Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.Never be conceited. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
I mentioned last time that one of the reasons you might not rejoice with those who rejoice or weep with those who weep (v. 15) is that you are glad they are weeping or mad that they are rejoicing. In other words, you are angry because of something they have done, and you want things to go bad for them. So if they do, you are glad. And if they don’t, you are mad.
We saw that this is the opposite of what verse 14 is calling for. “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.” God is calling you in this text to be a different kind of person. Not one who wants your adversary to have trouble, but one who wants your adversary to be blessed. And remember that this is radical inner change, not superficial external change. The issue is what you feel in your heart, not just what you do with your fists or your words. “Bless, don’t curse” means “from the heart want things to go well with them, both now and forever.”
Six More Reasons You Might Not Rejoice With Those Who Rejoice or Weep With Those Who Weep
I mentioned that there are other reasons you might not rejoice with those who rejoice or weep with those who weep and that I would talk about them today. So here are six other reasons. I’ll just list them and then talk about how the root problem leads into the rest of this text.
- We are too wrapped up in ourselves to rejoice or weep with others. We are so self-oriented that what is happening in the hearts of others has no effect on us.
- We feel above the emotional life of the ordinary person. Children laugh. Women cry. I’m a man. Or it doesn’t have to be male arrogance. It may be merely high-brow arrogance. To laugh with them or to cry with them would put me down on their level and I have a certain refined, aristocratic, high-culture status to preserve.
- We are hypercritical and our main reaction when we see emotion is to analyze it and point out its distortions or excesses or bad tendencies or shallow roots. So our hypercritical analytical heart keeps us emotionally at a distance and prevents our hearts from empathy with others.
- We are resentful or envious they have joy and we don’t. We feel gypped, passed over, given a raw deal. So envy makes it impossible for us to rejoice in their joy.
- We are simply the kind of personality that doesn’t have a discernable emotional life. We don’t rejoice or weep over anything. And so we don’t weep or rejoice with others. It may be owing to parents. Or to a traumatic experience. Or to some physical condition.
- We may be depressed and temporarily numb in our own emotions.
These last two have roots in sin, but are not more immediately sinful in the way the other four are. I think we should have more patience with those struggles of personality and depression than with the other four.
As I have tried to penetrate to the bottom of these four reasons for why we wouldn’t rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, it seems to me that the bottom is pride. The root cause of not being the kind of people who feel genuine empathy with the weeping and the rejoicing is pride.
Three Types of Prideful People
Pride has several forms. Consider three. They are increasingly blatant and they overlap.
First, there is the self-preoccupied person. This is the person who thinks continually about himself. He might be a self-effacing person, and so look in a way humble. But inside his cocoon all he is consumed with is thoughts about himself. He may not even like himself. But he is still the center of his attention. His self-hate has no power to produce humility, it just makes his pride pathetic and miserable. That is a subtle and deadly form of pride, and it doesn’t feel any outgoing empathy for those who weep and rejoice.
Second, there is the self-infatuated person. This person really does feel quite good about himself. He is not only occupied with himself, but likes being the center of his own attention and thinks others would probably like it as well. He may or may not be outgoing, but he finds himself entertaining or intelligent or handsome or shrewd and enjoys preening himself, even if nobody is impressed.
Third, there is the self-exalting person. This person goes beyond self-preoccupation and self-infatuation to active efforts to display his qualities. He does care if others see and admire. He wants praise.
None of these people will have a heart that freely and naturally goes out with joy to the joyful and with sorrow to the sorrowful. The last type of person—the self-exalter—may turn out to be a politician (in church or government or business) and learn that it is politically expedient to weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh. But we know the difference between the tears of an actor and the tears of a tender heart.
Two Possible Opposites of Pride
What is the opposite of this pride that kills sympathy and empathy and other-oriented joy and other-oriented sorrow? The opposite can be described in two ways. One, of course, is to call it humility. Humility would be not thinking of ourselves all the time. It would be not being infatuated with ourselves, but finding others interesting and even superior in many ways. Humility would be not exalting ourselves but loving to exalt others. That’s one way to describe the opposite of pride.
But there is a problem with that description of the alternative to pride. There’s not God in it. There’s no Christ in it. Strictly speaking, this humility is atheistic. The biblical, Christian alternative to pride is not natural humility, but faith in Jesus Christ, the creator and redeemer of the universe. The Christian alternative to self-preoccupation and self-infatuation and self-exaltation is Christ-preoccupation and Christ-infatuation and Christ-exaltation. The Christian alternative to thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to is faith—that is, turning away from self to Christ. Thinking much and thinking highly of Christ.
Why Faith Is the Alternative to Empathy-killing Pride
Let’s be more precise. The reason faith is the Christian alternative to empathy-killing pride is that faith is—is, this is the essence of faith, faith is—humbly resting in Christ. Faith is being self-forgettingly satisfied with Christ. Faith is turning from self to Christ as our all in all. So humility is not something merely added to faith—as fruit grown from faith—but humility is part of what faith is.
Let me say this even more radically and more universally. Without faith in Christ, there is not humility among men, but only pride. For this reason: If I cease be self-preoccupied and self-infatuated and self-exalting and become other-person-occupied and other-person-infatuated and other-person-exalting but don’t bring Christ into the picture, I am still locked in the prison of pride. Why? Because I am looking to other humans, beings like myself, for my joy, and not looking to Christ, my Maker and my God, and the one through whom and for whom all things exist (Colossians 1:16). There is only one word for humans who attempt to act humbly with no dependence upon their Creator and Redeemer and no desire that he get the glory. And that word is pride, no matter how other-oriented they appear.
So faith in Jesus Christ is not just the Christian, biblical alternative to pride. It is the only alternative to pride. Because Jesus Christ is the one and only Lord and Savior of the universe. If you were to ask Paul, “Why didn’t you say all this in verse 15, if faith in Christ is so central to humility?” I think he would say, “I spent 11 chapters of this letter laying a foundation of God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, Cross-commending, blood-soaked, Spirit-empowered faith as the root of all your righteousness. I cannot say it again every time I give another implication of how believers live. If Pastor John wants to do that, that’s his call.”
Paul’s Two-Pronged Attack on Pride in Verse 16
Now the reason I have spent all that time talking about pride as the root of our inability to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice is that verse 16 showed me that’s where Paul’s mind was going. Verse 16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.” So right next door to verse 15 is verse 16, and it is almost entirely about pride and humility. That’s why I have lingered over this root problem.
All I would add to what I have already drawn out of verse 16 is to point out that Paul attacks pride in two different ways here. He warns about pride’s attitude toward certain kinds of tasks and people. And he warns about pride’s attitude toward the self. The first pair of statements on pride in verse 16 are literally: “Don’t be high minded, but be carried away with lowly things or lowly tasks or lowly people.” I think the clearest illustration of what he means is: Don’t think changing a diaper is beneath you.1 Don’t think running an errand or typing a report or sweeping the floor or doing tasks that our culture may call menial or simple or lowbrow—don’t think that you are above them.
Rather Paul says, “Be carried away with the simple, the lowly, the ordinary, the tedious things, and with those who do them.” Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself and was carried away with the lowly and the simple role of a servant even to the point of death (cf. Philippians 2:5-8). To be a Christian is to become lowly in dependence on Christ, and in imitation of Christ.
Be Carried Away With Lowly Things and People (v. 16)
This phrase in verse 16, “but associate with the lowly,” is really jolting. Literally it is “be carried away with the lowly (things and people).” And the only other two places where the word “carried away with” is found is in Galatians 2:13, where Barnabas is “carried away with” Peter’s hypocrisy, and 2 Peter 3:17, where people are “carried away with” the error of lawlessness. In other words, Paul chose a word that would not only shock us, but underline how we need to be acted upon. We are not just choosing to associate with the lowly, we are we drawn. We are affected. We are moved. Something happens inside of us that sways us and carries us. This is what it means to be Christian. We don’t just make new choices. We are becoming new creatures. We are becoming Christlike from the inside out.
This transformation—this wonderful, freeing, Christ-dependent and Christ-exalting humility in verse 16—leads us to think not mainly about ourselves but about what is beautiful and honorable. And that brings us to verse 17. (I will come back in the coming weeks to the part of verse 16 that we passed over.)
Do What Is Morally Beautiful and Honorable in the Sight of All (v. 17)
But notice the second part of verse 17. After saying, “Repay no one evil for evil,” he says, “But give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” This is what the Christian does who is freed from self-preoccupation. He gives thought to honorable things. The word means morally beautiful, and therefore honorable. The Christian mind breaks free from the lowlands and smog and disease-ridden mists of self, and rises—sometimes even soars—into the bright, clear sky of beautiful things, and honorable things. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). That’s what the humble, free, Christ-dependent mind does.
When Paul says that we “give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all,” he doesn’t mean that fallen human beings become the final arbiter of Christian virtue: if they don’t like it, we don’t do it. That would be the ultimate sell-out. He used this same language in 2 Corinthians 8:21 where he said, “We aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord's sight but also in the sight of man.” In other words, the Lord is first. What he thinks matters most. But we hope and plan and pray that, as Jesus says, “men will see out beautiful works [same word as honorable here in Romans 5:17], and give glory to our father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The humble mind doesn’t delight to offend. It delights to win over. And so it gives thought to how both God and man might see something as beautiful and honorable.
If Possible, So Far as It Depends on You, Live Peaceably With All (v. 18)
And now you can see that we have arrived at the sober, cautious, measured, realistic word in verse 18 about making peace. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Christ-dependent, Christ-exalting humility does its best. It thinks about what is honorable in the sight of all. It rejoices with those who rejoice. It weeps with those who weep. It doesn’t repay evil for evil. It blesses those who persecute. It loves peace. But in the end, we can’t guarantee that there will be peace. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It may not be possible.
You may do all you can do in a family or in a small group or in a church or in a denomination or in a city or in a nation within the limits of truth and within the limits of what is “honorable,” but still not be able to make peace. Jesus, the prince of peace, said, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:51-52). The point here is not that peace is not precious or desired or to be sought. The point is that the truth of the gospel—the truth of Christ crucified and risen and reigning, and the necessity of faith in him—is more precious than human peace. The gospel creates peace with God. And the gospel creates lovers of humble peace and workers for peace. But the world that crucified Jesus Christ does not always want the peace that he offers.
Accept the Terms of Peace That Jesus Offers
I hope that you are not in that category. But if you are, I invite you and urge you to accept the terms of peace that Jesus offers. Jesus is the one true Son of God and Mediator between God and man. He is the only one who can give you peace with God. And when you have it, humility—the Christ-dependent, Christ-exalting humility—will put an end to self-preoccupation and self-infatuation and self-exaltation, and frees you to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep and to give thought for what is noble in the sight of all and to return good for evil and to bless those who persecute you. Oh, what a freedom when we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Come and accept his terms. Turn from self and trust the Savior. Amen.
1 See Martin Luther’s thoughts on the relationship between faith and changing diapers:
Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason ... , takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores ... ?”
What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight. ... God, with all his angels and creatures is smiling—not because the father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.
Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, 55 vols. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955-1973), 45:39-40.