Emotional Maturity | Romans 12:15-16
Brian Hedges | May 9, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles this morning to Romans 12 as we continue a series we began a few weeks ago called “Christianity Applied.” We’re looking at Romans 12-16 and at the application of the gospel to the Christian life.
Recent books and articles on psychology, leadership, and relationships have drawn a lot of attention to what is now called “emotional intelligence.” Most of us are familiar with the intelligence quotient, with IQ, but researchers now know that there are different kinds of intelligence. While people may vary in their IQ and their ability to solve abstract problems and things like that, they can also vary in emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence has been defined as “the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”
Now, you don’t have to be a Christian, of course, to see the need for emotional intelligence, or to develop it, for that matter. But Christianity should certainly transform us on the emotional and the relational level, and I would suggest that what we call emotional intelligence is in many ways just an outworking of the loving behaviors to which Scripture calls us. In fact, one Christian author I’ve been reading recently named Peter Scazzero has said that "there is no spiritual maturity without emotional maturity."
Let that sink in. There is no spiritual maturity without emotional maturity. In other words, as we mature as believers in Jesus Christ, one way that should be evident is in how we handle emotions and in the way we relate to one another on the emotional level. Certainly any claim to Christianity which leaves our emotions and behaviors unchanged is at best immature, and at worst it is a counterfeit of the real thing.
This morning we’re going to talk about emotional maturity in the body of Christ. Now, as we’re continuing our march through Romans 12, we need to remember the context. Paul here is writing to the Roman Christians. This is a church that is made up of diverse races, diverse social classes, a church in which there are the potential threats of disunity. He’s writing to them in light of the gospel, urging them to devote themselves to God in worship and devote themselves to one another in loving service; to live transformed lives of devotion to God and to one another, and to do this in response to the mercies of God which have been revealed in the gospel. In other words, this is all meant to be the outworking of the gospel in our lives as we live lives that are transformed.
Last week we looked at verses 9-13, and we saw that it’s a series of commands which begins with, “Let love be genuine.” As I pointed out, everything that Paul says following verse 9 can be viewed as a description of what genuine love is. One reason for thinking this is because all of Paul’s commands between Romans 12:9 and Romans 13:7 are framed by two exhortations to love. In fact, Romans 13:8 says, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
In other words, we could say that love summarizes and includes all other Christian duties and responsibilities. The law of Christ is the law of love, and therefore we should view verses 15-16 this morning as giving us further instructions on what it means to love one another. We’ll return to verse 14 and then verses 17-21 next week; those verses give us a focus on how to respond especially to those who are outside the church. But here in verses 15-16 I think the focus is especially on how we are to relate to one another on the emotional level and on a practical, relational level within the body of Christ.
Let’s begin by reading these two verses. They are short, but they are packed with practical instruction for us; Romans 12:15-16.
Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”
This is God’s word.
We can outline these two verses and this series of commands with three words. I’m drawing these words from John Stott’s commentary on Romans—but I also noticed that Alistair Begg used this for his outline on the sermon, so this is a well-worn outline! But these are three words that I think fit perfectly to Paul’s exhortations here. The words are sympathy, harmony, and humility.
Paul here is calling us to Christian sympathy (that’s verse 15), to Christian harmony or unity (the verse part of verse 16), and then to Christian humility (also verse 16). Let’s look at each one of these in turn.
First of all, sympathy. Verse 15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” This is a call to Christian sympathy, or, to use the more modern term, to empathy. Now, there’s a slight difference in the shades of meaning in those two terms, but in our context this morning either term will work. Sympathy means to share in the suffering or the feelings of another, and to empathize with someone is to enter into their experience, to enter into their feelings of emotion, whether joy or pain.
A great illustration of this, to geek out for just a minute, is from the science fiction series Star Trek. Do you remember in Star Trek when Spock, the Vulcan, would sometimes “mind meld” with somebody? You know, he puts his fingers on somebody’s face, and there’s a connection between the minds, and when that happens, not only do they share the same thoughts, but the experiences and emotions and pain of the other person just floods into the heart of the other. So it’s always a very traumatic experience when there’s this mind meld.
Now, of course, we can’t literally do that, but what Paul is calling us to is to enter into the experience of others; to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also to weep with those who weep. This really is an outworking of our relationships with one another in the body of Christ. Remember 1 Corinthians 12:26 says that “if one member suffers, all suffer together. If one member is honored, all rejoice together.” What Paul is calling us to here is to simply work that out in practice; to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.
Douglas Moo in his commentary says, “Love that is genuine will not respond to a believer’s joys with envy or bitterness, but will enter wholeheartedly into that same joy. Similarly, love that is genuine will bring us to identify so intimately with our brothers and sisters in Christ that their sorrows will become ours, too.”
To love others means we rejoice when they rejoice. This is the opposite of envy. Envy is one of the classic seven deadly sins. It was defined by Aquinas as “sorrow at another’s good.” Envy is when somebody else is rejoicing, instead of rejoicing with them, you feel sad that you don’t have the same blessings. Envy is the sin you commit when you scroll through your feed on Facebook, compare your family, your vacation, or you compare whatever fill-in-the-blank, with [that of] others, and you walk away less happy. That’s envy.
An essayist, Joseph Epstein, wrote a whole book on envy, and he writes, “‘Why does he have it and not I?’ That is the chief, perhaps the only, question for the envious.”
“Why them? Why did they get that house, that vacation, that job, that family? Why not me?” That’s what the envious person says. Paul is saying, “Don’t be like that! Don’t be envious; instead, when others are blessed, rejoice with them. Rejoice with those who rejoice.” Share in the joy and in the blessings of others; be glad for them, that they have this blessing, even if you yourself don’t have it.
Calvin in his commentary said, “Not to welcome a brother’s happiness with joy is a mark of envy, and not to grieve at his misfortune is inhumanity.” It’s inhumane, he says, not to weep with those who weep. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice, we are to weep with those who weep.
Here’s a simple illustration that will help. Think of any kind of tragic accident, maybe a pileup of cars in a motor accident on an interstate. When you have an accident like that, of course there are all kinds of things that will have to be looked at and investigated over time. There are all kinds of complexities that will involve police reports, perhaps legal investigations, insurance adjusters, and more, as people are trying to decide who was responsible, who’s going to pay for it; where’s the liability? But the most important thing immediately is to call 911, so that the first responders come and they help the people who are hurting. The first responders; what do they do? What’s their first priority? It is to alleviate suffering, it is to help those who are in immediate suffering and danger.
I would suggest to you that compassion and sympathy are first responders. They are meant to be the first responders among the virtues that we exercise in the body of Christ when people are suffering.
There are lots of ways we should apply this. First of all, in our ordinary relationships with one another in the body of Christ, when there is the everyday but often very painful suffering that others experience, our first response should be compassion. What do you do when you get the news that someone is getting divorced? What should be your first response? Not to analyze what’s happened in the marriage, but to put an arm on the shoulder and to say, “I’m sorry, and I’m praying with you, and I’m with you.”
What should be your response when you hear that someone has been diagnosed with cancer, or when you find out that an expectant couple is expecting a child that will have incredible birth defects that will lead to multiple surgeries, and the heartache of that? Or when someone has died?
These are experiences that I’ve had with people across the years, pastoral experience. I’ve been in the room when a husband has said, “I’m going to divorce you,” to his wife, and he walks out and leaves me and a small group of other people with this weeping, heartbroken woman. I’ve been there. I’ve been there when a couple has found out this terrible news about birth defects for their child.
What is our response in that moment? It’s not to theologize, it’s not to give them a theology of suffering, it’s not to start telling them about our own experiences; it’s to be silent, to put a hand on the shoulder, and to cry. To weep with those who weep. That’s where the compassion comes in, and that’s what Paul is calling us to here.
Another application of this would be to the persecuted church. We don’t think a lot about the persecuted church, but we should, and Scripture, indeed, commands this. Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” It’s the same application. They’re in the body, you’re in the body, here are members who are suffering; remember them. Remember them and care for them, weep with them.
According to the ministry Open Doors, 4,761 Christians were put to death last year for their faith. Persecution is on the rise. A staggering 260 million Christians are in the top 50 countries on the world watch list from Open Doors and face high or extreme levels of persecution for their faith. Last year it was 245 million, so the urgency and the severity of this is going up. Forty-five countries have been designated extreme or very high in terms of the levels of persecution Christians face. That’s more than in 2020.
More Christians, more believers in the world are suffering for their faith than perhaps ever before. Are we even aware? That’s the first step, is awareness, and then compassion and sympathy and prayer, weeping with those who weep.
Here’s one other application of this, and it’s to the whole issue of racial reconciliation. We live, of course, in a country that is right now, probably, more racially divided than we have been in several decades. While there is a place for cultural analysis and developing a biblical theology of race and of justice—and all those things are important as we try to understand, “Why is this happening? What’s going on? Who’s responsible?”—the first response when our minority brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering and in pain, our first response should be to weep with those who weep. It should be a response of compassion and of sympathy.
I have a good friend named Mark Vroegop who’s a pastor down in Indianapolis. He pastors College Park Church. Mark has written a wonderful book called Weep with Me: How Lament Opens the Door for Racial Reconciliation. I highly recommend it; it’s on our book table. In the book, Mark defines empathy as “the ability or willingness to understand or care.” He applies the whole theology of lament in Scripture to the issue of racial reconciliation. It’s beautifully done, but one of the most beautiful things about this book is how he tells the story of College Park Church in Indianapolis, which is very large and a multi-ethnic church now. By practicing lament and by digging deep into these issues, they have seen a remarkable racial reconciliation and increased understanding between ethnic groups in their church, as they have entered this process. It’s a wonderful challenge for us. We need to learn how to weep with those who weep, and when things are going on in our culture and we may not understand all the reasons, or we may interpret it one way while others interpret it another, our first response should be to simply reach out and to say, “I’m praying for you and I feel for you. I know that this is painful for you, and I am with you.”
There’s an old hymn, "Blest Be the Tie that Binds," that Christians used to sing often. I grew up singing this song. There’s a wonderful couple of verses that I think describe well the kind of heart that we should have for one another in the body of Christ. It goes like this:
“Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts and our cares.
“We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.”
We bear these burdens together. Sympathy in the body of Christ. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Secondly, there’s a call here not only to sympathy, but to harmony. Look at verse 16, the first part of the verse. Paul says, “Live in harmony with one another.” Literally, he says, “Have the same mind towards one another.” It’s similar to the thought we’ve already seen in Romans 12:3, where Paul says, “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober thinking.” It’s a call to a certain mindset, to commonality in thinking. This is thinking towards one another. It’s the same idea that you have in Philippians 2: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind.”
David Peterson says, “This calls for a common care and consideration of others rather than a uniformity of thought on every issue.” It’s a call to unity.
Paul will return to this once again in Romans 15. After spending a full chapter talking about these secondary issues that can be potentially divisive in the body of Christ, where you have some with a strong conscience, some with a weak conscience; some are judging others, some are condemning others; Paul is calling them to love one another, to welcome one another. In Romans 15:5-6 he says, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therefore this is a call to unity in the church.
Now listen, Christian. In John 10 Jesus tells us that one of the reasons he died was to make his church one. “I am the good shepherd. I will lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
In John 17, Jesus is praying the night before his crucifixion. These are the final things that are on his mind as he pours out his heart to the Father. One of the things he prays for in John 17 is for the church, for the believers to be one, to be perfectly one, he says, “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Here in Romans 12 and in many other places in Scripture, Paul, as the mouthpiece of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ, commands us to be of the same mind, maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace, as he says in Ephesians 4.
So, Jesus died for the unity of the church, he prays for the unity of the church, and he commands of the unity of the church; which means that if we are indifferent and apathetic to unity of the church on both the local level as well as the church at large, if we are indifferent to that, then we are indifferent to the goal of Jesus’ death, the focus of his prayer, and the exhortation of his word.
What does it mean, then? What does it mean for us to be united? What does it mean to live in harmony with one another? It certainly doesn’t mean that we agree on every single issue, but it does mean that we prioritize our unity in the gospel and in Jesus Christ above the other things that could divide.
An NFL football coach one time said, “The players that play on this football team play for the name on the side of the helmet, not the name on the back of the jersey.” I think that serves as a good metaphor for Christian unity. We are on the team for Jesus, not our own team and not our own team.
To take Paul’s language from 1 Corinthians, this means that we should not be dividing into factions, where one says, “I’m of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” “I am of Cephas or Peter.” In our contemporary context, we should not divide into factions. You should not be thinking, I should not be thinking in this way: “I am of John MacArthur,” or, “I am of John Piper,” or, “I am of David Platt,” or pick whoever your favorite preacher is. That’s the wrong way to think. We don’t divide into tribes. We belong to one Lord, one master, Jesus Christ; he died for us, he was raised for us. We are baptized into his name, and we will give an account to him. He is the Lord, no one else.
Therefore, we must unite together in the name of Jesus Christ. One way we do that is by placing gospel convictions before the secondary issues. I love the saying that’s been often attributed to St. Augustine: “In the essentials unity, in the nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.” That’s a good word. That’s a good motto for us.
It also means that we should place the good and the wellbeing of others ahead of our own interests. This is, of course, the very motive of servanthood, that we look not after our own interests but we look out for the interests of others. We should be thinking in our hearts and in our minds, “Their needs are more important than mine, and therefore I will subjugate my needs, my preferences to that of others.”
I really do think the ESV translation here is helpful: “Live in harmony with one another.” Harmony is a musical word, right? It’s a musical term. You’ve all experienced this. If you’ve ever gone to the symphony, for example, what’s the very first thing that all the instruments, all the musicians in the orchestra are going to do? They’re going to all tune their instruments together, right? When the oboe plays that first note, they tune their instruments so that they’re all in the same key, so that they are playing in harmony together. Now they’re playing different instruments and they’re playing different notes; there’s not uniformity. It’s not that they’re all playing the same melodious line, but they’re playing in the same key signature, and therefore there’s harmony in the music.
In the same way, the body of Christ is not to be marked by uniformity. We’re not all exactly the same, but we are all to live in the key signature of the gospel, which means that because of Jesus Christ and our oneness in Jesus Christ we love one another and we prioritize unity in the church.
Paul calls us to sympathy, he calls us to harmony, and then thirdly (I’ve already anticipated it), he calls us to humility. Look at the rest of verse 16. It says, “Do not be haughty—” that word means to be exalted or to be uplifted. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight,” perhaps a quotation from Proverbs 3:7, “Be not wise in your own eyes.”
It’s a call to avoid pride—do not be exalted in your own eyes—and it’s a call to lowliness and humility. This could refer either to lowly tasks; if the word here is neuter it would mean, “Devote yourself to lowly tasks,” to servanthood. Or it could be, if the word here is masculine, it could be lowly people, so associate yourself with lowly people. Not the rich and the famous, but the poor, the outcast, the marginalized of society.
Either way, it is a call to humility versus pride. What is pride? Pride has been well-defined (this is from Neil Plantinga) as “a blend of self-absorption [that’s narcissism] with an overestimate of one’s abilities or worth [that’s conceit]. A proud person is someone who thinks a lot about herself and also thinks a lot of herself." That’s a good definition of pride. Pride is thinking much about yourself and thinking much of yourself. It’s what Paul calls being wise in your own eyes.
Let’s make this practical. How would this manifest in your life? If you commonly think of yourself as the smartest person in the room, that would be an indication of pride. If you think that you are the most spiritual person, or more spiritual than other people, kind of a “holier than thou” attitude, that would be a mark of pride. Or if you think of yourself as more humble than others. You know you’re not more spiritual than others, you know you’re not more righteous than others, you have a low opinion of yourself, and you remind yourself of that often. That could also be a mark of pride.
Did you ever hear the joke about the person who was awarded a humility award in the church? And then the church had to take it away because he kept wearing it everywhere!
Pride is a subtle thing. I remember years ago hearing my dad, who was a pastor, preach a sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18. You remember the story? Two men go to the temple to pray, and the Pharisee is praying with himself, and he’s essentially just thanking God, you know, for how great he is. “Lord, I thank you that I’m not as other men are. I tithe of all I possess, I fast twice a week. I’m not an adulterer. Thank you that I’m not like this tax collector over here.”
The tax collector, in contrast, cannot even lift his eyes up to heaven. He’s beating on his chest and he is crying out simply, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I remember my dad preached a sermon that. That day after church, some of the men in the church were out on the front porch, and they were talking, and one of the deacons of the church said to my dad, “Brother Ronnie, I sure am glad I’m not like that Pharisee!”
I was standing there thinking, “He missed the whole point of the sermon! He’s so proud, he’s missing the whole point of the sermon!”
You know what? I was standing there thanking God that I was not like that deacon. I didn’t realize what I was doing, but I was doing the same thing. That’s how subtle pride can be. You become proud even when you think you’re being humble.
The best we can do is just try to diagnose, and I’ll suggest some diagnostic questions to you. These are from Jared Wilson’s book The Seven Daily Sins. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you struggle often with impatience or short temper?
- Is it common for others to charge you with being too defensive? In other words, are you easy to entreat, easy to correct, or do your defenses come up as soon as someone confronts you? It’s a sign of pride.
- Do you have a reputation for being thin-skinned or too sensitive?
- Are you easy to offend?
- Do you spend a lot of time worrying about what others think about you, obsessed with your image or your reputation or the opinion of others?
- Or, in contrast to that, do you not care what others think of you, so much that it causes you to be ungentle with people and insensitive to them?
- Do you have trouble making friends? Is your understanding of that that it’s everybody else’s fault?
- Is it difficult for you to let it go when your accomplishments are not recognized or when you are not congratulated?
These are all signs of pride, and I think all of us have to examine ourselves.
Paul is calling us here to not be wise in our own eyes, to not be conceited, to not be arrogant, to not think too highly of ourselves, but instead to associate with the lowly. Do you remember that Jesus’s way of describing himself in Matthew 11, when he says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Come to me, take my yoke upon you—” do you remember how he describes himself? He says, “Come to me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” Jesus is gentle and lowly, and we are called to be gentle and lowly as well.
These are the commands: sympathy, harmony, humility. The gospel gives us both obligations, it gives us commands, but the wonderful thing about the gospel is it also gives us motivation. I want to end by just thinking for a few minutes about motivations for obeying and applying these commands. In fact, I would say that the very power we have for applying these things to our lives is when we see how Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of them.
Think about humility. Think about Christ’s incarnate humility. Do you remember Philippians 2? I’ve preached on this, referred to it often, even in this series. In Philippians 2 Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he [humbled himself],” he took on the form of a servant, and he became “obedient to death, even death on the cross.”
What Paul is saying is, “Have the mind of Christ, and the mind of Christ is a humble mind,” and the ultimate expression and example of that humility is Jesus Christ in his incarnate humility. Our prayers should be that of the hymn writer:
“May the mind of Christ my Savior
Live in me from day to day,
By his love and power controlling
All I do and say.”
If you and I are not humble, if we do not have the mind of Christ, we have forgotten the gospel, we’ve forgotten Jesus Christ and in incarnate humility, we’ve forgotten his example.
Then a motivation for unity is, of course, Christ’s prayer for unity. I’ve already mentioned it, John 17. He prayed for the church to be one. Listen, it grieves him when he sees churches dividing. It grieves him when he sees division in the body of Christ. It grieves him when he sees bickering and backbiting and gossiping and slander, and therefore we should pursue unity, knowing this is what Christ has prayed for.
Then finally, consider Christ’s priestly sympathy, his sympathy as our high priest. We’ve already read it in our assurance this morning, Hebrews 4:14-16. We read of Jesus Christ, who is our great high priest, he is the Son of God who has passed through the heavens. The writer says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every point as we are, yet without sin.” Christ sympathizes with us in our weakness. Why? Because he literally entered into our experience. He literally entered into the human experience, and he took upon himself human experience, not just taking on a human body, but also the full experience of human emotion. Jesus understands, and he is the great example of sympathy.
In the 19th century there was an evangelical pastor-preacher named Octavius Winslow, and he wrote an entire book called The Sympathies of Christ. This is a beautiful book, and he looks in that book as Christ’s sympathy with suffering and grief, shame, temptation, and more. In his chapter on Christ’s sympathy with the tempted, he talks about the temptations of Christ, and how Jesus, when he was tempted in the wilderness, was tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple. Remember this? He shows that this was a temptation to self-destruction, to suicide. It’s the darkest of all temptations, and Christ himself was tempted to do this.
Winslow applies this to the believer who is also tempted to self-destruction. This is what he says. “O what a soothing reflection is this! The Son of God, my Savior, was tempted to self-destruction, even as I am. Then will he desert me in this hour of my weakness? Will he leave me to combat the tempter alone? Will he not assist me by his grace, aid me with his strength, comfort me with his love, soothe me with his sympathy, and deliver me by his great power? Most assuredly he will. He has trodden this very path himself. He has been assailed by this very foe and with this very temptation, and will he not support me as no other being does, as no other being can? O sweetest assault that opens to me the heart of Jesus, into which I run, and am shielded by its power, soothed by its sympathy, and am lost in its love. Then I will look to Jesus, cling to Jesus, trust in Jesus, who knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation, and who will deliver me.”
Brother and sister, what I want you to know this morning is that whatever you’re suffering and wherever you are, whatever you’re going through in life right now, you can look to Jesus, the sympathetic high priest, who knows what you’ve experienced, who understands your grief, your sorrows, your pain, and who sympathizes with you in your weakness.
But if we have such a great Savior who sympathizes with us, should we not then extend that same sympathy to others as we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep? A call to sympathy, a call to harmony, a call to humility. This is part of what it means to love one another as we grow into emotional maturity in the body of Christ. Let’s pray together.
Gracious, merciful God, we thank you for Jesus, your Son, our high priest. We thank you for his sympathy with our weakness, and that Christ knows and understands us more fully than we understand ourselves. Thank you for the hope that this gives us, and thank you for the model and example it is for us to extend that same love to others.
My prayer, Father, this morning is that you would take the truth and the instruction, the commands of your word, and that you would apply them deeply to our hearts. Help us, Lord, to examine ourselves, our own emotions, our behaviors, our attitudes, the way we relate to others, and Lord, give us this morning repentance—repentance from envy, repentance from indifference and apathy, lack of compassion for others, repentance for divisiveness, repentance for arrogance and pride. Help us instead, Lord, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our humble and sympathetic gentle Savior. Help us to be more like him, and may we be deeply motivated to pursue this kind of life because of what Christ our Savior has done for us.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, may we come viewing these emblems, the bread and the juice, as the emblems of Christ’s sacrifice for us. May we see in these emblems the suffering of our Savior, and may we, as we take these elements into our bodies, may we by faith take hold of Jesus Christ and be nourished and strengthened in our hearts. Draw near to us, we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.