The Gospel of Sympathy

Photo by Jasmine

Recently, The Gospel Coalition published an article by Andy Jones, an ordained preaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Jones’s article was entitled “3 Ways to Sympathize with Women Considering an Abortion,” in which he appeals to Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” From this passage, he argues that the Christian response to women considering abortion should be one of deep sympathy. He argues that in our efforts to help those women to preserve the life of the child, we need to establish an emotional connection that is understanding, caring, and seeks to meet their needs at the moment.

Let us first note that Jones has an understanding of what it is like to work with women considering abortion. As he notes in his article, he and his wife serve as volunteers in a local pregnancy center. His constant contact with women who find themselves in crisis over an unexpected pregnancy would give him a level of experience many of us may not encounter. There is little doubt he could describe the myriad of emotions these women feel and express. Furthermore, his recommendations would likely stem from the work he has done with these women and which has proven helpful at those times. It stands to reason that Jones writes, not as a cold, detached, ivory-tower theologian, but as one who has stood in the trenches and seen these issues up close. So, while we want to take some issue with how he has presented his case, we do not wish to mischaracterize his commitment or intentions.

Let’s Talk About Sympathy

In the opening of his article, Jones appeals to Hebrews 4:15 to describe Jesus as our sympathetic high priest who understands our weaknesses. He rightly acknowledges that while Christ does not overlook our weaknesses and sins, he does understand them. This same recognition can be found in John MacArthur’s Commentary on Hebrews where he writes, “When we are troubled or hurt or despondent or strongly tempted, we want to share our feeling and needs with someone who understands. Jesus can sympathize with our weakness.” There is great comfort in knowing we can turn to Christ—the Son of God who took on flesh and was tempted in all points human, yet without sin—who knows what trials we face in our temptations. There is no one better to whom we can turn to find peace and strength in such a time.

Yet, in Jones’s article, he appeals to that emotional connection as though the sympathy in and of itself is the most important aspect. He seems to argue that Jesus knows that our trials and temptations are just so hard for us and, therefore, that sympathy alone is what brings comfort and strength to overcome the desire to sin. This is problematic because it disconnects what Christ accomplished on our behalf. After all, he sympathizes with our weaknesses.

When we look to verse 16 of the same passage, we read, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.” What is it about Christ being our sympathetic high priest that gives us such access? Jesus, the perfect God-Man, took on humanity so that he would become our perfect representative before God the Father.

Richard D. Phillips in the Reformed Expository Commentary on Hebrews writes, “[Jesus] is not disinterested or cold to what you are going through; he came to this earth and took up or human nature precisely so that he might now be able to have fellow feeling with us. Therefore, he is eminently able to represent you before the throne of his heavenly Father, pleading your case, securing your place, and procuring the spiritual resources you need.” In other words, in Christ’s identification with us, and motivated by his love and sympathy for us, he became our representative before God, taking the wrath we ought to have endured. As our propitiation, Jesus obtained salvation for us and, as our high priest, he is ever before the Father interceding for us.

Jesus’s sympathy is not merely an emotional connection that makes us feel better because he’s been through the same things. His sympathy for our weakness led him to the cross to be punished for the sins we have committed, to die in our place, and to be buried, rising again to defeat sin and death. Because he has purchased eternal life for us, and because he stands ever before the Father for us, we can approach the throne of God. And when we approach, we do not come in fear, bearing the stain of sin which guarantees our condemnation. We approach boldly and with confidence because we have been set free from sin and we can seek the mercy and grace of our great God and King, giving us the power to overcome temptation and sin.

While Jones is correct that Christ does indeed sympathize with our weaknesses, it is much more than an emotional, feel-good, surface-level sympathy. It is a sympathy that goes to the core of the gospel, the very mission and purpose Christ had in this world. And that sympathy draws upon the saving power of God, which transforms us and makes it possible to overcome temptation. Therefore, when we speak of this sympathy, we cannot speak in such a shallow, emotional manner. Our sympathy must tie to the nature of the gospel itself.

Is it All About the Circumstances?

In addressing his first point on how to sympathize with women contemplating abortion, Jones refers to where Christ prays, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). Jones then claims that in this prayer, Christ is asking for the forgiveness of the soldiers crucifying him and that Jesus prayed this because he knew they “did not act in a vacuum. They were following commands from superiors.” Jones rightly does admit that this did not absolve the soldiers of their guilt, yet, he claims that Christ’s prayer points out that the soldiers were sinning because of the circumstances in which they found themselves.

Beside the fact that there is no indication that Jesus’s prayer was specifically for those soldiers in the text, there is also nothing in this passage that would indicate that Jesus’s prayer had anything to do with the circumstances of why the soldiers were crucifying him. It is far more likely, in context with the ministry of Christ, in his repeated warnings that the Jewish leaders rejected who he was, and of the constant reviling of the crowd who demanded signs to prove himself, that Christ was praying regarding their spiritual blindness. If they truly believed that he was who they said he was, they would not have sinned against him as they did.

In painting the picture that Jesus was sympathetic to the circumstances of the soldiers, Jones creates an emotionally ladened atmosphere where we feel sorry for them and understand why they may have sinned as they do. It is from this atmosphere that Jones then argues that in showing sympathy to abortion-minded mothers, we must consider their circumstances.

Jones then gives worst-case scenario examples of why a pregnant mother could be considering abortion: she could be homeless, living in her car; she might be a victim of abuse; or she could be facing shame from her family or church. In other words, we are called to immediately assume that the circumstances are driving the desire to consider abortion. He is saying that the murder of her child is indeed a sin, but we cannot assume she has sinful reasons. Like Jones assumes that maybe the soldiers have mitigating circumstances around their execution of Jesus, he demands that Christians, to be sympathetic, must assume there are circumstances pushing the mother toward the sin of abortion. And, because of this assumption, we are called to look for tangible solutions (housing, finances, healthcare) that can overcome the circumstances, thus preventing the abortion.

Such a response may seem sympathetic and kind; however, while perhaps unintentional, it actually misses the mark on the woman’s greatest need. First, Jones wants us to assume that non-sinful circumstances are the issue at hand. Yet, when viewed against the available statistics, financial motivations for abortion are one of the smaller reasons. In reality, most women seeking abortion are doing so merely as means of birth control. Rape and incest motivations are often less than 1%. And in a survey done by the Guttmacher Institute in 2004, only 23% of respondents indicated that finances motivated their choice to have an abortion. While Jones’s recommendation that the church seeks to find tangible ways to help women in crisis is laudable and useful, it ignores an even more pressing need.

Women who are seeking to abort their children are not only potentially going to sin, it is likely they have already sinned. Children are not conceived ex nihilo. They are a product of a sexual union between husband and wife. Given that the vast majority of women seeking abortions are unmarried (86%), these unions are not in the context of biblical marriages. Sex outside of God’s institution of marriage is called fornication, and it is a sin. Women (and men) engaged in fornication are sinning against God and His commandments. This is not a circumstantial issue, this is a sin issue.

Those women seeking abortions have a deeply spiritual issue that cannot be ignored. If we are genuinely sympathetic to a pregnant mother in crisis, then we cannot abdicate our responsibility to bring her to the cross of Christ to seek forgiveness for her sins (this means also that we must likewise be ministering to fornicating men who want no responsibility for the child, but that is another article). Even if a woman receives all the tangible resources she needs to circumvent abortion, if we do not minister to her soul, she will still stand in judgment for her sins. We must seek to minister to the heart as much as, if not more than providing for the tangible needs. Sympathy that neglects the spiritual is not genuine sympathy at all.

Sympathy that neglects the spiritual is not genuine sympathy at all.

Should We Avoid Shame at All Costs?

In his second point, Jones again refers to Jesus and the people with whom he was associated. He points out that Jesus was “a friend to people with shameful stories.” Using the examples of the woman at the well, the woman with an issue of blood, and a leprous man, Jones paints the picture of a Jesus who befriended those whose shameful stories caused them to live in isolation.

He then ties this matter of shame and isolation to the pregnant woman seeking an abortion. Rather than being able to announce such joyous news, she fears the shame she will feel in her circumstances. She seeks out help anonymously and hopes to cover the matter quietly so that no one will know. He calls upon the Christian to help women out of their sense of shame and point them to Christ who bore our shame.

In one sense, it is good that Jones refers to Christ bearing our shame on the cross. This is perhaps one of the better points he makes. However, it is almost a flyby, a gospel nugget that doesn’t quite address the question of why. Why does a woman feel shame? Why does she not want anyone to know? Why does she seek anonymity? And why, do we as Christians point her to the One who can bear her shame?

Remember, the woman’s pregnancy did not occur in a vacuum. In all likelihood, she engaged in a fornicative or adulterous relationship (see again the statistics that state 86% of abortive mothers are not married and fewer than 1% due to rape or incest). Shame over a sinful and illicit relationship makes sense when one considers that God has written his law on our conscience. We know when we sin. We don’t like the feeling that our conscience burns upon our hearts when we do it. And worst of all, we don’t like how it makes us feel when others find out about it. Shame is God’s alarm siren reminding us that we have rebelled against him who created us and we will stand before him to be judged one day. Shame, for all the bad feelings it brings, is a good thing. For it is by shame that we can be lead to the Cross.

Jones paints a picture of shame that assumes we Christians should avoid bringing shame upon the woman at all costs, that we ought to help her find a way to be free of the shame. Yet Christ had no problem exposing sin and bringing shame. In Matthew 4:17, we see his first public message was to call for repentance from sin. And the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11 was not only told, “Neither do I condemn you,” but also, “go, and from now on sin no more.” After healing a man and telling him to get up and walk, in John 5:14, Christ says, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” When the crowd asked Jesus about the tower of Siloam which fell and killed many people, Jesus in Luke 13:5 warns them “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And finally, concerning the woman at the well in John 4:17–18, Jesus tells her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.”

Jesus was no stranger to exposing sin, and he was not concerned about keeping his hearers from feeling shame. Rather, Christ exposed their sins repeatedly so that they might see their desperate need for a Savior. We equate shame with negative emotions. We fear letting ourselves or anyone else have such feelings. Yet, Scripture is replete with passages where shame brought sinners to their knees, worshiping God for his kindness and mercy. Shame can most certainly be used as a weapon, and those who do so should be rebuked sharply. But when used biblically, shame becomes a powerful tool to call the sinner to the One who indeed bears our shame.

We must also note there is another kind of shame, the shame a woman can feel when someone sins against her. When a woman is assaulted through rape or incest, when she bears no guilt for the act done against her, she can feel deep and utter shame. She can be traumatized and broken because of what was forced upon her and what was taken from her. That shame is not the shame brought by guilt from sin. It is emotional damage done by another. This kind of shame is where the church can come and bring comfort and peace, reminding the broken that the one who sinned against her will be just judged by a righteous God and that Christ will never leave or forsake her (if she is in Christ) no matter what was done to her. While this shame is not a good thing, it is where the church can truly turn mourning into joy.

Are We Sympathetic Sympathizers?

In the article’s conclusion, Jones returns to Jesus showing sympathy to those with whom he interacted. He points out that Christ showed this sympathy despite the sins of his own disciples. He uses examples of Peter, Thomas, James, and John to demonstrate this. Then he argues that the church must likewise show sympathy to those in its midst who are similarly “driven by wrong motives or pursuing wrong goals.”

Jones argues that in our churches that there will be women who have either had or are considering an abortion. He urges his readers to “walk patiently” with them and to show them sympathy as Jesus has shown us. He reminds the reader that “Jesus met us in our regret, sorrow, and shame, and he’s given us forgiveness, healing, and hope.”

With regard to just how Jesus was patient with his disciples, let us consider Jones’s examples: Jesus rebuked Peter, calling him Satan when Peter tried to insist that Jesus need not go to the cross (Matt 16:23); when Thomas doubted Christ’s resurrection, saying he would not believe unless he touched the wounds himself, Christ appeared and called Thomas to do exactly that (John 20:27); and when the disciples were angry with James and John over trying to seat themselves with Christ in Heaven, Jesus exposed all of their sinful ambitions by speaking to them about the godly use of authority as servants (Matt 20:25–28).

There is little question that Jesus indeed showed supernatural patience with twelve men who repeatedly sought to establish an earthly kingdom, who quarreled incessantly, who tried to drive off the very people Jesus came to minister to, and often tried to one-up each other in order to be Jesus’s right-hand man. Yet, Jesus had no qualms with not only exposing their sinful proclivities but using them as opportunities for rebuke and correction. If we are to be sympathetic and patient as Christ was, then we must also be willing to lovingly expose and correct sins within our pews. Sympathy and patience do not mean we gloss over what leads a woman to seek out an abortion. We do not pretend her actions (inasmuch where she is responsible) did not lead to her current circumstances. Likewise, we do not fail to address that what she is contemplating is a horrific sin before God.

In that loving, sympathetic patience, we lead her through the Word, counseling her as to what God has said, calling her to be obedient to the call to repentance, and pleading with her to trust in Christ alone with what is one of the most important decisions in her life. This may take much time, it may require ongoing contact and counseling, and we may need to provide as many tangible resources as we can to guide her into choosing life. But we cannot abdicate our responsibility to her spiritual well-being by a misguided desire to appear sympathetic.

Gospel Sympathy

Andy Jones genuinely wants to convince Christians to approach the matter of abortion with love, kindness, and sympathy. And there are moments within his article where specific practical applications are helpful. However, his overall approach reduces the sympathy of Christ to an emotional connection that is the primary mechanism that leads to avoiding sin.

Jones is correct that we have no greater Person who can sympathize with our weaknesses. But Christ’s sympathy is tied to his taking on humanity and living in a world of temptation without ever sinning. And it is that sinlessness as both God and Man that he becomes our propitiatory sacrifice by which we can receive forgiveness through repentance and faith. It is that place of forgiveness, through Christ, where we have access to the throne of grace. And because we have that access, we can receive godly counsel about our sins, we can repent of those sins, and by the mercy of God, we can learn to overcome the temptations which so easily best us.

Jones would have the reader seek to avoid the matter of sin and call to repentance, seeking rather to focus on the circumstances and the tangible needs which may be the justifications by which a woman seeks an abortion. Were the church to follow such a recommendation, it may appear to give an outward appearance of care, but it fails to address the most pressing need she faces, her spiritual and eternal needs.

As the church, Christians are uniquely equipped to address both spiritual and tangible. We ought to do one without neglecting the other. Jones’s approach is heavy on the tangible while giving token acknowledgment to the spiritual. While we might preserve some infant lives in this manner, we cannot break the cycle of abortion in this manner. The only answer to sin is the gospel. Only by being made a new creation does a person receive a new heart with new desires. Therefore, if we truly want to bring women out of the darkness that leads to infanticide, we must call them to repentance and faith in Christ, trusting in God alone for the supernatural transformation, and then leading them in obedience to his Word.

If you want to care for the woman contemplating abortion, then preach the gospel to her.

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Author Photo by Jasmine

Chris Hohnholz

Chris Hohnholz is the host of Voice of Reason Radio podcast and blog writer at He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from the University of Nevada, Reno. He lives in Fernley, Nevada with his wife and two sons. He is a member of Community Bible Church in Reno, Nevada and serves on the church Safety Team.