Rejoicing and Weeping
One of the most well-known passages of the Bible is Romans 12:15 – “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” It is a call to compassion; a call to share the emotions of others. The theme is similar to expressions in other religious traditions. Buddhists are told “A joy shared is twice a joy; a sorrow shared is half a sorrow.” The passage from Romans comes as part of a long series of ethical commands to the early church.
For the most part, I think we Christians, as well as non-Christians, are pretty good at this. My wife and I were at a wedding last week and we all rejoiced with the happy couple. Not long before, good friends of ours were grieving over the loss of her mother and we grieved with them. So this is one of the “easy” commands, isn’t it?
Not always. There are many circumstances like the ones above where it is easy; where we can feel the joy or sorrow and are drawn into it. But this is not always the case. Should I, as a Christian, rejoice with a same-sex couple who are obviously rejoicing on their wedding day? In the recent election, as the results came in and in the days after, we saw rejoicing among Trump supporters and weeping among Clinton supporters. Should I put my arm around them and rejoice or weep as needed?
It is easy to rejoice with people who are rejoicing about things we are pleased to share with them; weep with those who are weeping over things that cause us sorrow. It gets harder when our own internal compass points the opposite direction. Can we rejoice when we are sorrowing over the very same thing? Weep when our own feelings are joyous? Are we called to? Is this what Paul has in mind?
Most commonly, we simply ignore the command when it is not convenient; we simply don’t think about it. At other times we practice “restrained” joy/sorrow. We put qualifiers on our compassion. We tell the same-sex couple that “we are happy that they are happy but, of course…” and go on to explain why we are not really joyous. I strongly suspect this feels nothing like rejoicing with those who rejoice to the hearer.
A friend of mine has another “out.” He tells me this passage was to the church and about the church; to rejoice with or weep with unbelievers is optional and should only be invoked when their joy/sorrow is consistent with Christian teaching. He uses serial killers as an example. We obviously don’t share his joy in another killing. To him, every opportunity to join in someone’s joy or sorrow needs to pass a theological test.
But what about the election? As much we might like to think otherwise, none of us knew God’s mind on the election and I am pretty sure He was not rooting for one candidate or the other. Neither can we honestly apply my friend’s theological test to making the choice; we can’t make the case that either choice was the sinful or righteous one. There is no theological mandate or prohibition to guide us.
Even if we are sure of our own feelings does this mean we are free to only rejoice or sorrow if we agree? I don’t see a theological test in Paul’s writing. I don’t see how the command to “detest evil” a few verses before gives us an “out” to express love in sharing the emotions that others feel. Nor do I see a command that this joy/sorrow situation over-rides other passages.
Lately I’ve been coming to believe that, while the Word of God is a beautiful and amazing message in every respect, that we misuse it. What if God (and Paul) never intended this verse as specific instructions for each and every situation for all time? What if He intended to let us wrestle with how to honor Him and minister to others? On this Thanksgiving Day I will ponder whether there is anyone I know who needs me to share their joy or sorrow – even if I disagree.