Empathy: The Prerequisite for Serving

hugging-jesusI wonder if you can guess who said this: “During my second year at college, I plunged into the deepest depression I’ve ever known.  I wrestled in prayer, searched the scriptures, examined my conscience, and fell apart… Over the next year I learned more about myself and my emotions than I had thought possible.  If today I manage to function as a pastor, it is not least because I know something about pain.  I know, too, that healing of memory and imagination is not just wishful thinking.”

That was the Right Revd Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, one of the leading theologians in the world today.  Who do you think said this?

“I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my old skeptical habits, and the spirit of the age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.”

That was C.S. Lewis. And who do you think said this?

“I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to. I find myself frequently depressed – perhaps more so than any other person here.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon – one of the most influential preachers in history.

But it could just have easily been said by any number of pastors I know. Are you surprised? Discouragement is no respecter of persons. John Stott was not exaggerating when he wrote, “The Christian’s chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement.”

Tim Keller adds,

“No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.”

When we think of the Apostle Paul, are we so surprised that he openly confesses:

“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

Can a born again, spirit-filled, Christ follower ever despair of life itself? Yes most emphatically. Of course, like us, the Apostle could easily have escaped these pressures.
He could have gone back to making tents, accepted the occasional preaching invitation or better still, become a Church growth consultant.He might have written his autobiography or perhaps a spiritual novel under a pen name like Ben Hur.

But no, when we might give up, he reminds himself who it is he serves. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (2 Corinthians 1:1). Like a father, Paul also had a deep burden for his spiritual children in Corinth (Acts 18:1-18).  They kept him awake at night. He could not walk away or turn his back on them. When serious problems arose, he first sent Timothy to resolve them (1 Corinthians 4:17).  Then he wrote the letter known as 1 Corinthians. Unfortunately, matters grew worse and Paul had to make a “painful visit” to Corinth to confront the troublemakers personally (2 Corinthians 2:1ff). That just made things worse. Because matters were unresolved, he wrote “a severe letter” which was hand delivered by Titus (2 Corinthians 2:4-9; 7:8-12). Titus returned with good news.  The troublemaker had been ejected. So Paul then wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians. Why?

  1. Paul wanted the church family to forgive and restore the person who’d caused all the trouble (2 Cor. 2:6-11).
  2. Paul wanted to explain the reasons his promised visit would be delayed (2 Cor. 1:15-22).
  3. Paul needed to reassert his authority as an apostle and expose the motives of pseudo apostles (2 Cor. 10-12).
  4. Following the lead of the other churches in Greece, he wanted them to help their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem experiencing a severe famine (2 Cor. 8-9).
  5. But the most important reason for writing this letter, and the reason why it is so helpful to us, is because the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to explain the relationship between God’s strength and human weakness.

You could sum up the entire letter with one word. “Encouragement”  The verb is used 18x and the noun 11x. In spite of all his struggles, Paul was able (by the grace of God) to write a letter saturated with encouragement. These Sunday mornings through May and June we will be studying 2 Corinthians to learn how to serve Jesus from the heart. There are some recommended books and study guide in the bookstore. Today our theme is Empathy – the Prerequisite for Service. Please turn with me to 2 Corinthians 1. In these opening paragraphs, we observe:  The person we serve. The purpose of service and the need for perseverance in serving.

  1. The Person we Serve: Remember what God is to you

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3)

We usually recite a doxology at the end of a service or meeting. Here Paul begins his letter with one. He may not be able to sing about his circumstances, but he can sing about the God who is in control of his circumstances. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Praise takes our mind off ourselves. Praise puts our circumstances in perspective. Why should we praise God?

  • We praise Him because He is our God

We praise him because he is our creator and sustainer. He knows everything about us – he knows the reasons we suffer. He knows our future. Our life is in his hands. During the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, Pastor Martin Rinkart faithfully served the people in Eilenburg, Saxony.

He conducted as many as 40 funerals a day, and more than 4,000 during his ministry. Yet out of this harrowing experience, he wrote a “table grace” for his children which today we use as a hymn of thanksgiving:

“Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom His world rejoices.”

Praise him because he is our God.

  • We praise Him because He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

Because of Jesus Christ we can call God “Father” and we can approach Him as His children. God sees us in His Son and amazingly, loves us as He loves His Son. We are dear to the Father because His Son is dear to Him. We are his adopted sisters and brothers. So praise him because he is the God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And,

  • We praise Him because He is the Father of compassion and God of all Comfort

God is the Father of compassion because all compassion originates in Him. God in His grace gives us what we do not deserve, and in His mercy, He does not give us what we do deserve.  Praise Him then because He is the God of all comfort. The word is repeated 10x in verses 1-11.
God does not offer us sympathy when we suffer.

He does not pat us on the head and give us a piece of chocolate to distract our attention from our troubles. No, He puts strength into our hearts so that we can face our trials and triumph over them. Our English word ‘comfort’ comes from two Latin words meaning “with strength.” The Greek word means “to come alongside and help.” It is the same word used for the Holy Spirit (“the Comforter”) in John 14-16. God encourages us by His Word and through His Spirit, and he uses other believers to express the encouragement we need (2 Cor. 2:7-8).

So when suffering comes, as it will, remember the person we serve. remember what God is to you.

  1. The Purpose of Service: Remember what God does through you.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

In times of trauma or suffering, our defence mechanisms instinctively go into survival mode and takes our minds off other people. But one important reason God sends us trials is so that we will become channels of blessing to comfort and encourage others. Because God has given us courage we can empathise with and encourage others going through the same experience. Verse 7 makes it clear that our willingness to suffer patiently, is a mark of spiritual maturity (Heb. 12:1-7). In their new book, Rare Leadership, Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder observe,

“The ultimate test of maturity is our ability to suffer well.  Leaders who can endure hardship without turning into someone else and losing the ability to stay relationally engaged provide the sort of adult leadership desperately needed in our world today.”

The principle we learn here is that God has to work in us before He can work through us.  It is much easier for us to grow in knowledge than to grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18). Learning about God’s truth and gaining head knowledge is one thing. Allowing him to transform our character is quite another. This is why, when suffering comes, we should not automatically pray that God will deliver us from it.  There is a “companionship” to suffering.

However painful, it can draw us closer to the Lord and to His people. So when suffering comes, first reflect on the person we serve. Remember what God is to you. Second, reflect on the purpose of service: Remember what God does through you. The third principle we learn about empathy here concerns,

  1. Perseverance in Serving: Remember what God does for you

3.1 God allows his children to suffer

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)

There are ten basic words for suffering in the Greek language, and Paul used five of them in this letter. The most frequently used word is thlipsis, which means “narrow, confined, under pressure,” and in this letter is translated ‘trouble’ (2 Cor. 1:4), ‘hardships’ (2 Cor. 1:8). Paul felt hemmed in by difficult circumstances, and the only way he could look was up. In 2 Corinthians 1:5-6, Paul specifically uses the word pathema, meaning “suffering,” which is also used to describe the sufferings of Jesus. We must never think that trouble or suffering is an accident. For the Christ follower, everything is a divine appointment. God allows his children to encounter suffering because troubles are inevitable in a fallen world.

3.2 God sustains his children through suffering

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9)

We do not know what the specific “trouble” was, but it was great enough to make Paul think he was going to die. It could have been the physical threats from his many enemies (see Acts 19:21ff; 1 Cor. 15:30-32), perhaps serious illness, or satanic attack. We do not know.
We do know that it forced Paul to rely on God even more.  He explains this more fully toward the end of this letter.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

God allows his children to experience suffering.
But God also sustains his children through suffering.

3.3 God delivers his children from suffering

“He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”
(2 Corinthians 1:10-11)

Paul saw God’s hand of deliverance whether he looked back, around, or ahead. The word Paul used means “to help out of distress, to save and protect.” God does not always deliver us immediately, nor in the same way. James was beheaded, yet Peter was delivered from prison (Acts 12). Both were delivered, but in different ways. Sometimes God delivers us from our trials, and at other times He delivers us in our trials. God’s deliverance was in response to Paul’s faith, as well as to the faith of praying people in Corinth (2 Cor. 1:11).  God delivers his children from suffering because troubles are temporary. Whether we live or die, God will deliver us from them.

God allows his children to experience suffering because troubles are inevitable. God also sustains his children through suffering because troubles are opportunities. God delivers his children from suffering because troubles are temporary. My first pastor was Ian Barclay. He was an inspirational preacher and caring pastor. He challenged me to become a pastor. He invited me to share in the family breakfasts. He often reminded us what his name meant to him. It spells i-a-n.  I am nothing. You are nothing. We are nothing. But the Lord Jesus is everything. When that gets written indelibly in our minds, we won’t try to be an angel. We’ll just be satisfied to be the least of the saints, the foremost of sinners. No longer orphans but the beloved adopted children of our heavenly Father, lost in wonder, love and praise. Tim Keller says, “You don’t really know Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have.”  The person we serve – remember what God is to you. The purpose of serving – remember what God does through you.  Perseverance in serving – remember what God does for you. Lets pray.


With grateful thanks to Warren Wersbie and his little commentary “Be Encouraged”, to Max Lucado and “The Devotional Bible”, to Charles Swindoll and his study “A Ministry Anyone Could Trust” and to Roy Clement’s commentary, “The Strength of Weakness” for much of the inspiration and content of this sermon.