Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE GREAT HARM THAT IS DONE BY FEELING SORRY FOR SOMEONE” Part 3

 

I have been developing over the last two Sundays in three services the great harm that is done by feeling sorry for someone, concentrating on five individuals whose self-pity proved to be personally destructive to them, several of them catastrophically and unrecoverably so. Today we will move away from a focus on feeling sorry for yourself, what I have termed self-pity, to feeling sorry for others. Before we proceed, allow me to once again seek clarification concerning the ideas of empathy and sympathy, this time from the web site Vocabulary.Com in response to a search for “feeling sorry for someone.” The search engine took me to the Vocabulary.Com page for “empathy/sympathy.” I will read the article first and then the two definitions found on the page:

 

empathy/sympathy

 

Empathy is heartbreaking — you experience other people’s pain and joy. Sympathy is easier because you just have to feel sorry for someone. Send a sympathy card if someone’s cat died; feel empathy if your cat died, too.

 

Empathy was first used to describe how a viewer’s appreciation of art depends on her ability to project her personality onto the art. These days it applies to anything you can basically “project your personality” on. When you feel what someone else feels, that’s empathy. It’s a good skill for doctors, actors, and characters from Star Trek:

 

Nearly all medical schools teach the importance of listening to patients and showing empathy. (New York Times)

 

“I’ve always thought of acting as more of an exercise in empathy.” (Edward Norton)

 

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Deanna Troi was an empath: she could psychically sense other people’s emotions. She experienced their emotions as they did.

 

Sympathy is an older word, from the Greek sympatheia, for “having a fellow feeling.” It’s a snuggly, comforting word. It’s nice to get sympathy if you’re feeling under the weather. To feel sympathy for someone is to feel bad for them:

 

This has already proved effective at drawing attention and sympathy. (Slate)

 

Police show no sympathy for “polite bandit.” (Chicago Tribune)

 

So many dramas resort to cadging sympathy for their troubled characters by killing off loved ones. (Time)

 

If you’re feeling empathy, you’re in (em) the feeling. If it’s sympathy, you’re feeling sorry for someone.

____

 

DEFINITION:

empathy

Use empathy if you’re looking for a noun meaning “the ability to identify with another’s feelings.”

 

DEFINITION:

sympathy

Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sense of compassion — it’s when you feel bad for someone else who’s going through something hard.[1]

 

Just so you will know, I am in general agreement with what I have just read to you and think the comparison and contrast between empathy and sympathy is spot on, with my treatment of feeling sorry for oneself, what I have termed self-pity, to this point being sympathy directed toward yourself and how harmful it is to yourself.

We now begin a consideration of the great harm that is done when you feel sorry for someone else, when you have sympathy rather than empathy for another person. However, I must explain something to you about sympathy, feeling sorry for someone else. It is a phenomenon that exists as a distortion of Christian thought. Growing up on Indian reservations, I developed a somewhat different sense of humor than most white kids my age. That was because Cheyenne Agency, SD and Fort Totten, ND were in many ways foreign environments, with an ethic that was not white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but Native American. No Marquis of Queensberry rules there, I promise you. This was reflected to an amazing degree in the sense of humor and the absence of anything like sympathy in Native American culture. My sense of humor was so different, and my new friend was so appalled, that for weeks he would have nothing to do with me, so foreign to him were the things I laughed at. Tell a Native American a joke and he is likely to look at you. However, slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, or observe a dog getting hit by a speeding car, and he will laugh and find those to be the funniest things. Different culture, unaffected by Christianity to a large degree, therefore no Christian empathy or its distorted derivative which is sympathy. Go to the Far East and to South Asia and you will find the same kind of thing until you reach those somewhat affected by Christianity. Hinduism and Buddhism’s commitment to karma means whatever happens to a person, no matter how tragic, is their own fault from deeds done in a former life. Muslim countries are likewise so affected by the fatalism of Islam that everything, no matter the tragedy, is Allah’s will without any corresponding obligation to empathize and help in any way, and therefore no distortion of empathy manifesting itself as sympathy or feeling sorry for anyone.

I say all that to say this: You need to be careful about projecting your value system onto others because you think your values are universally held. Not so. I well remember a brutal fight in Fort Totten when I was in grade school, wherein two boys were really going at it. Imagine my shock when one boy was knocked down and someone not fighting ran toward him and kicked him in the face, me to then realize that it was his own older brother who kicked him because he was down. When the older brother kicked his brother in the face there were no reactions from anyone else suggesting he had violated any cultural norm or standard. That, my friend, was the action of someone without either empathy or sympathy.

I say this, and could say so much more, to suggest to you why you are unlikely to find examples of what we would call sympathy in the Bible, feeling sorry for someone. Folks just did not do that kind of thing back then. We see empathy, but not what you or I would call sympathy insofar as feeling sorry for someone else. Feel sorry for yourself? Yes, plenty of that. But not feeling sorry for others. Therefore, I will rehearse to you examples that would almost certainly produce sympathy from folks in our day, passing by the individuals we have already examined; Lucifer, Cain, Job, Elisha, and Gehazi. Who would be good candidates for sympathy if we could lift them from the Bible and set them down in our time for folks to feel sorry for? How about Rahab the harlot? How about Ruth the Moabite? How about the man born blind? How about the woman with an issue of blood for twelve years? How about the apostles rowing on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee?

 

Third, EXAMPLES OF FEELING SORRY FOR OTHERS

 

Can we begin with Rahab the harlot? Surely it is perfectly acceptable to feel sorry for Rahab the harlot? After all, she was a harlot, a prostitute, a woman who sold her body to men for money. What better candidate can there be for sympathy than a woman routinely and regularly victimized by men? She almost certainly grew up in a bad home environment, with an abusive father or stepfather, and a mother who stepped aside instead of protecting her little girl from the abuse of first her father, or her stepfather, and then started dressing slutty to please the succession of men who passed through her life. Can we stick to the facts and not interject our own opinions at this point? Rahab is mentioned eleven times in the Word of God. She is mentioned twice in Joshua chapter two, where we learn that she was a harlot, that she occupied a dwelling, that she hid the two Israelites sent by Joshua to spy out the city of Jericho, and that she lied to protect them from discovery. We further see evidence of her fearing the LORD, and read her testimony to the spies that “the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.”[2] Rahab then arranged for the spies to escape and secured from them a promise of deliverance when the city of Jericho was taken, a promise that was kept in Joshua chapter six. We learn in Matthew 1.5 that she married an Israelite named Salmon and gave birth to a child they named Boaz, placing her into the human lineage of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are informed in Hebrews 11.31 that her deliverance was by means of faith and in James 2.25 she joined Abraham as a premier illustration of faith that produces good works. To be sure, someone might certainly be tempted to feel sorry for Rahab if she was someone you knew when she was a little girl or a young woman, someone you had taken a liking to when her life seemed to be at low ebb, or someone you concluded had been victimized her whole life (a conclusion drawn before the Israelite spies arrived). However, we must balance such urges against the reality that we are provided with absolutely no evidence in God’s Word that she ever saw herself as a victim. Using the Word of God as our source of information about her, we see no suggestion that she was to any degree not completely responsible for her own decisions and actions. The problem with feeling sorry for others is in large part the consequence of looking at snapshots of a person’s life, seeing things from only a very limited and narrow perspective. However, from a Biblical perspective, especially looking back almost 4,000 years, we see that anyone who might have looked upon her with sympathy, for any reason feeling sorry for her, would have been profoundly mistaken.

Consider next the Moabite woman named Ruth. We learn of this woman from the book in the Old Testament that bears her name, which is a history of certain events with her being the central figure of the narrative. She first appears in Ruth 1.4 and is identified as a Moabite. So what, you ask? Deuteronomy 23.3 pronounces a terrible curse upon all Moabites to ten generations of their descendants because of Moab’s fierce opposition to the children of Israel during their wilderness wandering. Additionally, we are informed Ruth married a Jewish man who was a loser and then died, as did her brother-in-law and father-in-law, leaving the three of them childless and widowed. As if all those circumstances are not enough to feel sorry for the poor girl, when her mother-in-law decides to return to Bethlehem her daughter-in-law Ruth decides to go with her, insisting, “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”[3] However, you can imagine how she is received by the Jewish men and women of Bethlehem, her being a Moabite and all, from an idolatrous people and country that was cursed by God. Is she to be pitied now? Most sympathetics would think so, especially since she had to work so hard to feed herself and Naomi, what with Israel not having food stamps, in addition to the cultural and ethnic biases she had to endure. However, through the record found in the book of Ruth, we see Naomi giving advice to Ruth about various things and Ruth being both receptive to Naomi’s advice and following it. The result of which led to her benefiting from a good reputation at harvest time that led to increased opportunities to gather food, while at the same time insuring her protection from harassment.[4] Is it time to feel sorry for Ruth yet? Do we find any trace of Ruth feeling depressed, discouraged, exhibiting evidence of despondency, or in any way feeling sorry for herself? Yet she would be a ripe candidate to be an object of sympathy from many modern people. Boaz demonstrated empathy to her and to Naomi. Important for us to observe was Ruth’s humility toward Naomi and her willingness to learn this new and strange culture of the Israelites. In Ruth 3.5, she said to her mother-in-law, “All that thou sayest unto me I will do.” What an attitude! Does she sound like she is blaming anyone for her problems? Does she sound like she feels sorry for herself? What we learn from the rest of the book of Ruth is that she is qualified (by virtue of her being a Jewish man’s widow who has not given birth to a child) to being married to a close relative of her dead husband, and that the man who is related to her dead husband and who marries her is none other than Boaz, the wealthy landowner who admires the way she has been taking care of her mother-in-law Naomi. Guess what happens after she marries Boaz, thereby becoming the daughter-in-law of Rahab (the woman who married Boaz’ daddy Salmon)? She has a baby named Obed, who in turn has a baby named Jesse, who when his turn comes has a baby named David.[5] Consider all this nonsense about feeling sorry for someone. So many today would feel sorry for Rahab, and then feel sorry for Naomi, and then feel sorry yet again, this time for Ruth. Yet what does God wring from the difficulties and hardships of these women’s lives? He brings a Canaanite woman named Rahab into the household of faith who had been a prostitute. He brings to a very good end an impoverished and bereaved Israelite named Naomi who had been married to a loser and had two losers for sons. And finally, He brings into the household of faith a Moabite of all things, widowed by a loser and then married and redeemed by Rahab’s son to continue the family line with a son herself who turns out to be the grandfather of Israel’s shepherd king David. Even more important than Ruth turning out by God’s grace to be David’s great grandmother is her place in the lineage of our Lord Jesus Christ. What justification can there possibly be for someone who is observed to be in the middle of a process of difficult experiences that will end with such profound blessings? Yet how paralyzed might Ruth have become if she had ever felt sorry for herself. And worse, if someone had felt sorry for her rather than empathizing with her as Boaz did, she might have been afflicted with that nasty contagion known as self-pity and begun to feel sorry for herself as a result of someone feeling sorry for her.

Our third consideration is the man born blind, who we learn of in John chapter nine. When the Savior passed by and observed a blind man in John 9.1, His disciples asked Him a question, verse 2:

 

“Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”

 

We know from the cultural mindset that prompted such a question as this that sympathy was not felt for anyone born with a physical affliction, because it was assumed that this man’s blindness, as well as any other physical affliction or infirmity someone was born with, was the direct result of sin, either a sin committed by the sufferer or a sin committed by his parents. Therefore, despite the fact that feeling sorry for someone born blind was not anywhere to be found in the universe of possible thoughts or attitudes of that day, there is no doubt in my mind that most westerners unaffected and uninfluenced by Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam would be very tempted to actually feel sorry for someone born blind as a result of our culture’s Christian heritage that used to produce empathy but now produces so much of that distorted judgment called sympathy. The question, of course, is whether someone should feel sorry for a man born blind. Should we sympathize with such a fellow? There is no evidence in God’s Word that this man felt sorry for himself. There is no evidence the Savior felt sorry for him. Who would claim the disciples felt sorry for him after asking the question they posed? John 9.3 provides us with sufficient reason why the Savior, why the disciples, and why you and I, have no reason whatsoever to feel sorry for the man born blind:

 

“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

 

This statement made by the Lord Jesus Christ does not deny that the effect of sin in the human race is at least indirectly related to and responsible for physical afflictions that people are born with or that develop gradually. What He told His disciples in John 9.3 was that the man’s blindness was not immediately caused by either his or his parents sinning. The immediate cause for his blindness from birth was rather for the purpose of the works of God being made manifest in him. Thus, the grace of God, the power of God, and who knows what else was demonstrated against the backdrop of his blindness. In his case, what was demonstrated was the grace and power of God to give sight to him that was born blind. However, to another it might be the grace and power of God to give joy to someone born blind. To yet another it might be the grace and power of God to give ministry to someone born blind. I have a question for you: Should you feel sorry for someone who is experiencing severity and hardship, enduring real suffering, as a prelude and as a preparation for the reception of God’s grace and provision to become a vessel who God uses for His glory? Do you feel sorry for the grain that is being crushed so it might be made usable for nourishing food? Do you feel sorry for the grapes that are being crushed to extract the juice to drink, or the grapes that are withering so they might become raisins suitable to eat? Of course not. That would be ridiculous.

Our fourth consideration is the woman with an issue of blood for twelve years. Luke 8.43:

 

“And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, which had spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any.”

 

Imagine this poor woman with nonstop menstrual bleeding for twelve years. Spending just about her entire income on doctors that charged her great amounts of money but did her no good whatsoever. Here is the case of a woman many would sympathize with, I promise you. Additionally, consider that living as a Jewish woman under the Law of Moses, she was ceremonially unclean and denied access to worship throughout those twelve years, unapproachable by her husband during that time period, with even the bed she slept on being unclean so long as the issue of blood continued.[6] Thus, we are given this situation in which a woman is afflicted physically with an energy-sapping and life-challenging matter. It also profoundly affected her marriage (if she was still married after twelve years of this) and her liberty to worship God according to the Law of Moses. How can we not be tempted to feel sorry for her, physically afflicted as she is, spiritually isolated as she is, and almost certainly socially isolated (from her husband if she has one, as well as from her family and friends)? We see no indication in God’s Word that this woman with issue of blood felt sorry for herself. There is no evidence that anyone who knew her felt sorry for her, though I am sure many people today would feel sorry for her and that she would likely be an expert at cultivating sympathy were she alive today. Yet how do we know that she is not rather an example to all of God’s mercy and grace? What if that visitation of blood served to keep her away from Mosaic Law worship, as God’s useful means of redirecting her attention to remedy outside the Law and thereby provoking her to approach the Savior in desperation?[7] What if she had been a hardheaded woman that required twelve long years of physical suffering to finally bring her to a place of humility and brokenness? I know people like that. Don’t you? What is most important is how it ended for her. Matthew 9.22:

 

“Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.”

 

What we do not see are reasons to feel sorry for this woman. As well, we see no evidence that she felt sorry for herself. What we do see is a woman who suffered physical hardship and isolation, who learned by painful experience that doctors cannot solve every physical problem, and that she found immediate relief and remedy through faith in Jesus Christ. She is yet another example of someone crushed by the weight of circumstances that were used by God as a humbling preparation for God’s work in her life.

We could next consider the lepers, or the man with the withered hand, or the sisters who lost their brother, or even the crippled man sitting on the steps leading up to the Temple courtyard. However, I think our final consideration for this morning will be the apostles rowing on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee. Remember, since we see no examples of feeling sorry for someone we must look at situations likely to produce sympathy in the hearts and minds of those living today. Methinks we have many such examples in the Bible, along with valid reasons why sympathy is entirely inappropriate. Our final example will be the disciples sent to row across the Sea of Galilee at night against a strong wind, and making no headway after six to eight hours of rowing.[8] May I liken their dispatch into the little boat to cross the Sea of Galilee to the course of an individual’s life? May I liken the contrary wind they rowed against without making any progress whatsoever to the suffering and adversity that are experienced by individuals you might be strongly tempted to feel sorry for, to feel sympathy for, to honestly believe with all sincerity in your heart that person shouldn’t have to go through what he is dealing with? Oh, how often people come to the conclusion that it is cruel fate, it is mindless injustice, that it is the inherent unfairness of an illogical life that places the handicapped, the troubled, the impoverished, the diseased, the betrayed, the desolate in the harsh and unyielding situations they find themselves in. Yet, I would remind you they were dispatched by the Savior. Oh, the pain those disciples suffered while pulling for so long and so hard on those oars. Their muscles screamed for relief. Their backs throbbed. Yet they made no progress. They advanced not one measurable bit. Again, and again, and again, and again, they continued their rowing without stopping and without relief and without progress; so very much like that poor suffering soul stuck in an unyielding and unforgiving life. Is there no end to it? Is there no relief from it? You might think it cruel of the Savior to command them to enter the boat and row across, knowing full well the storm would be contrary and they would make no progress, they could make no progress. He just as surely in His Providence places each and every individual in his unique life situation. However, do not be hasty in judging His motives. In like manner, don’t be hasty to observe someone in a difficult and discouraging place and then to feel sorry for him, as though he is suffering an injustice, or as if he is somehow being mistreated. With Rahab it might have taken the wasted use of her beauty. With Ruth what was required was an unhappy marriage, being widowed, the grueling life of an accursed Moabite in Israelite country. For the man who was born blind it required his blindness and all the taunts and cruelties hurled at him through his childhood and struggling to survive as a beggar in his adulthood. The woman with issue of blood took at least twelve years. The disciples took six to eight hours. Then the Savior walked to them on the water, literally walked on the water to their boat to meet them, and said to them,

 

“Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”[9]

 

What benefit is there to feeling sorry for someone who is being prepared for blessing, who is being groomed so he will received the blessing, being humbled as preparation for the grace of God? If the person feels sorry for himself he is exhibiting pride, as we have already seen, and God will resist him, James 4.6 and First Peter 5.5. Are we so smart that we can look at a snapshot of someone’s life and correctly discern whether he is being properly or improperly dealt with by God? No, we are not at all smart enough. Therefore, let us assume God knows what He is doing and that He is motivated by love and grace. The end for which He was preparing His disciples? We see it in Matthew 14.33:

 

“Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.”

 

Are we to feel sorry for God wisely and sovereignly preparing someone of a contrary nature and disposition to be receptive to His grace? Are we to judge harshly the only being in the entire universe with the power, with the wisdom, with the knowledge, with the love, and with the right to deal with His creatures? Have we complaint against God? Job thought he had, but he was shown by God to be mistaken.

 

I have shown four individuals and one group of men to you. Three of them were women who would be very sympathetic figures these days. Rahab was what we would call a fallen woman, with the contemporary majority of people influenced by feminism portraying her as having fallen victim to a male power structure and the only way she had to deal with the situation was by selling her body. We should feel sorry for her. Except she did not feel sorry for herself, an important consideration in addition to the absence of any evidence suggesting she was not responsible for her own actions. Ruth is another who would be the object of sympathy in our day. Suffering as the result of her husband’s death, and living in a strange country and culture where she was faced with the expected prejudices and biases that accompanied being both a woman and a Moabite woman. Yet, again, we see no evidence she felt sorry for herself, and by her own set of choices placed herself in a more difficult situation than she might have anticipated had she stayed in her home country of Moab. The same kinds of observations and anticipations could be made about the man born blind or the woman with an issue of blood. As well, if the experiences of the twelve rowing against a contrary wind is likened to someone’s difficult and challenging life. Reflect on each of these five examples and ask yourself what I think is an important question: Were any of them any worse off without anyone’s sympathy? Was the utter absence of sympathy the cause of increased suffering or difficulty for any of them? Would Rahab, or Ruth, or the man born blind, or the woman with issue of blood have in any way been even slightly better off by having others feel sorry for them?

That being the case, of what use is feeling sorry for someone, or anyone? What does it accomplish? How does it help to improve anything or anyone? Are you a better person for feeling sorry for others? Are you a worse person for not feeling sorry for others? How do you know how any individual’s life will end? How do you know what is going to take place as a result of anyone’s suffering or difficulty? The Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross to provide for the salvation of His sheep, who hear His voice and who follow Him. How are you to judge, and who are you to judge the means He might employ in the life of a Rahab, a Ruth, or anyone else to prepare them for a consideration of the gospel? Therefore, by what right do you, or anyone else, feel sorry for another human being? Feel empathy? By all means. Feel compassion? Of course. However, sympathy is based upon one’s opinion that he knows enough to make a judgment about the rightness or wrongness of another’s suffering. Sympathy is also a demonstration of one’s willingness to pass judgment upon the power, the wisdom, and the goodness of God in His dealings with His creatures.



[2] Joshua 2.11

[3] Ruth 1.16

[4] Ruth 2.11, 15-16

[5] Ruth 4.13-22

[6] Leviticus 12.7; 15.19, 25-26, 33

[7] Matthew 9.21

[8] Matthew 14.22-33

[9] Matthew 14.27


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pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org