The Transformative Power of Compassion: Sympathy, Charity and Justice

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

For quite some time, I have been engaged in various conversations about church transformation.  These conversations often involve words like “vitalization” or “revitalization,” “technical change” or “adaptive change,” “modern” or “post-modern.”  Such conversations have often taken place in an informal way, whenever I am with some of my clergy colleagues and we start talking about the present state of the church.  I have also been part of these conversations in a formal way as I have tried to lead the congregations I have served in looking at what it means to be the church in this day and time.  In addition, I served as part of a two year Task Force in the Indiana Region of the Christian Church devoted to the topic of transformation.  This task force was known as The Manna Process.

If I were to take all the conversations that I have been involved in concerning the topic of church transformation and boil down what I have learned into a single thought, it would be this, “Church transformation happens when we put compassion into action.”  Another way to state it might be, “Church transformation happens when we quit looking at ourselves and start looking at others.”  I believe, fervently so, that the revitalization, or the vitalization, or the transformation (or however you want to describe it) of the church is to be found by putting compassion into action.  I understand compassion to be that human capacity to identify with the needs of others and then to work toward the meeting of those needs.  In my understanding, compassion has three main areas of focus and I want to use my next three [D]mergent posts to discuss each of these areas.  I do hope it is a discussion, because I would like to hear what others have to say about this matter.  Like I said, I have been part of these conversations for quite some time. 

I have come to understand the three areas of compassion as sympathy, charity, and justice.  I don’t mean to imply that these three areas are completely distinct and different from one another.  Indeed, they are all aspects of the great virtue of compassion.  Using the three terms, however, has helped me to understand the fullness of compassion and how it is at the center of the church’s life in whatever sphere the church is present. 

This week, I want to focus on sympathy.  Sympathy is that aspect of compassion which causes us to share in the feelings of another, especially in times of sorrow or trouble.  Within the church, sympathy plays a significant role in the establishing of relationships and the building of community.  It is this understanding of sympathy that is at the heart of Paul’s words to the church at Rome, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep.”  It is sympathy that allows folks who are a part of the church to be supportive and encouraging to one another as we journey through the difficulties of life.  Sympathy is often at the heart of what is called the ministry of presence. At its finest, this community of a mutually supportive presence becomes a light to others of the way human relationship is to be lived out and the way human community is to be formed.  This is why ministries to those who are grieving a loss, or those who are going through times of mental or emotional struggles, or those in the congregation who are having financial struggles, or those who have just had a difficult medical diagnosis, must always have a prominent place in congregational life.  People should experience in the church a community of caring, a community of sympathetic support.  Paul also wrote in his second letter to the church at Corinth, that the consolation we experience from God empowers us to console others in their affliction. Eugene Peterson, translates it this way in The Message:

He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through a hard time, so that we can be there for that person just as God is there for us.

I understand sympathy to be that expression of compassion that is found most fully in our circle of existing relationships, among our family, our friends, and our church community.  Sympathy is a primary source of our love for and ministries to one another.  When folks speak of feeling cared for by their church, they are speaking of experiencing the church’s sympathy and thus, in our understanding of faith, the sympathy of God.  Our hope, always as the church is that our sympathetic and caring relationships with one another will never create a sense of a closed community, but a community who cares for all who wish to be part of this community where we laugh and cry with each other. 

My intention isn't meant to imply that we don’t have feelings of sympathy for those outside the circle of our immediate relationships.  In fact, it is often our feelings of sympathy that can take us into new relationships and circles of friends.  For years, I was involved with Hospice.  After a difficult loss in my own life, I had deep feelings of sympathy for those who were experiencing a significant loss and were looking for help.  So my years as a volunteer Hospice chaplain was a commitment rooted in sympathy. It was this commitment that broadened my own sphere of relationships. 

What I am trying to say, is that in our existing relationships, compassion often takes place in feelings of sympathy, understanding and acts of care.  This aspect of compassion is very important for the church when it comes to revitalization or transformation.  For honestly, if we don’t or won’t care for the people sitting next to us in the pew, how will we ever learn to have compassion for anyone else?  And that is what compassion ultimately calls us to do, to care about others whether they set beside us or not, which is where we will go the next two weeks as we talk about charity and justice.