We don’t need to suffer from an illness or a disease to feel at least some of the pain of it. For example, if we see a blind person, we pause, we think about what it must be like to have no sight, we imagine their life, and, to some degree, we feel the pain of blindness.
Same thing happens when we see a veteran with no legs. If we pause long enough to run that experience through our minds, our hearts register pain. That’s called sympathy, which is literally “suffering alongside someone.”
Sympathy is the second way that Christ experienced the pain of illness and disease, though he was never ill or diseased (see yesterday’s post). His sympathy with suffering produced suffering through sympathy.
By sympathy, another’s bodily sufferings became his mental, emotional, and spiritual sufferings. “In all their afflictions, he was afflicted” (lsa. 63:9). He experienced their pain and sorrow without experiencing their sickness and disease. He could truly say to every sick person, “I feel your pain.” Thomas Goodwin explained:
By sympathy and pity he afflicted himself with their sickness as if it had been his own…Through a fellow-feeling of it, He took it off from them, being for them afflicted as if He himself had been sick.
Indeed, we can go further and say that he felt more pain than the sick and diseased because he had perfect humanity and therefore a better understanding of the medical problem and heightened sensitivity to the agonies of it.
To illustrate, think of a mother in a doctor’s office with her four-year-old daughter when the doctor breaks the news that the little girl has cancer. The girl had no understanding of this and continues playing on the floor with her toys. The mother feels the pain of cancer so much more due to her maturity and experience. The same thing will happen throughout the surgery, radiation, and chemo. Though the child will suffer some pain, the mother will suffer more pain.
Christ was an expert sympathizer. People detected his compassion and pity and were drawn to him. They could see that he entered into their sufferings and sorrows as no one else did. He thus qualifies to be a merciful and faithful high priest (Heb. 4:14; 5:2).
Christ’s sufferings through sympathy were not wasted sufferings. They were part of his atoning work. When he saw suffering, he suffered “a little Calvary” in his mind and heart, pains that were part of his curse-bearing life and offered up to his father as substitutionary sufferings for his people.
Like all sympathy, Christ’s was exhausting. His sighs and groans in the face of human pain expressed the drain of virtue that exited his being and weakened him. Spurgeon explained:
I can say from personal experience, that I know of nothing that wears the soul down so fast as the outflow of sincere sympathy with the sorrowing, desponding, depressed ones. I have sometimes been the means in God’s hand of helping a man who suffered with a desponding spirit; but the help I have rendered has cost me dearly. Hours after, I have been myself depressed, and I have felt an inability to shake it off. You and I have not a thousandth-part of the sympathy that was in Christ.
Yesterday we saw how Christ’s experience of sinless infirmities brought him near to the weak and weary, drawing us to him. Today, we’ve noticed a further drawing power in his perfect pity, his sensitive sympathy, by which he felt more pain by sympathy than the sufferer felt by the actual disease or illness.