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In a recent essay, Rhiannon Jones describes the struggle of raising a child with special needs:

I struggle with him and for him, but sometimes feel that I have been depleted past the point of replenishment.

Some days, I have nothing left. I imagine parking my car in front of a forest and just walking away…

As a parent to a child with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, I feel very alone.

-Rhiannon Jones, “A little sympathy please, parenting a kid with ADHD isn’t easy”

To have sympathy means to have the capability to enter into or share the feelings of another. You can’t help but feel sympathy as you read Jones’ description of what daily life is like battling with and for her son. Her words make you want to strengthen her somehow, to reassure her she doesn’t have to be alone.

And yet, as I read her essay, I realize I probably walk by women just like her every day and do nothing; when someone’s pain isn’t immediately obvious it’s very easy for me to be unsympathetic.

We’ve all needed sympathy at some point or another, but it can be surprisingly difficult to give. How easily sympathetic are you when your spouse forgets to put the laundry in the dryer, or when the lady in front of you at the grocery store is extremely slow to check out? Is sympathy and understanding your first response? Or do you tend to slip into anger, judgement and criticism?

Sympathy made Jesus attractive

When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with sympathy. “Don’t cry!” he said.
Luke 7:13 Living Bible

Jesus’ heart overflowed with sympathy, which gave his message a lot of its power. People came to him at their weakest – when they were sick, hopeless, and in need. They trusted that they could find sympathy in him. Sympathy made Jesus attractive; perhaps people were more willing to listen to his teaching because they felt how much he cared about them.

Likewise, if we want to make God attractive to people around us, we need to become people who overflow with sympathy. Do people trust that if they come to you, they will find sympathy?

A friend of mine constantly quotes this adage:

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

If you want to make the kind of impact Jesus did, you will need to have his heart of sympathy.

A little sympathy can go a long way

Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none.

Psalm 69:20 New International Version

The Bible says that a lack of sympathy is a serious thing – it can break someone’s heart.

“Scorn” means feeling that someone or something is worthless or despicable. It means looking down on someone with criticism or contempt.

As a new parent, I feel very afraid of “scorn.” I’m easily scatterbrained, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m late all the time. The other day, after changing a series of explosive diapers, I arrived at a friend’s house more than 45 minutes after I said I would get there. I was frustrated with myself for having such a difficult time getting my tiny baby out of the house, and guilty that I had inconvenienced my friend yet again. I expected scorn – “Late again huh? Still can’t get out of the house on time? Haven’t you gotten more practice in by now?”

But as I arrived apologizing profusely, my friend just gave me a reassuring smile. “No problem,” she said, “I totally understand.”

And then she moved on.

I felt so relieved. Her sympathy helped me lighten up on myself. How different I would have felt if she had been unsympathetic!

Do you tend to meet others’ weaknesses with scorn or sympathy? If you believe your sympathy (or lack thereof) has the ability to change someone’s day, you will find yourself practicing it a lot more.

A hardened heart can’t sympathize

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’
Matthew 13:15

This verse says that when our hearts are hard, there will be things we cannot see. Sympathy requires seeing the unseen. Rhiannon Jones’ essay is powerful because she helps the reader see her unseen needs – she lets us into how alone she really feels. When we can’t see needs in those around us, we are much less likely to sympathize.

I often find this dynamic in my marriage. When I allow my heart to harden to my own guilt, fear, or emotions, I end up very unsympathetic toward my husband. I easily get angry with him and can’t see or understand what’s going on inside him. I tend to miss that he might be afraid or need my help. Softening my own heart by admitting my weaknesses, insecurities, and sins helps me have more compassion for him.

In what relationships do you tend to have a difficult time being sympathetic? How do you think softening your own heart could help you see past the surface to the needs of those around you?

Understanding God’s sympathy

What a wonderful God we have—he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the source of every mercy, and the one who so wonderfully comforts and strengthens us in our hardships and trials. And why does he do this? So that when others are troubled, needing our sympathy and encouragement, we can pass on to them this same help and comfort God has given us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 Living Bible

For Jesus is not some high priest who has no sympathy for our weaknesses and flaws. He has already been tested in every way that we are tested; but He emerged victorious, without failing God.
Hebrews 4:15 The Voice

If you don’t receive much sympathy, you won’t have much to give. If you are someone who tries to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and doesn’t like to admit your needs, you won’t have much sympathy on others. Becoming a more sympathetic person begins with believing God has sympathy for you, no matter what you’re going through.

What are some areas of your life in which you need God’s sympathy? How do you feel knowing God’s heart overflows with sympathy for you?

Start practicing

If you want to grow in your sympathy for others, here are some ways to start:

  • Volunteer – You can help moms like Rhiannon Jones who are raising special needs children by volunteering for programs that serve them. E-sports, for example, is a source of hope for hundreds of Bay Area families with typical and special needs children each week and it runs on the power of volunteers.
  • Start at home – Who you are at home is who you really are. So if you want to make a change, take a look at your relationships with your spouse, roommates or kids and start thinking about how you can become more sympathetic toward them.
  • Pray to see needs – Ask God for help to see the needs of the people around you. if you really want to see and help someone, I think God will show you how.

Written by

Amy Query

Amy Query is an editor of BACC Inspire and avid reader. She studied psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and has over a decade of experience in mentoring, counseling and community organizing.