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Rules for Christian Living - Part Five

It is said when an individual is able to empathize with another they are able to associate with the feelings, attitudes, and sometimes even the pain of another. It is as though they have walked through, or are currently walking through the same stuff the other person is at that moment in time.  There is an "association" with the other person's plight, joy, freedom, etc.  To suffer "with" another is different from entering into the suffering with the individual.  Sympathy is something which occurs because two people are so similar in tastes, opinions, etc., that they often see things the same way.  When God asks us to be happy when others are happy, sad when they are sad, he is asking us to use a little of both.  He desires nothing more than we become like minded - developing the same tastes and opinions.  He also wants each of us to learn to walk with one another in the challenges of life we have also walked through - not alone, but with each other.  Sympathy suggests the general idea of kinship - empathy reveals the willingness to go the extra mile with the one next to you - whether the journey be the best or the worst!

When others are happy, be happy with them, and when they are sad, be sad. Be friendly with everyone. Don’t be proud and feel that you are smarter than others. (Romans 12:15-16 CEV)

Many years ago, the light little tune came out, "Don't worry, be happy!"  The jingle caught the attention of many and became a light-hearted tune to lift the spirits.  The problem with the tune - it lacks depth despite the "lightness" of its message.  We cannot make light of another's misery, nor can we discount or dismiss their happiness.  This is what Paul has in mind when he reminds us to live in such a way so as to enter into the happiness of another, as well as share in their difficult places.  "Kin" does that!  When there is a blood-connection as there is with those who are children of God's Kingdom, there is this connection with the ups and downs of each other.  Why does this idea of being friendly with each other come into the instruction at this point?  The idea conveyed is that we are to "show" our friendship - in action, not just words.  

To this, Paul adds the reminder to be aware of the times when we might want to consider ourselves as a little "better" than others - either because we haven't experienced what they are experiencing, or just because we see our own struggles or victories as more "significant" than the other guy's.  It is not infrequent that we do this little "comparison" thing, evaluating what another is going through in perspective to what we have gone through, or are presently facing.  We almost put their sorrow or happiness on a scale, with the counter-balance on that scale being our own issues or enjoyments.  If another's outweigh ours, they might get our attention - if not, we might turn up our noses and walk away.  This is what we are to guard against - this "counter-balance" issue.  No one walks through things exactly the same - but we do face them with the same types of emotions - fear, sadness, worry, joy, peace, or elation. There are degrees to all our emotions and we tend toward "unique" sets of these emotions in our personal make-up, but we all have the same emotions.

There is something to be said about identifying with the sorrow or happiness of another from both the perspective of sympathy and empathy.  We each experience different struggles and enjoyments in life, but we can experience them together as "kin".  We also can be "paired up" with another that is able to share in our sorrow or joy at a deeper level because they have similar experiences.  I think we need both.  It should come as no surprise that there is nothing new under the sun - it might change faces, places, and time frames, but there is truthfully nothing new under the sun.  What another is walking through has been walked through by many others down through the ages - we need to learn to be open with each other, sharing in our joys and fears, frustrations and hopes, successes and failures - because there is value in this exchange of support, celebration, and compassionate display of love.  The value?  We learn to look outside ourselves and see the other guy.  We learn to see that life exists beyond our own sorrows, challenges, joys and celebrations.  We enter into community - God's intent in all of this.

We may not do this naturally at first, but in time, as we consistently allow God to bring us together with others of like-minded companionship, we find we begin to experience more than the sympathy component, but we enter into seasons and experiences where we enter into the suffering and pain of another (empathy).  It may come as no surprise to some that this is where growth actually occurs - both in our own lives and in the life of the other guy.  Why? As iron sharpens iron, we sharpen each other.  Just sayin!


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