Sympathy in Counseling

If you are responding sympathetically to a person, you will tend to feel that if you don’t succeed in winning them over to a brand new life then you have been a failure, and you will be broken by it.  Another thing about sympathy is that it will lead you to deep discouragement.  However, that is not true.  Actually, it isn’t a matter of failure. The rich young ruler, upon a meaningful, direct encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, went away sorrowful and he went back to his own way. But, he went away less sure of his way. He went away with added enlightenment.  So then it was successful. Jesus had done what he was supposed to do and we are not going to excel our Lord.

Another thing, sympathy will actually cause failure in that it will hinder you from distinguishing between guilt and guilt-feelings.  And there is a vast difference between guilt and guilt-feelings. There are some people who have never seen their sin in relation to God Almighty. They have seen it only in relation to the distasteful consequences  and they are broken by the consequences. But, that is not unto the salvation of their souls. There is a sorrow unto death and there are so many Christian workers who applaud Judas’s tears. But that person is on the way to death. Somehow, we need enough discernment to look at a weeping person and see if he is a Judas or not and not just see if it is tears or not.  In doing this you will encounter some criticism, of course.

I remember a fellow said to me once, and I don’t want this to enhance my reputation at all….he said to me, “You are the hardest man I ever met.”  I wasn’t lifting my voice.  I wasn’t talking any different than I usually do.  Do you know what he was doing? He was yelling, screaming, beating on my desk, had one knee upon my desk.  The most violent thing I was doing at the time was doodling with some paper clips and he was the man of action, the vitriolic one. He was telling me how mean I was and why. What had really got him was because I had touched the sore spot, I would not respond with carnal sympathy.  That was all he wanted. He wanted me to respond to his feelings, his guilt feelings. But, I rather talked about his guilt before God, which was not being washed away by his tears of remorse. What a difference between remorse and repentance.

This has helped me in a great way – – just in little simple ways of even when I visit the sick. Do you know what hurts people who are sick sometimes? It’s their heart that is hurting them, more than their body.  On the other hand, if you can find where the heart need is, that will help the body-hurt. So, why should I go in there and only pray “take the pain away.” Something more can be done. But, I found a long time ago I had to get over the urge to sympathize in order to do that. Picture a person who is in terrible condition.  We are going to visit him.  This is a man who weighs exactly 70 pounds.  He was of normal weight at one time.  He is not an old man but he has terminal cancer.  He also has a speech impediment and he looks at the world pitifully through the tops of his eyes. He’s a frightful skeleton. He hardly has the strength to stand and yet he doesn’t dare to lie down because there is no protection for his bones – they come right through his skin. He is very alert in his mind. We go to visit that person.  I turn to you and say, “Would you help him?  I would like to share with you what God led me to do. I opened to a meaningful Psalm – Psalm 86 – and I just talked a little bit about the different verses, “For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You..” Isn’t it good, friend, that the Lord’s mercy, when we call on Him is right there.  He’ll forgive our sins.  And later it says, “Unite my heart to praise your name.” This is a Psalm of trust in the Lord. You know there is a lot of difference between trust in Him and going it alone. Self-reliance. Sometimes our rebellion, even if our disposition isn’t so outward, is still there.  “These tests like you are going through, I am just concerned, how is the spiritual struggle going with you?” Now, you know that was refreshing to that man, because nobody had ever asked him that.  Everybody was saying the same thing, he had heard it over and over, “What a pity!” or just gasping at him and that sort of thing.  And you know what he said?  “Well, I get up.  I only sleep 2 or 3 hours and I get up (he didn’t say he got up for pain) and I just sit and think and think.”  And then he told me what I knew he was going to tell me — the torment and ferment in his heart….issues he had not settled.  He was being pressed closer and closer to the edge of the grave and nobody was giving him a chance to talk.  Nobody’s helping him, everybody’s sympathizing and he needed help. He needed someone to talk to. That’s not cruel….that’s loving him.  But the thing is, you have to love him enough to back down your human sympathy.  That’s the part that hurts us the worst.  (I John 3:20)

“If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.” This text is telling us that a person who sees God is condemning him will not have confidence in his prayer. Now this is a normal thing. Confidence before God will be lost by a normal Christian who is walking in disobedience. The great Jonathan Edwards (Religious Affections) brings out the point that a true Christian will sooner doubt his salvation, if the practice of sin is there and it only has to be there temporarily because that is a contradiction, than one who may be a hypocrite.  A true Christian, when he sins, will grieve the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is his assurance source.  An evangelical hypocrite, one who is in the Evangelical frame of things, but is  not really God’s child, when he sins he doesn’t trouble his assurance source because it is coming from his own imagination and that remains well and maybe stronger as he goes along.  The Scripture is teaching that even our hearts should lack assurance when we are doing wrong. And, if we want that restoration of the sense of well-being with God, let us obey Him and God is even greater than our heart.

A young woman came to me right at the point of being married and said, (I had never seen her before and it turned out she was one who claimed our church — having been a member of the Sunday School some time way back), “Pastor,  I would like for you to perform the marriage.”  I said, ”Well, I don’t do much in the way of functioning  as a civil authority and I more or less pastor this flock right here. Let me ask you, why are you not appealing to your own church and pastor?'”  This really took her back.  She said, “Why you are my pastor!”  I said, “Oh, I am?” I said, “I’ve been here for a number of years and I don’t believe I have met you before.”  She said, ”Well, I knew so-and-so …….”  I said, “He was quite a way back.  Let me see if I can help you.”  Then I said, “Are you really a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ?” “Oh, yes!”  Now this was more down her line. Never mind how she is performing it—way back there.  ”When I was such and such an age I let Jesus into my heart and I am a Christian.”  I said, “Is that true?  Let me ask you this.  During these recent years, have you ever doubted that you are God’s child?” “Oh, no, I just know I am a Christian.”  Then I said to her, “You don’t know how sorry I am to hear you say that.” ”What do you mean?” She was very upset and turned pale. So I told her the truth.  I said, “Let me read you from God’s Word.

It says here in John 10:27,  ‘My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.’ This is what the Shepherd says to you: ‘Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is.’  How could you have avoided and resisted His voice all these years with no upset at all if He is really yours. Do you think maybe your peace is coming from another voice?” Well, naturally she just doubled over and sobbed and this left me with the decision, “Are the tears coming because she can’t march in white down our beautiful isle…it’s got to be in city hall or in some other church that is not as architecturally nice as ours…or is she repentant? It turned out it was the former all the way.

I was available to help. My heart went out to her but I just could not yield and respond in sympathy. That girl deserved exposure. That girl had lived all those years in a spiritual casket of false assurance and I was not going to put the last nail in. To this day there is one nail missing and there is hope because I did not drive it in.  I don’t believe God has called me that way.