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Sympathy +

Author James Pope
Rev. James Pope, executive editor of Forward in Christ

“I’m so sorry.” “I’m sorry for your loss.” “You have my sympathy.”

I’m sure you recognize those statements, and you can probably picture a very common setting where they are spoken: a visitation prior to a funeral or memorial service.

In that setting, grieving family members receive words of love and compassion in their time of loss. I’ve been there, and while it is comforting to receive words of sympathy, I can assure you that hearing only words of sympathy can leave an empty feeling. Don’t get me wrong—it is good to extend sympathy to those who are hurting. But as Christians we can do so much more. We can sympathize plus share messages of our faith.

When we express sympathy to those who have experienced the death of a loved one, we are addressing their loss, but when we share messages from God’s Word, we can address the gain that death has brought about for a fellow Christian. And those messages can provide reasons for peace and joy even in the midst of sorrow.

In 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, the apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Thessalonica what death means for children of God. Death means that their souls are in the presence of God in heaven and on the Last Day they will accompany Jesus as he returns visibly to this world. The Lord will raise and glorify their bodies and reunite them with their souls. Then they will live forever with the Lord.

That chapter of the Bible ends with this practical instruction: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (v. 18). Christians can encourage one another with those words in so many times and places in life. One special time and place is a visitation prior to a funeral or memorial service.

But that can be challenging, can’t it? For some Christians, speaking about their faith—even to fellow Christians—can be uncomfortable and awkward; to them, faith is a deeply personal matter that can be difficult to express. That situation is understandable, but it can be remedied.

Uncomfortableness and awkwardness can diminish and disappear by putting our words of Christian comfort in perspective. We’re not trying to tell grieving Christians anything new. We are simply reminding them of biblical truths they already know and believe but need to hear in their time of loss: Their loved one is with Jesus, and we will be together again.

Perhaps planning a conversation with grieving Christians can overcome uncomfortableness and awkwardness. I’m not suggesting giving canned speeches but rather being engaged in thoughtful conversations. Such conversations can result from taking a moment or two before greeting people to think about what truths from God’s Word we want to share with them.

“Sympathy +” is also a course of action we can take in speaking to grieving Christians when outward circumstances say their loved one did not die as a follower of the Lord. In a situation like that, we share truths from God’s Word that apply to their lives only. We can remind them that God’s love for them has not changed (Isaiah 54:10), that the Lord has promised to grace their lives with his presence always (Hebrews 13:5), and that he will give them perfect peace and eternal joy (Revelation 21:4).

One of our hymns asserts, “We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear, and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear” (Christian Worship 730:3). Tears can flow when we sympathize with others, but eyes can dry when we sympathize plus share truths from God’s Word. That kind of compassionate love is precious to give and receive.

Author: James Pope
Volume 110, Number 08
Issue: August 2023

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