Do we owe sympathy and gratitude?

This is a follow on to my article the other day about how we respond when leaders fall and fail. My article then was specifically focused on our response to Liz Truss’s fall from power. That’s the starting point today and so I want first to share a tweet from the Archbishop of Canterbury that has been attracting some attention.

Others have insisted that we should all be able to have sympathy for Liz Truss.

But I want to focus in today on the question of what we do owe to fallen/failed leaders.  This is important because we could so easily replace the Prime Minister’s name with so many others who have fallen terribly whilst in the public eye.  What about the victims of abusive leaders in the church. There is no doubt that those who have been publicly exposed for their sin have experienced shame, a loss of friendship, status, earnings etc.  We might say that they have suffered.  Should that produce sympathy on our part? Should victims be asked to show sympathy?

Well, I want to suggest that great compassion, mercy, forgiveness is possible with God’s grace when someone has wronged us and from that place it is possible to say that we do not want to see others suffering even though they have done us wrong.  I think Joseph is a great model of this when he sees the plight of his brothers during the famine. His desire to do good to them and his expression that God has used for good what they intended for evil models extreme grace. 

Our responses should be characterized by humility too.  We know that we are ourselves sinners and deserve judgement and shame but that it is by God’s grace we are saved. Christ has taken our guilt and shame on himself.  We can be tender towards the pain of others, even when it is self inflicted because we know what it means to carry pain ourselves. These things may enable us to empathise even with those we have reason to be angry at.

We should also guard our hearts against bitterness. That’s the greatest risk, that we hold on to our grievances and cultivate hatred on our souls.  Not only is this a wrong response in light of the Gospel commands to love and forgive even our enemies but it is ultimately self destructive.

However, I would urge caution at insisting that we owe gratitude and sympathy to others.  First because sympathy is an emotional response, it states how we feel about someone and whilst over time we want to teach and cultivate right emotions, we need to be sensitive (sympathetic even) to how different people will respond in the immediate moment -especially those most deeply affected.  I would not suggest that the victims of John Smyth owe him sympathy even if I hope and pray that they will be able to forgive.

Similarly, there is the question of gratitude. This seems to arise out of the view that these posts are extremely difficult and come with many challenges. We should appreciate that the person has sough to serve for the good of others. But that’s not really how gratitude works is it?  Gratitude is surely a right response to grace and kindness. We respond with gratitude when we receive things unexpected and undeserved. 

Should we show gratitude though when someone for their own benefit seeks a place of power and authority and then uses that position for their own benefit and to the detriment of ourselves and others?  Again, should the victim of the bullying church leader be grateful that at least that leader  was willing to have a go? What about the leader who is not specifically a bully but is so incompetent as to cause significant harm? Again, it seems an unusual expectation.

We do owe leaders respect and obedience when God places them in responsibility over us. That respect and obedience does not exclude a right and responsibility to challenge and question wrong actions, to remove those who are unfit or if that isn’t possible to seek safety away from them. 

Our gratitude is owed to God because he is the one from whom all good gifts come. He is the one who has showed underserved love and kindness to us.

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