The apostle Paul was a man who was used powerfully by the Lord, both in word (1 Cor 2:4–5; 1 Thess 1:5) and in deed (Acts 19:11–12; Rom 15:18–19; 2 Cor 12:12) but he was also a practical man. As he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he gave very specific instructions regarding how Christians should live. He penned an extensive body of teachings to direct and, where necessary, correct believers in matters of everyday living. The Christian faith is after all a life, not just a list of beliefs that we intellectually accept. One of the passages in which Paul gives practical instructions is Romans 12:9–21. In this portion of Scripture he gave a number of directives. I would like to focus on just one. In Romans 12:15 Paul wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (NIV). His words are pretty straightforward; they do not require a lot of interpretation to understand.
As we begin our consideration of this verse I would like to point out two things. First, the words Paul wrote in this verse were directed to a church, the whole church in Rome (Rom 1:7). In some of Paul’s letters he addresses specific groups within the church, such as wives, husbands, children, slaves, and masters (Eph 5:22–6:9). This is not one of those texts. Neither is it a word only for the leadership of the church; Paul’s words here are for the whole church. Second, what Paul wrote is not a suggestion; it is a command. That being the case, it is not optional. These words are relevant to us as twenty-first century Christians.
In Romans 12:15 Paul is urging believers to join their brothers and sisters in Christ when they are in the extremes of life.
The instruction in this verse is to meet people where they are and to engage them in their experiences. As members of one body we are called to share in the joy and the sadness of our brothers and sisters in Christ. This sharing is helpful to the person who is experiencing the joy or the sorrow. Embracing this teaching is required, indeed it is Christ-like (and we should all want to be like Jesus), but it is sometimes easier said than done.
Human experience includes times of rejoicing, times of mourning, and everyday occurrences that we might call routine or mundane. The book of Ecclesiastes basically tells us this (3:1–8). Everyone experiences them, even the people of God. If you read through the book of Psalms you will find that those who wrote the psalms expressed both joy and sorrow. I am sure that all of us are familiar with these experiences; they are part of a normal human experience.
In Romans 12:15 Paul is urging believers to join their brothers and sisters in Christ when they are in the extremes of life, namely rejoicing and mourning. In the former case people want to share, because they have good news, and in the latter they need to share because they are burdened. When a burdened person shares, it somehow make the burden seem more bearable. The first step in obeying Paul’s admonition seems to be listening. We need to hear what is going on in another’s life. Other things may be required, but listening is a good place to start. What follows after we have heard what a person has to say depends on what the person shares. If a person is rejoicing your response may include: a hug, a handshake, laughter, expressing congratulations, or some type of party or celebration. On the other hand, if you are interacting with someone who is mourning appropriate responses might include: silence, tears, prayer, or acknowledging the grievousness of their circumstances. Please bear in mind that your obedience to this verse can involve either a short term or long term commitment.
The first step in obeying Paul’s admonition seems to be listening. We need to hear what is going on in another’s life
In addition to the time it takes to obey Paul’s words there are other challenges to obeying his directive in Romans 12:15. For example, rejoicing with one who rejoices may be difficult at times because the person is happy about receiving something that you want. Perhaps they received a promotion on their job or a new ministry position at church. You have wanted these things and have not as yet received them. That can be trying, especially if you have been waiting longer than they have, or you feel you are more deserving than they are. Or, ministering to a person who is mourning can be a challenge because you feel helpless; you know that you cannot do anything to help, fix, or change their situation. You don’t know what to say or what to do. You don’t feel as though you can do anything that will make a difference. Don’t underestimate what you are accomplishing, you may very well be making a difference just by obeying what Paul wrote. Another challenging situation is when you are in a time of mourning and you find yourself in a place where you are to rejoice with one who is rejoicing.
Everyone wants to be heard and no one wants to feel alone. Obeying Paul’s instruction can go a long way in helping the other members of the body; it shows support. And the truth be told, we will all, one day, need to be ministered to in the way that Paul says, whether it is the rejoicing part of the verse or the mourning part. Caring for one another in the ways Paul prescribed is one way in which we show love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. May God grant us grace to do this regardless of our own circumstances. And, may we obey Paul’s instructions regardless of our position in the church. We expect pastors and other church leaders to do these things but it is not for them alone. All Christians need to apply themselves to this ministry, it is part of the golden rule—treating others as we would like to be treated.