Sunday. Ascended into Heaven. Seated at the right hand of God. Mediating for believers.
Wept: To be overcome with emotions. A visceral response. The culmination of love, anger, and resolve spilling over in a physical demonstration.
The marriage of these two words is like the opening of a window for us to get a clear view of the sympathy of God, letting in the breeze of divine providence. Jesus felt our fears. He faced our enemy. He wept. But he saw through the tears to something better.
As Russell Moore points out in his book Tempted and Tried, “This sympathy is about being qualified to be a merciful and faithful high priest (Heb. 2:14-17)—a human mediator before God.” He not only suffered alongside of us. He suffered for us; to secure for us something we could not obtain on our own. He not only had a desire to end our plight. He purchased our liberation.
But we are suspended between the “already” of what Christ has done on the cross and in the empty tomb, and the “not yet” of waiting for the new creation. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised that Lazarus’s sister Martha pressed Jesus for an answer regarding the death of her brother. Jesus responded by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
These words gave way to a physical miracle when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. But his words were more far reaching than this isolated event. Lazarus eventually died (again) and was buried (again). Jesus displayed his power in the moment by raising Lazarus, but the greater truth was that at the end of time he will raise up all who trust in his name. But in this in-between time, when like Martha we press back in all of our pain with our broken hearts, we see the tears of Jesus and we get a foretaste of a sympathy greater than anything we have ever experienced and better than we could ever imagine.
Jesus looked past the pain, the anguish, the bloody cross, the veil of tears, and saw an empty tomb. And not just his own tomb which he gladly borrowed for three days, but the empty tomb of Lazarus, and the empty tombs of all who cling to his words. But in the meantime there are tears. We grieve, but not as those without hope.
Jesus’s tears were the sounding of a battle cry. At the end of the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering, he could see the life he was purchasing for all who would believe in his name. As one twenty-first century theological poet has said, he “fought death, beat it, gave His life to the public. I love it!” In this resurrection, in this one who is the resurrection, we understand divine sympathy. John’s summary of Jesus’s tears gives us hope in the midst of our own.
Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, actually cut this passage out of the New Testament, probably with a penknife. Six years before he died he published his book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth often referred to as the “Jefferson Bible.” It included much of Jesus’s teachings but omitted anything miraculous in keeping with Jefferson’s deism, a worldview that categorically denies God’s activity in human history.
Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826, the fifty year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Prior to death he requested a simple and quiet service. The Reverend Frederick Hatch, rector of the Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, conducted the service from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The biblical text he read at the graveside was a passage Jefferson removed from the Bible years before, “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and he who liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
To know this truth is to know divine sympathy. It is a sympathy stained with tears and purchased by blood. It is a sympathy that gasped for air on a wooden cross then erupted into joy three days later. And it is freely given to all who believe.