By Pastor Glenn Pease
Few men alive on this planet have suffered more than did James B. Stockdale. He was a prisoner of war for 2,714 days in Vietnam. On one occasion the North Vietnamese handcuffed his hands behind his back, locked his legs in heavy irons, and dragged him from his cell to the unshaded courtyard. They left him lay there for 3 days. The sun burned him, and the guards beat him so he could not sleep. Men died with such torture, but Stockdale survived, and the reason he did was because of the music of sympathy. That is, he got messages from the prisoners that encouraged him to fight on. He would hear a towel snapping in their special prisoner code, and it would say God bless you Jim Stockdale. The sounds of a snapping towel in the midst of torture does not seem like much to us, but for him it was a symphony of sympathy that helped keep him alive.
The prisoners of war were isolated, for this is, in itself, a form of torture. Loneliness can be harder to bear than physical pain. The captives, however, developed an elaborate system of communication by which they could send messages from cell to cell, and even from building to building. They used their fingers, fists, elbows, and tin cups, and then they developed a sophisticated tapping routine. Dr. Julius Segal in his book, Winning Life's Toughest Battles, studied these men who survived, and records their amazing efforts to develop their togetherness in a world of isolation.
The prisoner assigned to sweep the prison compound used the broom movements to talk to the rest of the prisoners. When walking past another cell the way they would drag their sandals would send a message. Some sent messages by the way they blew their noses, and others by belching. One feigned sleep for a couple of hours each day, and during the siesta period he would, by his snoring, send reports to everyone in his cell block.
Nave Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain III, who spent much of his five and a half years in solitary confinement, concluded, "The most important thing for survival as a POW was communication with someone, even if it was only a wave or a wink, or a tap on a wall, or to have a guy put his thumb up. It made all the difference." POW Everett Alvarez said, "They were acts of self-healing. We really got to know each other through our silent conversations across the brick walls. Eventually, we learned all about each other's childhood, back ground, experiences, wives and children, hopes and ambitions." Our hostages in Iran had the same kind of experience. Some of them never met until after they were liberated, yet they felt they knew each other because of the support system they developed. Katherine Koob said, "Just knowing that someone in the next cell cared that I existed helped me go on."
All of this confirms the New Testament message on the importance of sympathy.
It is a key weapon in surviving and overcoming the unjust suffering of this world. The early Christians had to suffer so much persecution, but that which sustained them and kept the church alive was the symphony of sympathy. The Greek word in Heb. 10:34 is sumpatheo, which means sympathy, or, to suffer with another. Another form of the word is sumpathes, and this is the word used by Peter in I Pet. 3:8 where he writes, "Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble." These two Greek words represent, not just a solo instrument, or even a duet, but a whole orchestra of instruments that produce a symphony of sympathy, that brings harmony into a world of discord.
Just a partial list of the words that convey some aspects of sympathy will reveal how widespread this virtue is. Synonyms of sympathy are, compassion, condolence, unity, harmony, alliance, concord, tenderness, pity, friendliness, kindness, fellow-feeling, consolation, brotherly-love, and warm-heartedness. In other words, the study of sympathy connects us with practically every relationship virtue of the Christian life.
The paradox is, this is a form of suffering that is self-imposed. It is a voluntary choice to enter into the sufferings of another, and feel some of the same pain they do. Here is suffering that could easily be avoided by simply not caring. The opposite of sympathy is antipathy. This is the feeling that you have when you are not drawn to the sufferer to stand along side and feel with him. But, rather, when you are repulsed by the sufferer, and withdraw in hostility to let them stand alone. In between these two extremes of sympathy and antipathy is the neutral apathy, where you are neither pulled toward nor pushed from the sufferer, but are indifferent, with no feelings one way or the other.
Elinor Wylie, the poet and novelist, was deeply distressed, and she woke Katherine Porter at four A.M., and when she came to the door Miss Wylie said to her, "I have stood the crossness of this world as long as I can, and I am going to kill myself. You are the only person in the world to whom I wish to say good-bye." Miss Porter looked her dispassionately in the eye and responded, "Elinor, it was good of you to think of me. Good-bye." Here was a woman seeking sympathy, but she got apathy, with a tinge of antipathy. The fact is, just as sympathy is the key to survival in life's sufferings, so apathy and antipathy are the weapons Satan uses to bring people to defeat and despair.
People need a song of some sort in their life to keep on going, and the symphony of sympathy provides the music for living. It is no second rate virtue. It is agape love in action. We want to focus our attention on this paradoxical form of suffering that is a key factor in the alleviation of suffering. The first thing we want to look at is-
I. THE PAIN OF SYMPATHY.
It costs to care, and there are pains to pay and hurts involved in helping others bear their burdens. Our text describes Christians who stand along side other Christians who were being insulted and persecuted. They sympathized with Christians who were imprisoned, and when you stand along side of people who are being rejected, you too will be rejected, and they were, and they suffered the loss of their property because they identified with those who suffered.
Someone defined sympathy as, "Your pain in my heart." William Stidger tells of seeing a group of boys and girls in his home town gathered around a friend on the ground. He walked over and saw this young boy doubled over and weeping with pain. He asked one of the children what the problem was, and the girl replied, "We've all got a pain in Jimmy's stomach." This was sympathy, and she was feeling the pain right along with the suffering friend. Benjamin Franklin had sympathy for the Indians in a day when it was costly to care for Indians. On Dec. 14, 1763, 57 white vigilantes raided a peaceable settlement of one of the Indian tribes and killed 6 of the 20 Indians there.
Two weeks later over 200 vigilantes raided the jail where the other 14 were being kept in protective custody, and they broke the door down and killed the Indians. Franklin was outraged, and called for the punishment of these white savages. He raised a militia of almost 1000 men, and rode out to prevent their next strike. He succeeded in saving 140 Indian lives. But his sympathy for the Indians cost him dearly, and he was defeated that year for reelection to the Colonial Assembly of Pennsylvania.
Sympathy is a choice as to what you will suffer for, and everybody suffers for something. Will you suffer for the prejudice and bigotry of antipathy by adding to the suffering of others? Will you suffer the judgment of apathy by having no feelings toward the suffering of others? Or will you suffer the pain of sympathy, because you choose to identify with, and stand along side of, others as they suffer? The first two are Satan-like and fallen humanity-like. Only the third choice is Christ-like. Jesus was tempted in all points like as we are, but without sin. He entered into flesh and lived on our level, and He knows by experience what the battle of life is all about. Heb. 4:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses..." He can stand along side and suffer with us, because He has been there, and He knows what it is to be weak and to suffer. It was painful for Him, but profitable for us that Jesus entered the limitations of the flesh, for we now have a Sympathizing Savior.
This is where we see the value of much suffering in this fallen world. All suffering becomes good suffering that leads you to sympathize with others in their suffering. Allen Gregg of the Rockefeller Fund said, he hated to see a medical student get his MD degree before he had been a patient in the hospital. "I'd like to put every intern through an appendectomy at least. Not for the surgical experience, but to learn how the average patient is treated." So also, every lawyer who has not been through a court case has little notion of what his clients suffer. It is not enough to walk a mile in someone else's moccasin says Sidney Harris. He says, "They have to pinch enough, long enough for the blister to be remembered when the shoe is on the other foot." In other words, all caregivers need to experience suffering to some degree to be able to enter into the pain of sympathy. This is vital to the helping of others bear their burdens.
We do not know why the Good Samaritan was so sympathetic toward a stranger who was beaten and robbed. Possibly he had been there himself, and had been attacked on a previous journey. Whatever the case, he was the hero of the story because he was willing to voluntarily suffer the pains of sympathy. The priest and the Levite, on the other hand, were apathetic and missed the chance to be channels of God's compassion in a suffering world. One of the reasons there is so much suffering in the world is because of apathy. But on the other hand, Helen Keller was right when she said, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it." We want to look at the positive side and focus on-
II. THE POWER OF SYMPATHY.
As we stated in the introduction, people who are isolated, or who are suffering affliction, gain the power they need to hold on by knowing that someone is sympathizing with them. Misery loves company, because with company the miseries are more endurable. People can endure almost any burden if they know it is a shared burden. Sympathy has the power to heal a child instantly. They come running in tears and a depth of sorrow that would indicate a hopelessly broken heart, but with words of sympathy, and a tender kiss, the wound is mended, and they are well again. A child craves sympathy, and sometimes they try to capitalize on their assurance of getting it. I remember when Mark was just a little boy and he burned his hand slightly in his grandfather's restaurant. He was getting his sympathy, but he decided to go for a bonus, and he said, "If you don't give me some M & M's this is going to get worser." I don't remember if he got his M & M's, but he got his sympathy, and that has healing power.
We may not see it so dramatically in adults, but the fact is, it is people who get sympathy who also get healing. All kinds of studies show that people who suffer alone, suffer more. People who go through any grief, or who suffer any loss or affliction, but who share it, not only get through it better, they suffer fewer symptoms and get over it quicker. It is not for nothing that Paul urges us to bear one another's burdens. It has the power to reduce suffering. If you think the world is bad now, just remove sympathy, and you will know what hell on earth really is.
A Harvard University test reveals that people who tend to suffer alone, and not share their feelings, release hormones into their blood that lowers their immune system's resistance to disease. A Hebrew University study shows that people under stress, who do not have a support group, suffer as much as ten times the physical and emotional illnesses than those who have such support. James M. Lynch in his book, The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, draws a startling connection between the absence of companionship and heart disease. People who are loners, and who do not have a sympathetic friend or support group, are far more likely to develop heart ailments. He writes, "The rise of human loneliness may be one of the most serious sources of disease in the 20th century."
We joke about Christian fellowship sometimes because it is often superficial, and far from the depth experience it ought to be, but the fact is, Christian fellowship is one of the most powerful means the church has for preventing suffering in this world. It is by means of fellowship that we provide a sympathetic environment where the stresses of life can be shared with others, and this has healing power beyond what we realize. Like so many things in life, we take for granted the benefits of fellowship. It is not the coffee and rolls, but the sharing of burdens that makes fellowship so valuable.
Dr. Julius Segal, who is the source of this information I will share, studied the Holocaust survivors. It is not surprising that as a group they suffer an abnormally high rate of psychosomatic problems. But he discovered that those who went through that same horrible experience as the others, but who had gotten involved with a support group that gave each other encouragement, were remarkably free from such symptoms. The point I am making is that all that men have learned about suffering confirms that the New Testament is the most anti-suffering book on this planet, for it gives us, over and over again, the prescription by which we can have the power to prevent and eliminate so much suffering. Sympathy, compassion, fellowship, and all the other facets of love are the medicine cabinet of the kingdom of God.
In the total scheme of things sympathy has had more power in history than all of the miracles combined. The more we see this, the more we will realize that one of life's most precious virtues we all possess. When Paul said, weep with those who weep, he was not giving an assignment to some specialists in the church. He intended all of us to be sympathetic, and all of us can be, and so all of us can be assistants to the Great Physician.
The poet writes-
No radiant pearl, which crested Fortune wears,
No gem, that twinkling hangs from Beauty's ears;
Not the bright stars, which Night's blue arch adorn;
Nor rising Sun that gilds the vernal Morn;
Shine with such luster as the Tear that flows
Down Virtue's manly cheek for others' Woes.
The poet is saying in another form what Paul said when he wrote in I Cor. 13, "If I have all the mighty and showy gifts, but have not love, I am nothing." You can be a wonder to behold, and with gifts galore, but if you can't stand along side those who suffer with fellow-feeling, and help bear their burden, your power is puny, and does not even register on God's scale. Those who light up God's life, and become part of the answer to life's suffering, are those who heed the call that comes from everywhere in the New Testament to be sympathetic.
The author of Hebrews begins his closing chapter with these exhortations, each of which is an expression of sympathy. "Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." In other words, be a support giver to all men in their need so that no one in your awareness need ever feel alone in the battle of life. The beauty of this is, the best is open to all. We cannot all do a lot of things that need to be done, but we can all do the things that matter most, and being sympathetic is one of those things.
There is power in sympathy to change the world, and we know this because the world has been changed many times by this power. Dr. Segal gives some examples that reveal the power of sympathy.
1. In 1982 actress Theresa Soldana was repeatedly stabbed on a Los Angeles street near her home. She survived to live a nightmare. Nobody could understand her post-traumatic stress as she relived the terror and the anguish. She founded a group called Victories for Victims. It works with the District Attorney's office to provide support for people that nobody but another victim can understand. That is sympathy at work.
2. Odile Stern's 18 year old daughter was kidnapped and shot to death in Atlanta. A year later she helped found the organization called Parents of Murdered Children of New York State. They provide sympathetic understanding for parents going through the worst time of their life.
3. The life of Cindy Lightner's 13 year old daughter was ended instantly by a drunk driver in California. She formed MADD, Mother's Against Drunk Drivers. It now has 450 chapters all over the United States, and has made a major difference in the lives of thousands.
4. Eileen Steven's 20 year old son Chuck was locked in a car trunk and instructed to drink bottles of beer, whiskey, and wine. It was a fraternity initiation at a New York University. When they opened the trunk he was dead, a victim of acute alcohol poisoning. She founded the organization called CHUCK-Committee To Halt Useless College Killings.
These and hundreds of other support groups, give people in tragedy a place to go to feel that someone cares, and to give them support so they do not feel totally helpless. None of these groups save anyone for eternity, and so they do not represent the primary task of the church to bring people to Christ. But we cannot ignore the exhortation of Paul in Gal. 6:10, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." We need to be ready to give sympathetic support to any person who has a load that can be lightened by such support.
It is important that we care and stand along side people who suffer, but it is also vital that we share the good news that Jesus is the Sympathizer of all sympathizers. He not only cares about our temporary suffering, but our eternal suffering, and He comes along side to suffer with us, but greater yet, to suffer for us so that we can escape suffering the consequences of sin forever. In other words, the cross of Christ is the Hallelujah Chorus in the symphony of sympathy. Here is the climax of the song of salvation. God Himself cares, and has made a way of everlasting escape that we might enjoy forever the benefits of His Symphony of Sympathy.