March 12, 1995
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Romans 12:15
What’s your togetherness quotient? Let’s run a quick check.
Situation #1: You’re sitting in a classroom, your teacher is handing back tests that have just been graded, and you’re anxious to find out how you did. You studied night and day for this test. The class brain, who happens to sit in front of you, hardly studied at all. The teacher hands your test to you, and you grab it eagerly. You see you did okay, but nothing to brag about. Then you look over the shoulder in front of you, and you see that, once again, the class brain got a perfect score. Now, how do you feel about that? Are you happy for your classmate? Or do feel a desperate longing for a day when, on at least one test, your brainy neighbor will flunk miserably?
Situation #2: You’re watching TV, and suddenly a news brief announces that a famous person has just been diagnosed with AIDS. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Do you think, “Oh, no! What a tragedy! That person must be feeling so shocked and sad”? Or do you think, “Hmmm. I wonder how he got it. Was he gay? Was he immoral and careless?”
Sometimes our togetherness quotient isn’t very high. The Bible says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” But instead of rejoicing with those who rejoice, we tend to envy them. And instead of mourning with those who mourn, we tend to pass judgment on them. When a classmate does well in school, we don’t rejoice. We’d like to see that person flunk for once. When someone gets AIDS, we’re quicker to wonder how he got it than to feel the pain and despair that he feels. It’s often hard to identify with others and feel what they’re feeling.
And yet that’s what God expects of us. Jesus says in the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Put yourself in their shoes, feel what they feel, see things from their point of view, and then treat them the way you’d want to be treated. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27), says Jesus. “As yourself”–be as happy about your neighbor’s success as if it were your own, and as sad about your neighbor’s trouble as if it were your own. That’s what it means to have a high togetherness quotient: a sense of being so together with others that we rejoice when they rejoice, and mourn when they mourn.
God expects that of us, and if you look at your own experience, you can see why it’s so important. We all need people to laugh with us and cry with us, to share our tears of joy and our tears of sorrow. We need together tears. Someone has said, “Pain shared is pain divided; pleasure shared is pleasure multiplied.” Isn’t that the truth?
When you’re going through a terrible time, it helps just to have people there to cry with you, even if they can’t change the situation. When our little daughter died a number of years ago, my wife and I got a lot of support and comfort from people who just hugged us and cried with us. They couldn’t bring our little one back to life, and they couldn’t say anything to make our grief disappear. But somehow, their together tears, their crying with us, helped us a lot. Pain shared is pain divided.
And the other side is also true. Pleasure shared is pleasure multiplied. When you’re enjoying something good, you enjoy it even more if there are others who celebrate with you. You might enjoy watching a game by yourself and seeing your team win, but you enjoy it even more if you’re watching the game with others who are cheering with you. You may be delighted about marrying a wonderful person, but it’s even better if lots of friends and family are there to congratulate you and celebrate your wedding with you.
We know from our own experience, then, how much it means to have people who rejoice with us and mourn with us. But it’s not always easy to treat others the way we’d like to be treated.
We like people to rejoice with us, but sometimes we have a hard time rejoicing with them. For example, those of us who are pastors can be pretty competitive and proud. We’d much rather tell others about our own great accomplishments than listen to a colleague talk about the good things that are happening in his ministry. The same is true of many other types of work. We’d rather celebrate our own success than that of others.
When we’re doing well, our pride can keep us from rejoicing with others who are doing equally well, and when things aren’t going well, it can be even harder to rejoice in the good fortune of others. We wish we could trade places. And why? Because we love ourselves more than we love them, and they’ve got what we want. Only when we truly love others as ourselves can we rejoice in their happiness the way we would rejoice in our own.
Does that mean we should be so busy rejoicing with others that our own disappointments don’t even bother us any more? Of course not. It’s possible to love others and feel happy for them, and yet have bittersweet feelings if their happiness reminds you of something that’s hurting you. You can feel happy for a friend in school who does well on a test, but that doesn’t take away the frustration of your own disappointing score. You can celebrate at a friend’s wedding, but if you’re a single who wishes you had someone, every wedding you attend is a painful reminder of what you haven’t got. You can rejoice with friends who are all excited about having a baby, but if you’re struggling with infertility, their joy is a fresh reminder of a blessing you still haven’t received. Even if you don’t begrudge their joy, you still have your own sorrow to deal with.
Our feelings are often mixed. As the Bible puts it, “Even in laughter the heart may ache” (Proverbs 14:13). You can rejoice with a friend whose children are turning out great, and at the same time feel sadder than ever when you think of your own rebellious kids. You can rejoice at someone else’s great new money-making opportunity, and at the same time wonder why you can’t ever seem to get out of your own financial bind. You can congratulate a couple on a wedding anniversary, and at the same time feel an even greater sense of loss and loneliness if you’ve been widowed or divorced.
It’s not always easy to sort out your feelings. But love can move you to rejoice with those who rejoice, even as you blink back a few tears of your own. You’re happy for them, even as you feel a bit sorry for yourself. And that’s okay.
It can be tough to share the joy of others when you’ve got troubles of your own, but hard as that is, it may be even harder to share the sorrows of others when you’ve got it good. Instead of weeping with those who weep, we often prefer to keep our distance from those who weep. We don’t want anything unpleasant to spoil our fun. We don’t want anything to disturb our comfortable sense of security. Only a deep, divine kind of love can move us to make another person’s tears our own.
The Bible shows the importance of together tears when it says, “Mourn with those who mourn.” There are times when you can’t change what’s gone wrong for someone, when you can’t offer any explanation that will make sense of it, when you can’t offer any cheerful thoughts to make them feel instantly happy again. Sometimes the best you can do for people who are crying is simply to be there with them and cry with them.
The Bible says, “Mourn with those who mourn.” That’s what we need to do, and that also shows us what not to do. The first don’t is this: don’t avoid those who mourn. It’s no picnic going into a hospital or nursing home to visit someone in failing health. It’s hard to attend a funeral where people are shattered and grief-stricken. I know of people who try to avoid such things, even when it involves people close to them, because they say it makes them feel down. But that’s exactly the point! Part of your reason for going is to feel down with those are are down, to share in their hardship and mourn with them.
Another excuse for avoiding people in pain is that you “don’t know what to say.” Somebody you know is going through a divorce, or has cancer, or has gone bankrupt, and you’re sorry about it, but you avoid them because you “don’t know what to say.” But who says you have to give a speech? Even if you don’t say much of anything, you can mourn with those who mourn. One tear is worth a thousand words. A simple hug can do more good than all the speeches in the world. Usually, when you’re dealing with people in pain, the less you say, the better. Listening does more good than talking. So keep your ears open and your mouth shut. But whatever you do, don’t avoid them. Nothing you do can hurt someone more than abandoning them.
Maybe you know Bible story of Job. Job lost everything he had, his children were killed, all in one horrible day, and Job came down with an awful disease. When news of this got around, three of Job’s friends came to visit him. Now, if you know the story, you know that Job’s friends get a pretty bad rap for how they treated Job, and they deserve it. But one thing you have to say for them. They started out right. At least they showed up and spent some time mourning with their friend. That’s a lot more than some of us do. The Bible says that they went to Job, and when they saw him, “they began to weep aloud… Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:12-13). It’s only when the friends got to thinking they had to “say the right thing” to Job that they began to do him more harm than good.
So give Job’s friends some credit. They don’t avoid Job. They come to him sooner than most of us would, they cry more tears with him than most of us would, they keep their mouths shut a lot longer than most of us would, and they spend more time with him than most of us would. Before we look at what Job’s friends did wrong, we’d better start by admitting that they did better than many of us do. At least they showed up.
Don’t avoid people in pain. That’s the first don’t. The second is this: Don’t try too hard to cheer them up. Let them feel bad, and feel bad right along with them. Encourage their tears; don’t try to stifle them. A friend of mine who’s been through a lot is fond of saying that God created tears as our release valve. So don’t make a person in pain look at the bright side before they have a chance to grieve the dark side.
Have you ever had it where somebody was all smiles and tried to cheer you up when what you really needed was a good cry? How did that make you feel? There’s a proverb in the Bible that says: “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day … is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20). If you don’t want to give someone’s heart an icy blast, then don’t be too eager to cheer up the grieving. When people are struck by tragedy or hardship, they don’t need to feel better. They need to feel bad, because what happened is bad. So weep with those who weep; don’t try to cheer them up right away. Don’t try to wipe away their tears. That is God’s job.
Here’s a third don’t: Don’t judge people in pain. That was the big mistake Job’s friends made. They thought they had God’s system of reward and punishment down to a science. They thought they had it all figured out, and when Job started to cry and complain about his sufferings, they spoke up and told Job that God was punishing him. After all, God rewards goodness and punishes badness, doesn’t he?
Job’s friends aren’t the only ones with a tendency to judge. When you find out someone has AIDS, what’s your first reaction? “I wonder how he got it.” When you hear someone was hurt in a car crash: “Was she wearing a seat belt?” When there are head injuries in a motorcycle accident: “Was he wearing a helmet?” When somebody gets lung cancer: “Did he smoke?” When somebody’s son or daughter is arrested: “I could see that coming. They never did know how to discipline their kids.” And so forth. We have an instinctive urge to explain why bad things happen and to assign blame wherever we can.
Now, there are indeed times when people’s suffering can be traced, at least in part, to some past sins and mistakes–though not as often as we’d like to think. But still, why are we in such a hurry to explain and blame, rather than simply absorb the bad news and weep with those who weep?
Here’s how Job explains it. He says to his friends, “You see something dreadful and are afraid” (Job 6:21). Job’s friends see his suffering, it scares the daylights out of them, and so they instinctively start looking for something Job did to bring it upon himself. That way, they can reassure themselves that as long as they don’t do what Job did, they’ll never have to go through what Job is going through.
“You see something dreadful and are afraid.” We may not realize it, but the reason we tend to judge people in pain is to protect our own sense of superiority and security. We’d like to think that we’re doing things differently than they did, and so we won’t get a deadly disease, or suffer terrible injuries, or have our kids turn out bad, or whatever.
Many times our judgment is mistaken, as it was in the case of Job’s friends, but even if we’re correct that someone brought suffering on himself, it’s not the time to say, “I told you so.” It’s time to mourn with those who mourn. Job puts it this way: “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (Job 6:14). Even if a person in pain has committed the worst sin of all and abandoned God, he needs your tears and compassion more than he needs your words of blame and judgment. Your together tears may even convince him that there’s a God who loves him, after all.
Some of us tend to think that tears are for wimps. But the Bible says just the oppposite. Tears are for the courageous. When we don’t cry together tears, it’s not because we’re brave and strong, but because we’re cowards. As Job put it, we “see something dreadful and are afraid.” To mourn with those who mourn instead of avoiding them, to mourn with those who mourn instead of trying to make them (and yourself) cheerful, to mourn with those who mourn instead of trying to explain or blame–this takes courage and a special kind of strength and power.
In fact, to mourn with those who mourn, and suffer with those who suffer, isn’t just courageous. It’s divine. That may be the most wonderful surprise in the whole world. And it’s all the more surprising because God Almighty had the power to do what none of us can. If God wanted to, he really could have protected himself from all problems and sorrow and suffering. He really could have judged us and blamed us for our sins. He could have rightly said that, because he himself never sins, he doesn’t deserve to suffer anything we suffer. But what does God do? Instead of separating himself from us, God attaches himself to us. Instead of protecting himself and judging us, God enters into our pain and cries together tears.
The Lord Jesus Christ put aside his divine invulnerability and made himself vulnerable to pain. He put aside his divine right to judge and punish and made himself subject to punishment. He was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering… he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3-4). He was “made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:17). He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth,” says the Bible, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus wept at the tomb of a friend. He wept when he foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem. He groaned and wept in the garden of Gethsemane, and he took all the guilt and suffering and tears of humanity on himself as he hung on the cross.
Even before Jesus came, God loved and suffered with his people. As the Bible puts it, “In all their distress he too was distressed” (Isaiah 63:9). That distress reached its climax at the cross, but even after Jesus’ resurrection and return to glory, the Lord continues to make the suffering of his people his own. When his people are persecuted, he is persecuted, says the Bible (Acts 9:4). Jesus says that when the least of his people are hungry, he is hungry. When they are thirsty, he is thirsty. When they feel like outsiders, he feels like an outsider. When they shiver for lack of clothes, he shivers. When they are sick, he is sick. When they are in prison, he is in prison (Matthew 25:34-46). Their tears are Jesus’ tears.
This is Lent, the time of year leading up to Good Friday and Easter. It’s a good time to remember again how Jesus suffered with us and for us on the cross and to remind ourselves of his continuing identification with a broken world. The together tears of Jesus are the final proof of God’s love. It is this suffering love that saves us and comforts us, and it is this suffering love that moves us to suffer with others and comfort them. We cry with others because Jesus cries with them, and because we see Jesus in them. Not only that, but through Christ, we see ourselves in them, since we are one in Christ.
The Bible compares the people of God to the parts of a body. The apostle Paul writes, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:26-27). In other words, we don’t rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn just because we’ve decided to be nice, empathetic people, but because we are actually part of the same body with them. We are made one by the torments Jesus endured once and for all in his physical body, and we remain one through Jesus’ spiritual body, the church, and the unifying Holy Spirit of Christ who is life of that body.
When we are in the body of Christ, we mourn with people who mourn, even in cases where their problems are their own fault. We don’t feel superior. We feel guilty and embarrassed right along with them. The apostle Paul wrote, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29).
Does this willingness to suffer with others sound bizarre and unrealistic? Well, it would be unrealistic if a high togetherness quotient depended on working a little harder at being a nice person. But if you know the ultimate reality of the universe–a Lord who suffers with his suffering world in order to save it–then entering the new life in Christ is the most realistic thing there is.
The Lord has made your sins and your suffering his own. Embrace that reality. Draw strength and comfort from the fact that Jesus cries your tears and that he also promises to wipe them away in his own good time. And once you know the power of Jesus’ together tears, begin to live as part of his spiritual body. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn.
Thank you, Lord, for the love that moved you to take our sin upon yourself that we might be forever free from it. Thank you for coming down into the depths of our misery to comfort us and lift us out again. Unite us with yourself and with each other, in the blood and the tears of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.