Is sympathy a synonym for love? It was a question that came to mind as I was watching “The Blind Side” starring Sandra Bullock. Her character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, sympathized with a young man named Michael Oher, who seemed to be lacking the basic needs of life. As the story progressed, Mrs. Tuohy’s sympathy towards Michael matured to acts of kindness, then blossomed into genuine love and care for his wellbeing.
However, what if Michael was not as well-mannered and successful in American football? What if he was a hot-headed bloke who always got himself in trouble and made poor life decisions that put the lives of the members of the Tuohy family at risk? So, I ask the question again. Do sympathy and love stand on the same ground?
Before you say no, which I assume most readers will do, consider this; the next time you sign up for a charitable 5k run or purchase tickets to a charitable breakfast brunch or give money to the homeless, I want you to ask yourself this question; is my actions out of love or sympathy? Don’t get me wrong! There is no rule which states that love for another cannot start with sympathy. However, which is the superior way?
When I was in the Sixth form, I was an influential member of my high school’s Inter-Schools Christian Fellowship (ISCF). There was a female member who was facing some difficulties at home and wanted to know more about Jesus. However, I saw her through the eyes of sympathy. Yes, I listened to her, prayed with her and offered sound biblical sound counsel; but I eventually found her plea for help very annoying. This resulted in me slowly trying to pull myself away from her.
I share this story to communicate my shortcomings in distinguishing love and sympathy. I believe that love is the superior way, and that sympathy must never stand alone. However, one of the great challenges I face when I evangelize and partake in discipleship is the flesh-infested mindset that the people whom I am sharing with is “less than”.
How is this possible? Well, sometimes I fear that if I maintain interactions with someone who is too messed up, misguided and unholy for me, then my life may get entangled with their unrighteousness. Sympathy allows me to demonstrate some level of care for someone without my image being tarnished, my patience being untested and my resources remaining intact.
This, my friends, is the danger we face when sympathy stands alone. We are tempted to want to impact people’s lives from a distance because of the notion that they really need help but the fear of allowing our lives to get mixed up and corrupted with theirs.
I would like to explore with you the tale of a woman who was condemned in the eyes of sympathy but was redeemed by the love of the cross.
She was a sinner, who according to the law, deserved the shame and the accusations she received. However, she met love in the flesh and was never the same. Her redemption story demonstrated that love is the superior way.
Woman with the alabaster box (Luke chapter 7, verses 36-39)
Was she that sinful? Well, the Pharisees thought so. In fact, her sins were considered so great that Jesus received criticism for fellowshipping with her. Her tears, alabaster box with oils and spices, and act of worship mattered little to the Pharisees as she was a sinner.
If you were there at that scene, would you have sympathized with her? I certainly would not. Her sins were great and evident to many. However, Jesus demonstrated his love for her by forgiving her of her sins. He saw her as an individual desperately in need of grace.
We can see that the woman’s many sins never stopped Jesus from interacting with her. In this story, Jesus demonstrated some of the attributes of love stated by Paul in 1st Corinthians chapter 13, verses 4 to 8.
Jesus was patient towards the woman when she interrupted his mealtime just to fellowship with him.
Jesus was kind towards the woman in receiving her acts of worship.
Jesus did not dishonour the woman when she uninvitingly stood behind his feet.
Jesus kept no record of the many sins that she committed.
Jesus did not delight in her many sins but rejoiced in the truth that her sins were forgiven.
Jesus hoped and trust that she would have obeyed his call for her to sin no more.
And most importantly, Jesus endured the pain of the cross, so that she may have everlasting life.
Jesus commands us to “Love thy neighbor as thy self”. The love that Jesus demonstrated in this story was image damaging, patience testing and resource draining. Jesus is encouraging us to pursue love over sympathy.
“Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action” (1st John, chapter 3 verse 18).
I encourage us all to let all our actions be seasoned with love, not sympathy. For it is by this, the world will know that we belong to the truth. Pursue the messier, pride-shattering, foolish, yet superior way.
Akeel Henry is a prisoner of hope. He enjoys sharing the hope of Jesus Christ with all individuals. He is currently a trained biochemist who aspires to become a medical doctor and pastor in the future. He believes that the secret to contentment is a moment by moment dependence on God’s grace, power and provisions.