THE SYMPATHY OF CHRIST
by Octavius Winslow

Christ's Dependence on Human Sympathy

    Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. Matthew 26:38

    Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me." Matthew 26:38

    He told them, "My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and watch with me." Matthew 26:38

God has created us with a social nature, and its instincts prompt us to seek fellowship with our own. We can scarcely imagine an instance of the human traveling, in its depression and sadness, to the aid and sympathy of the angelic. There is nothing between the two natures affinitive and sympathetic. That these celestial beings are our ministering spirits, clustering around us, noiseless and invisible, each moment fulfilling some benevolent behest of God on our behalf, it is delightful to believe- but, to invoke an angel's sympathy, to cast ourselves upon an angel's compassion in a season of difficulty and sorrow, is conception that not only never enters into the human mind, but is foreign to all the instincts and yearnings of our nature. What an illustrious and impressive instance have we of this before us! Our Lord was now in the garden which lay at the foot of the Mount of Olives, just outside, and north of the holy city. He was in solitude and sorrow. His mental anguish, His spirit-grief, had now in reality begun. The "hour of darkness" had flung its first cold shadow upon His soul, and the cup, that must not pass undrank, now pressed His lips. Listen to His touching words, "my soul is exceeding sorrowful." And to whom, in this hour of unknown agony, of crushing grief, of overwhelming sorrow, does He turn? He is man- and to man He looks. He is human- and to the human He repairs. He is the Friend of man- and upon the friendship and sympathy of man He now casts Himself. "And he took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee." Favored men! honored disciples! And what did He ask of them? -their words? -their protestations of loyalty and friendship? Oh, no! But simply their quiet presence, their silent sympathy- "tarry you here and watch with me."
The discussion in the preceding pages renders it the less necessary that, in the present chapter, we enlarge at great length upon the soul-sorrow of Christ- the occasion of His present appeal to the sympathy of His disciples. It will suffice in brief terms to remark that it partook essentially of the sorrow which grew more intense and dark as He approached the goal of His passion. The cup was the same, but He had not reached its dregs. The physical element had not as yet been added- it was now all mental, all spiritual, all soul-sorrow. "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." The human soul undoubtedly was the seat of this agonising, exceeding grief. The Deity was unapproachable by suffering. Not a cloud shaded its glory, not a wavelet ruffled its repose. It was the human in Christ that now sorrowed, and in its sorrow turned piteously and beseechingly to the human for its sympathy. But in what light are we to view this "soul- sorrow even unto death" of our Lord? His soul was holy- He had never sinned- no atonement was needed for Himself. The answer is at hand- "But it was the Lord's good plan to crush him and fill him with grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have a multitude of children, many heirs. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord's plan will prosper in his hands. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of what he has experienced, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. Isaiah 53:10-11. His soul was now suffering for sin. This is the solution, this the explanation of what on other grounds could never be solved or explained. Christ was suffering as the sin-bearing, sin-atoning Substitute of His Church. For this the waters were rushing into His soul, and He was sinking in deep mire where there was no standing- into deep waters where the floods overflowed Him. He was now, by imputation, bearing the exceeding sinfulness and malignity of sin- the bitter, burning nature of Divine wrath on its account- the assaults of the powers of darkness- added to which was the withdrawment of all divine, sensible, and spiritual light and comfort from His soul. Beloved, behold your salvation! Your sins were on that sinless One! Your sorrow was sinking that holy soul! All this darkness and desertion was for you! He loved you, and He gave Himself for you! The simple, full belief of this will lift your soul above all sorrow, distress, and alarm for sin. The Divine Redeemer's soul bore all, absolved all, and exhausted all penal grief in the place and stead of His people. The punishment was His, because, by suretyship and transfer, the sin was His. He took our sins, and made Himself answerable to Divine justice on their account. Our sins being thus found upon Him by imputation, when Justice paused at the cross, she exacted from Him the full equivalent, inflicted upon Him the full penalty. Surely, a Divine and sinless Redeemer could only have met this demand! The sorrow, then, was His, the joy ours. Sin-distressed soul! look at the distress of Christ's soul, and be joyful. Never shall your soul be as His was, "sorrowful unto death." Yours is a sorrow unto "life." The burden of sin you now feel shall be as wings to your soul bearing it to Jesus; the grief for sin you now experience shall be the occasion of your deepest, holiest joy. There is everything in a soul-sorrowing Christ to impress with joy, gladness, and hope the soul-sorrowing sinner. The deep, fathomless grief of His holy soul utterly forbids, the existence of despair on account of sin in the heart of a truly awakened, sensible sinner. After such sorrow as the Savior experienced, the chief of sinners, stricken with godly penitence, may hope. Remembering His soul-travail, the sorrow unto death, do you think that when, by one touch of His hand, one word of His mouth, one glance of His eye, He can heal, assure, and save you, that He will repel your approach, reject your plea, and refuse to pardon and accept you? Oh no! Before you arrive at such a conclusion, you must ignore His sacrifice, and retard the story of His dying agonies, His soul-grief, His blood-shedding on the cross as mere fiction, a fable, and a myth. "It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief."
But we must keep in view the subject of our more immediate study- our Lord's appeal to the sympathy of His disciples in this the hour of His soul-sorrow. Nothing could afford a stronger proof than this that the human soul of our Lord was the seat of His grief. His humanity was suffering, and with all the instincts of humanity it turned for support to the human. "Tarry here and watch with me." Was it, we ask, incongruous that, suffering as man, for man, and, in a measure, from man, our Lord should throw Himself upon the affection, and sympathy, and compassion of man for a portion of the soothing which should soften and mitigate His grief? By no means. It was true to nature, to our nature, the very nature which still yearns in us for sympathy from its own. Let us take each particular of this marvellous incident in our Lord's closing life. From whom did He ask this sympathy? Was it from the world? Oh no! He had never received anything from the world but a thorn-crown and a cross! It flung no flowers on His path, beamed upon Him no smile, rent not the air with His acclaim; but, hating and despising Him, because He testified of it, that its works were evil; it maligned and traduced His character, then insulted, tortured, and put Him to death. Oh believer, do not love, do not imitate, do not identify yourself with a world which thus traduced and slew the Lord who bought you. But it was to His Church Christ turned for its holy watchings with Him in the hour of His soul-sorrow. It was to our renewed, sanctified, and redeemed nature- to His beloved disciples. None but the holy were admitted to share the loneliness, the solitude, the sorrow of that hour. He took with Him His chosen followers, His beloved apostles, a representative portion of His Church. In what a touching point of light does this present His love for, and clinging to, His people! That He should have admitted them to a confidence so sacred, to a sorrow so deep, to a scene so solemn, to a transaction so momentous- permitting them, in a sense, to share it, to sustain it, to sympathize with it- oh the marvellous love of Christ for His people! And still He permits us to have "fellowship with Him in His sufferings," and to feel the "power of His resurrection." If this be so, see that you cultivate a tender, holy sympathy with Christ in His soul-sorrow for your sins. And manifest that sympathy by vowing eternal hate to all sin, and in seeking its crucifixion by that very cross on which your Lord and Savior was crucified.
And what was the nature of the sympathy which our Lord now asked? "Tarry here, and watch with me." "Watch with me!" He was alone! The clouds were darkening, the sorrow was swelling, the foe was advancing, the cup was brimming; in that hour He felt the need of human sympathy- He flung Himself upon it- He asked it. "Watch with me." How touching His exquisite conception of the true, the soothing, and the delicate in real sympathy! He asks no cheering words, no visible sign, no interposing action- but simply and only their silent presence. This would relieve the dreariness of the scene, lighten the pressure of His load, and diffuse over His troubled spirit a measure of serenity and repose. To feel that they were near to Him- to know that, with unslumbering eyes, they were keeping solemn vigils- that their affections, their thoughts, and their sympathies, like holy sentinels, were hovering around Him on the spot where He lay prostrate in wrestling prayer- oh, this, this would be solacing and soothing; and His weary, yearning spirit asked it! Who can describe the power and the tranquillizing influence of a mute sympathy- the calm, quiet presence of a loving, gentle heart in the hour of grief and woe? And have we no need of fellow-watchers in our sorrow- the loving heart, the speaking eye, the unwearied patience, the silent sympathy? Surely, it is not weak to feel its need, nor sinful to ask its expression!
But how painful and sad was our Lord's disappointment! "And He came unto the disciples, and found them asleep, and said unto Peter, What, could you not watch with me one hour?" They were human, and but human; and
our Lord was now learning the uncertainty and frailty of human reliance in the dark and bitter hour of the soul's grief. It was a reproof- but, oh, how gentle! It was a rebuke- but, oh, how considerate! "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." The Lord Jesus is not only cognizant of our shortcomings, our frailties, failures in duty, in service, and in love, but He remembers that we are dust; He considers how limited are our powers, and how often our energies are overtasked and exhausted. The spirit with Him is everything, the flesh as nothing. And if He observes in us a loving heart, a willing mind, an honest intention of purpose, a ready spirit, He makes all allowance for the limit, the weariness, and the infirmities of the flesh, and graciously and condescendingly accepts, in our endeavors and strivings to serve Him, to watch with Him, and to glorify Him, the sincere desire of the will.
From this picture of our Lord's dependence upon human sympathy, we may gather much that is instructive and consolatory.
It is delightful to meet, among those already considered in this volume, yet another instance of the perfect identity of Christ's nature with ours. There is no wide chasm which separates Him from us. It is true, as we have again and again asserted, He was sinless; but as true, as we have again and again affirmed, that He was not the less human. His human nature, apart from our moral taint, was cast into the same mold as our own. It had all our social instincts, our sympathies, our sensitiveness, our cravings and yearnings for fellowship with its species. Let us, then, cultivate a closer intimacy with Christ in all our infirmities and sorrows, nor deem any weakness, or pressure, or craving of our nature too lowly and insignificant to bear to Him.
We have already remarked that it cannot involve either a charge of weakness or sin- our felt reliance upon the sympathy, compassion, and help of our fellow-Christians. What God has provided, cannot be wrong in the indulgence. It is He who gives us friends, forms our friendships, governs our affections, and unveils to us those deep founts of feeling and sympathy which well up from the human heart, and gush forth in a thousand warm streams of support, comfort, and soothing. The genius of Christianity, the nature of the gospel, the teachings and exhortations of Jesus, are all predicated upon the fact, that man is to help man, to strengthen man; that Christian is to support Christian, to weep with Christian; that brother is to love brother, to share a brother's sorrow, supply a brother's need, and bear a brother's burden; that sister is to sympathize with sister, shield her weakness, veil her frailty, and comfort her grief. If such, then, be the wise, the kind, the benevolent provision of God for the needs of our nature, surely it is not, it cannot be wrong to avail ourselves of it.
And yet the Lord may, to discipline us to a higher, purer, and surer reliance, dry up this source of sympathy on which we had too firmly and too fondly relied. We may look for it, when we had a right to expect it; ask it, when we had every hope of receiving it; and yet meet with the bitter disappointment our Lord experienced when He found His watchers in sorrow slumbering at their post. Human sympathy is not a thing we can either create or command. It is not controlled by the laws of force. We can neither inspire nor invoke it. It must flow naturally and spontaneously, or not at all. There may, therefore, be occasions and circumstances in which all sympathy is withheld from us- sympathy with our position, sympathy with out enterprises, sympathy with our grief; we may ask but for the "one hour's" sympathy, and ask in vain! And what is the lesson the Lord would thus teach us? Ever to look to a higher source than the human- to look to Himself. There is a strong natural inclination in us to lean too reliantly upon the human arm, and too fondly upon the human heart. We repair first to man before we go to God. We counsel in our perplexities with a human wisdom, before we seek the wisdom which comes from above. We go with our burden of grief to man's sympathy, before we take it to Christ's. Now the Lord would teach us that real strength, true consolation; pure, unmixed, sustaining sympathy; is found only in Himself.
"Man's wisdom is to seek
His strength in God alone;
And even an angel would be weak,
Who trusted in his own."
It is possible, we repeat, that your Lord should see proper- for the holiest, wisest, and most loving end- to withhold from you the reciprocated affection, the responsive sympathy, the close, sacred communion for which your heart yearns. May it not be that another and a sweeter channel should be opened, another and a holier object should be supplied- even Himself? Attempt not, then, to check those feelings, to suppress those yearnings, to veil those affections within the deep, lonely cloister of a morbid, self-consuming, wounded sensibility. Let them flow forth in unrestrained, unforbidden freedom, and rise to the source from where they came. The heart's crushed affections, and earth's beclouded hopes, in the hallowed experience of the believer, but go to bloom in a kindlier soil and shine beneath a brighter sky in heaven.
The need of 'creature' strength, and of 'human' sympathy, is only to be met by being brought into closer communion with the Invisible. The defect, the insufficiency, the failure of human friendship, human affection, human aid, and human sympathy only can be remedied and supplied by Jesus- the sufficiency, the fulness, the tenderness of whose grace, strength, and love can so fill the soul, so engage the heart that it shall not sigh for anything besides. Oh, with such a treasure so rich and so near- with such a Friend and Father so mighty, yet so compassionate, whatever your sorrows or your loneliness may be- forsaken and disappointed, wounded and deceived- the void is more than filled, the need is more than supplied by the infinite sufficiency and eternal sympathy of your incarnate God! Blessed result of disappointment in the human, to find one's self absorbed in the Divine!
"Who is alone, if God be near?
Who shall repine at loss of friends,
While he has One of boundless power,
Whose constant kindness never ends;
Whose presence felt enhances joy,
Whose love can stop the flowing tear,
And cause upon the darkest cloud
The pledge of mercy to appear."
And yet we must not forget that He who has provided this sweet spring of comfort and support- the affection and sympathy of a human heart- would not have us undervalue the precious gift. Our Lord Himself was not indifferent to it. He was not insensible to human sympathies. He loved man- He sought man's love, and He asked man's sympathy; and keen was the pang and bitter the disappointment when the friends and disciples He had chosen out of the world to be His companions and followers, forsook and failed Him in the hour of His adversity. Do not then, beloved, attempt to be wholly independent of your fellows; and do not regard with cold indifference and ingratitude, the tear that would flow with yours, or the hand kindly upraised to dry it. At the same time, do not be too reliant upon this reserve of human sympathy and compassion. If the Lord supplies it, receive it with gratitude, use it with moderation, and employ it for His glory. If He withholds it, it is but to bring you into the experience of something infinitely better- the deeper experience of Himself.
"Oh, ask not, hope not, too much of sympathy below;
Few are the hearts where one sure touch
Bids the sweet fountains flow;
Few- and, by still conflicting powers,
Forbidden here to meet;
Such ties would make this life of ours
Too fair for anything so fleet.
"Yet scorn you not, for this, the true
And steadfast love of years;
The kindly, who from childhood grew,
The faithful to your tears!
If there be one that, over the dead,
Has in your grief borne part;
And watched through sickness by your bed;
Call his a kindred heart." (Hemans)
But to what did Jesus resort when, sad and disappointed, He turned from this dried stream of human sympathy? He gave Himself again to prayer- He returned a third time to His Father. O blessed lesson He would thus teach us! We shall find in prayer, beloved, all, and infinitely more, that we sought, and failed to find, in the holy watchers around us. They, like the dear disciples in the garden, may grow weary- we may, in the moment of our deepest woe, find them unconscious of the throes and anguish of our spirit. Where shall we go? In prayer to our Father! Oh, the power, the solace, the charm of prayer! What magic influence it now had upon the Savior's troubled spirit! After He returns from His third appeal to His Father, He no more asks their sympathy- He had found all He needed in communion with God. The struggle was over- the conflict was past- His will and His Father's will were now perfectly one. He rose from the earth strengthened and solaced in His soul; a peace, like the calm of evening, stole over His spirit, and He went forth in dignity, energy, and repose to confront His betrayer and to meet His fate. "Sleep on now, and take your rest." It is the way, my reader, God, by human disappointments, impels us to prayer, and by prayer allures us to Himself. You have the same Father that Jesus had to go to in trouble. And when the creature-stream is dried, and human dependence fails, and the loving, tender sympathy upon which you had fondly relied becomes weary and exhausted by its watchings, the Fountain from where that stream flowed- God's all-sufficiency- remains as full and changeless as ever! The hour of agony, before this point is reached, may be long and dark. Not once, or twice, but thrice, you may journey with your soul-sorrow, your mental darkness, to the throne of grace before relief is felt; but the result, however agonizing and protracted the wrestling, will be glorious- "Your will, not mine be done!" -and a halcyon peace, a sunlight joy, and a giant's strength will bear you on to meet the crisis- to do, or to endure- to service, or to suffering- that your holy, wise, and loving Father has ordained. Go, then, your way, clasping the robe of Christ's full sympathy closer and firmer around you, girded and strengthened with all might by His presence and grace promised and pledged to His disciples, always, and in all circumstances, to the world's end.
"When gathering clouds around I view,
And days are dark, and friends are few,
On Him I lean, who, not in vain,
Experienced every human pain.
He sees my needs, allays my fears,
And counts and treasures up my tears.
"If aught should tempt my soul to stray
From heavenly wisdom's narrow way,
To fly the good I would pursue,
Or do the thing I would not do;
Still, He who felt temptation's power
Shall guard me in that dangerous hour.
"If 'wounded love' my bosom swell,
Deceived by those I prized too well,
He shall His pitying aid bestow,
Who felt on earth severer woe:
At once betrayed, denied, or fled,
By those who shared His daily bread.
"When vexing thoughts within me rise,
And, sore dismayed, my spirit dies;
Yet He who once vouchsafed to bear
The sickening anguish of despair,
Shall sweetly soothe, shall gently dry,
The throbbing heart, the streaming eye.
"When sorrowing over some stone I bend,
Which covers all that was a friend;
And from his hand, his voice, his smile,
Divides me for a little while,
You, Savior! see the tears I shed,
For you did weep over Lazarus dead.
"And oh, when I have safely past
Through every conflict but the last,
Still, still unchanging, watch beside!
My dying bed- for You have died;
Then point to realms of cloudless day.
And wipe the latest tear away!"