Calvary Road Baptist Church



This morning we come to the eighth installment of the sermon series titled “The Great Harm That Is Done By Feeling Sorry For Someone,” coming now to the sixth major segment of the series, in which I will set before you a contrast between the spiritual concept of compassion and empathy as a Christian virtue on one hand and feeling sorry for someone or sympathizing for them, even if it is self-pity, as sinful and harmful conduct on the other hand.

To briefly review: We have observed the connection that exists, first, between the heart sin of pride and feeling sorry for yourself, second, between pride and feeling sorry for someone else, and, finally, feeling sorry for someone else and also feeling sorry for yourself. This is the sinfulness of sympathy triangle and it does not coexist with real compassion, with what I have defined for our study as empathy. Sympathy springs from the heart sin of pride, while empathy is associated with real love. Sympathy is a perversion of, a distortion if you will of, the Christian virtue of empathy. We saw that Lucifer felt sorry for himself, Cain felt sorry for himself, Job eventually came to feel sorry for himself, Elijah came to feel sorry for himself, and Elijah’s servant Gehazi was also overcome by self-pity. In each case self-pity led to sinful behavior. Though they would qualify to be modern day objects of pity and would certainly be tempted to feel sorry for themselves if they lived in our feminist-dominated culture, we saw no evidence of self-pity with Rahab the harlot or with Ruth the Moabitess. As well, the man born blind mentioned in John chapter 9 and the woman with a twelve-year issue of blood referred to in Luke chapter 8 displayed no recorded evidence of self-pity in the scriptural record.

Thus, while we do see self-pity in the lives of the wicked and even the godly who succumbed to temptation in scripture, it is not nearly so widespread as with the widespread victim mentality our day. We see in the Bible very little evidence of feeling sorry for others, which I have maintained is in reality a mostly modern distortion of the virtue of empathy for others. That said, there is one example of feeling sorry for others comes to mind. I refer of course to King David’s pathetic sentiment toward his wicked son Absalom. This will provide the structure for this morning’s installment. We will reflect on King David’s pity for Absalom, and then we will consider the Lord Jesus Christ’s virtuous examples of empathy toward those suffering as we consider,




First, the feeling sorry and sympathy that King David exhibited toward his rebellious son, Absalom. It is advisable for us to begin with the back story. Of course, David was the eighth son of Jesse, the man anointed by the God of Jacob by the prophet Samuel, and the sweet psalmist of Israel.[1] He was the shepherd king, the man after God’s own heart.[2] He was the man who as a lad was infuriated by the blasphemy of the Philistine giant named Goliath and killed him when he faced him alone on the field of combat.[3] After the death of King Saul and the consolidation of his rule over all twelve tribes of Israel, David fought many battles, with one of them being the conquest of the Jebusite stronghold city of Jerusalem atop Mount Moriah, the future site of the Temple, and made it his capital city.[4] By the time of Jerusalem’s capture David’s third son, Absalom, had been born.[5] Imagine what it must have been like to be Absalom, or to be any of David’s children. Most kids tend to see their fathers as heroic figures, but David really was an heroic figure; king of Israel, anointed of God, prophet of God, psalmist and organizer of Aaronic priesthood worship, legendary warrior, and slayer of Goliath. Add to that David’s thirty-three mighty men who were eager to sacrifice their lives for his protection, and you can see that his kids must have idolized their dad.

Then he threw it all away. Adultery! And with the wife of one of his mighty men, among the most devoted and loyal of his soldiers. And when she told him she was pregnant, he tried to cover it all up by murdering Uriah! In the end, of course, it all came out in the open, and who do you think was among the most humiliated, the most embarrassed, and the most hurt by what David had done? You guessed it. Absalom, who might have been in his late teens or early twenties when his father’s infidelity and murder transformed his idealism and hero worship into a cynical bitterness, if not outright hatred. I will leave the reading of the Biblical record concerning Absalom to you, leaving me to construct for you a Reader’s Digest version of what transpired. David’s sins paralyzed him, especially with respect to the rearing of his own children. Even after he publicly repented he felt so sorry for his children’s loss of respect for him because of his own folly that he became the very worst sort of dad, the kind who feels sorry for his children when they commit sins rather than having empathy toward them. In a household such as David’s, with numerous wives and concubines, of course there was a mixture of full and half brothers and sisters. Therefore, when one of Absalom’s half-brothers forced his affections on Absalom’s full-sister and thereby shamed her, David became very angry.[6] Of course, he did nothing. As I mentioned, he was paralyzed by his own guilt. However, he was mad. Time passed before Absalom exacted revenge by killing his half-brother Amnon and fleeing for safety to his maternal grandparents.[7]

Long story short, David felt sorry for Absalom and after three years let him return to Jerusalem. However, Absalom continued to seethe against his father and eventually led a revolt against him that, had he succeeded, would have resulted in David’s death. Thus, Absalom’s betrayal of his father was greater than had been David’s betrayal of Absalom. However, David escaped, mounted a defense against Absalom’s rebellion, and prevailed when Absalom was slain by his own cousin Joab, who remained loyal to his uncle David throughout.[8] Perhaps nothing better illustrates King David’s pathetic and guilt-motivated sympathy toward Absalom than his reaction in front of his own soldiers, who risked their own lives to protect their aged king, upon learning of the traitor Absalom’s death, Second Samuel 18.33:


“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”


When Joab, his nephew and foremost field commander, was made aware of David’s reaction, he dealt with his uncle and king very forcefully, Second Samuel 19.5-7:


5      And Joab came into the house to the king, and said, Thou hast shamed this day the faces of all thy servants, which this day have saved thy life, and the lives of thy sons and of thy daughters, and the lives of thy wives, and the lives of thy concubines;

6      In that thou lovest thine enemies, and hatest thy friends. For thou hast declared this day, that thou regardest neither princes nor servants: for this day I perceive, that if Absalom had lived, and all we had died this day, then it had pleased thee well.

7      Now therefore arise, go forth, and speak comfortably unto thy servants: for I swear by the LORD, if thou go not forth, there will not tarry one with thee this night: and that will be worse unto thee than all the evil that befell thee from thy youth until now.


Here Joab is warning David this issue before him is the greatest risk to his reign he has yet faced, more dangerous even than the fallout from his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. Thankfully, King David listened to Joab’s strong rebuke and complied with his urgings and preserved his reign as king. However, the question needs to be asked, “Why did David feel such sympathy for Absalom, even after his son sought his death?” My opinion is that David felt so sorry for himself that in his guilt he felt thereby justified in feeling sorry for others, including his own son who had grown to so despise him that he sought to overthrow him.

What a tragic episode in the life of a man who had once been so godly, but whose personal sins had opened the floodgates of consequences that resulted in him feeling sorry for himself, feeling sorry for those he had disappointed, and whose feelings had reduced a once strong and decisive man to a state of spiritual paralysis in his dealings with his own children. No matter what the reason, feeling sorry for yourself or anyone else is no solution to any problem.


We now turn to the Lord Jesus Christ to consider His dealings with a number of individuals toward whom He displayed what appears to be empathy. Of course, the word empathy is not a Bible word. However, we see strong evidence of this virtue in our Lord’s dealings with a number of different people and situations:


Ø  First, consider the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, in John 4.4-30. I will let you read each of these extended passages that I will summarize for you. Engaging the woman in conversation, the Lord asked her to fetch her husband, showing that He did not feel sorry for this woman whose sins He exposed when He brought into the conversation the embarrassment of her five failed marriages and her current involvement with a man she had not married. Sympathizers see people as victims, while the Savior saw this woman as sinful, someone who had engaged in a series of disastrous life choices that left her a miserable wreck. She needed no one’s sympathy. Sympathy would do her no good whatsoever. What she needed was a Savior. Thankfully, He sought her out and He found her. In John 4.25-26 we read a portion of their conversation. She said,


“I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.”


Ø  Next, consider the crippled man by the pool of Bethesda, John 5.2-16. For thirty-eight years the man had suffered his paralytic affliction and was lying near the pool in hope of a miracle, yet when the Savior approached him there was no indication of sympathy. Decide for yourself, as I read from John 5.6-9:


6      . . . he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

7      The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

8      Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

9      And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked.


As with the Samaritan woman, we see no evidence of a geyser of emotion that sometimes happens when sympathy is present. Instead, we see evidence of empathy. The Savior beheld the man’s situation. He understood and appreciated it. He then responded in a way that actually benefited the man.


Ø  Third, we are given the case of the woman caught in the act of adultery, John 8.2-8. Here is the scene: The Lord Jesus Christ is sitting in the Temple courtyard one morning (perhaps with His back to a wall) with men and women seated in front of Him receiving instruction and likely asking questions. Then several men approach dragging a disheveled woman. They accuse her of adultery, claiming she was caught in the very act of cheating on her husband. They demand that the Savior render a verdict, though for some reason they decide to leave the scene after He says,


“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”


John tells us the accusers were convicted by their own consciences and departed, leaving the woman standing before the Savior. There is no doubt that she was an adulterer, but there was no one to witness against her. Was the Savior angry with her? No. Does He feel sorry for her? Apparently not. I would suggest empathy, since He said,


10    . . . Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

11    She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.


Ø  Fourth, the man born blind, John chapter 9. From the disciples’ question about the cause of his blindness we surmise that it was commonly held in that day that someone born blind had sinned, or that his parents had sinned. However, neither was the immediate cause of the man’s blindness.[9] In what appears to be a matter-of-fact manner the Lord Jesus Christ made mud from where He had spit on the ground, smeared the eyes of the blind man with it, and then told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. No display of emotion. No apparent lengthy verbal interaction. No words of condolence. Our Lord observed the need, appreciated the need, and then met the need. The man’s sight was miraculously given to him. Folks, that is empathy.


Ø  Fifth, we come to what might by some be supposed was an example of sympathy displayed by our Lord, the death and raising from the dead of Lazarus, in John 11.1-45. Why so? Because we read that the Lord Jesus Christ wept as He stood in front of the cave where Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, John 11.35. However, there is no reason why empathy should not move someone to heartfelt tears. Understanding the suffering that Lazarus endured before he died, and the suffering that his beloved sisters Mary and Martha endured throughout, could very properly provoke someone with real compassion to weep for them, and nothing whatsoever is wrong with such a thing. No wonder those who were present rightly concluded, “Behold how he loved him!” Love produces empathy, while it is pride that produces sympathy, as we have seen again and again.


Ø  For our sixth example of empathy I would like to select an episode that is most likely to be misinterpreted as demonstrating the very opposite of loving empathy, the case of the Syrophenician woman.[10] She fell at the Savior’s feet to plead for her daughter, who was sorely afflicted by a demon. However, when the Savior responded to her plea He was anything but sympathetic, initially refusing to respond to her at all, and only eventually saying,


“It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”[11]


If anything, this statement by the Savior once and for all puts to rest any notion that He extended sympathy to anyone, and calls to question by some who think that this could not possibly be a display of empathy. However, her response to the One she had faith in and His additional comment and action shows him to have empathy after all, Matthew 15.27-28:


27    And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.

28    Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.


Would you judge the Lord to be without compassion when dealing with this woman? Think again. It was but a few days later that the Lord Jesus Christ said, “I have compassion.”[12]


In all of our Lord’s dealings with individuals (and even large groups of suffering people, had we taken the time to examine the feeding of the 5,000), we see no evidence of sympathy whatsoever, if sympathy is understood to be feeling sorry for someone. Indeed, on the cross of Calvary there is not one hint of a suggestion that my Lord Jesus Christ felt sorry for Himself, though He suffered there more than anyone has ever suffered. Therefore, if the Lord Jesus Christ (who in no way deserved to be crucified for sins, having committed no sins Himself) had no self-pity, why would anyone expect Him to feel sorry for anyone else’s predicament? And indeed that is precisely what we find. Look throughout the gospel accounts and you will find no evidence of any kind that the Lord Jesus Christ sympathized for anyone in their suffering.

What I have contended is that sympathy is a sin produced by a heart containing pride, but that love produces empathy which is a virtue. My claim is that the Lord Jesus Christ empathized with people, but never felt sorry for them. That is, He had compassion, He had understanding of other’s pain and suffering, and beneath it all He had love for us. Consider Hebrews 4.15, which I am persuaded fits well with how I have chosen for this sermon series to define the concept referred to as empathy:


“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”


You might be in agreement with my understanding of empathy, and of the Savior’s empathy toward others rather than being sympathetic with others, except for the last example. You probably recoil against the Savior’s treatment of the Syrophenician woman, and do not at all like what He said to her after initially refusing to respond to her desperate pleadings:


“It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”


May I respond to your misapprehension about the Lord’s apparently rough treatment of that concerned mother? I remind you that my Savior is good, and kind, and gentle, and compassionate, and loving. Therefore, let us never question His motives, but rather seek to understand His actions, even those that may seem to us at first glance to be unnecessarily harsh. Why did our Lord initially refuse to respond to the Syrophenician woman? Why talk to her so gruffly when He finally did talk to her? I am convinced He spoke to her as He did because He knew her faith and because He understood faith in a way we oftentimes do not. Faith, real faith, is persistent and determined. Faith, real faith, does not quit, does not give up, and is not easily put off, but clings tenaciously to the One trusted. By dealing with the Syrophenician mother in a way that seems to us a bit rough the Savior was actually providing for her a unique opportunity to showcase her faith, to put on display for all to see her trust of the Savior, and to provide for Him a wonderful opportunity to brag on her faith in front of His disciples, so He could say, “O woman, great is thy faith.”[13]

I submit to you that had you the opportunity to question that mother moments after her exchange with the Savior she would have utterly dismissed anyone’s accusation that she had been roughly handled or in any way treated unfairly. All that mattered to her was that the Object of her faith did interact with her, did praise her faith, and did cast the demon out of her daughter. That, my friend, is the Lord’s empathy. Sympathy, pathetic and ridiculously sentimental and emotional counterfeit that it is, could never do for that woman (or for anyone else) what empathy could accomplish. Sympathy feels sorry. Sympathy is emotionally crippled. Sympathy actually stands in the way of real remedy because sympathy interposes one’s own feelings and selfishness where empathy is rightly concerned with real and honest compassion for the person experiencing suffering and affliction.

Thank God for a Savior who does not feel sorry for me, but who is empathetic, who loves me, who has compassion for me, and who provides forgiveness for my sins.

[1] 2 Samuel 23.1

[2] Acts 13.22

[3] 1 Samuel 17

[4] 2 Samuel 5

[5] 2 Samuel 3.3

[6] 2 Samuel 13.21

[7] 2 Samuel 13.22-39

[8] 2 Samuel 18.14

[9] John 9.3

[10] Matthew 15.21-28; Mark 7.24-30

[11] Matthew 15.26

[12] Matthew 15.32

[13] Matthew 15.28

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