I remember the story of the father who desperately urged his sons to avoid at all costs sexual sin, especially the pervasive problem of pornography. One day one of his sons said, "Dad, can I talk to you?" They went for a walk and his son said, "Dad, the other day I saw on the computer as I came into the room what looked like skin. You turned it off very quickly, but I'm pretty sure of what I saw. So why do you tell me to avoid it?" His father, very sad, said, "Do you think I urge you to avoid it because I don't know how desperate a problem it is?"
We have two similar words in the English language: sympathy and empathy. Both share the suffix, "-pathy". Of Greek origin, it originally referred to "suffering", but we understand it to be general feelings. So "sympathy" and "empathy" both refer to feelings in general and suffering in particular. In the case of "sympathy", it is to acknowledge another person's feelings, specifically their hardships. "Empathy", on the other hand, is to share the same pain of another. One says, "I see that you're hurting" and the other says, "I feel your pain."
The Bible describes sin as painful. It produces death (Romans 6:23). It produces temporal judgments (Luke 13:1-5). It produces foolish thinking (Romans 1:20-23). Sin brings trouble and distress (Romans 2:9), destroys peace (Isaiah 57:21), incurs bondage (Proverbs 5:22), and wreaks destruction (Galatians 6:8). It ultimately produces eternal judgment as a product of separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). We, as Bible-believers, know all that. The question I ask, then, is if we are sympathetic or empathetic ... or apathetic?
We aren't short on pulpits on which to pound our denouncement of sin. We have plenty of Christians who will remind us that sexual sin is rampant and abortion is murder and homosexual behavior is prohibited in the Bible and so on. There is no dearth of voices on the problem of sin. What I'm wondering is what we are feeling about it? I ask this coming from a thinking perspective. That is, I believe we should think about what is true and right rather than define true and right by how we feel. Yet, I don't think that "feel" has no place in this. So when we vent our passion for Christ by shouting our disapprobation of sin, is it because of our righteous indignation, or is it because of our "pathos"?
You see, some people can be apathetic toward sin. They don't feel anything about it. "Whether or not there is sin, we're not concerned about it." We'll call that "liberal Christianity". Others can sympathize over sin. "Yes, I can see thatyou're a sinner." We'll call them "Pharisees". Or, being sinners ourselves, understanding all the pain and suffering it causes, struggling against it ourselves and relying desperately and wholly on God to get us out of it, we can be empathetic over sin. In this case, we would start with "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner" (and stay there a long time--perhaps continually). In this case we would still urge others to leave sin, but it is from a different position. It is not apathy--"I don't care about that, do whatever makes you feel good"--or sympathy--"Yes, I can imagine that kind of thing will hurt you so you'd better do what I say and stop it." No, it's empathy. "Look, I know about the pain sin causes. I've been there. I go there far too often. I'm not urging you to do something I myself don't need to do. I'm not warning you because I don't know how desperate the problem is. I'm urging you to go another path because I knowwhat harm this one causes."
Will this make others listen? Honestly, no. You're not dealing with a drowning man desperate for salvation. You're dealing with a hostile, defiant, blinded sinner. "Me? Drowning? You must be an idiot!" No, making others listen is God's job. But I suspect that empathy will go a lot farther than either apathy or sympathy because, after all, we arealike in the problem of sin and denying that by either denying that it's sin or denying that we suffer from it has never worked for anyone. And it's the truth that will set them free. Truth about what constitutes sin. Truth about the consequences of sin. Truth about the Good News that faith in Christ can solve the problem of sin. And the truth about you, a sinner just as much in need of grace as the ones to whom you speak. That truth can set people free.
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