There is nothing quite like entering into the helping profession that makes one staggeringly aware of how ill-equipped they are at being an effective helper. As I sat in my first semester of graduate counseling classes at Midwestern Seminary in the spring of 2015, it dawned on me for the first time in my life that many of my so-called “helping tendencies” were actually quite harmful. This was not exactly a comforting realization for a perfectionist who prided herself in her abilities to “help” others.
It was through my educational experiences at Midwestern Seminary that the Lord began to humble me and by the Spirit revealed to me how my helping efforts were falling short of the edifying practice of empathy. In His kindness, the Spirit slowly uncovered subtle signs of self-exaltation within myself in which I unintentionally used the pain and suffering of others to esteem myself instead of edifying others.
Our world is currently facing an unprecedented challenge to unity and compassion unlike anything we have ever experienced due to the COVID-19 crisis. In a time when our neighbors need empathy the most, we often find ourselves experiencing an immense amount of pressure that makes engaging with others from a fleshly, sinful place a very easy thing to do. However, it is imperative that believers recognize the significant opportunity before us to demonstrate the love of Jesus to a hurting world.
Even in our best efforts to display this love, we often find ourselves struggling with the practical outpouring of empathy in our day to day lives. We may deeply desire to show empathy towards others but find ourselves lost as to what that looks like. We may be well-intentioned in our efforts but find ourselves stumbling in our relationships, many times unbeknownst to us.
I share these six signs with you as they have served me well in my ongoing journey to grow in the grace of empathy. My sincere hope and prayer is that these signs, signs I learned the hard way during my time at MBTS, will serve both as an encouragement and an honest self-reflection for us all, myself included, as we navigate the challenging days ahead.
1. We only give empathy when it’s convenient for us.
The truth of the matter is that if we are doing empathy right, it will cost us in some way, shape, or form. It will cost us energy, time, emotional stability, comfort, and so many other conveniences. Empathy by nature is inconvenient because it demands that we step out of our own world and into the world of another human. And if we are honest with ourselves, many times we simply do not want to pay the price of stepping out of our own world.
In the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, it is clear who had empathy for the beaten, broken, and nearly dead man on the side of the road and who did not. It was the Good Samaritan who was joyous in inconveniencing himself in order to “love his neighbor.” This passage leaves no room for doubt that it was the Good Samaritan’s compassion and empathy that moved him to take action.
2. When the other person offends us or makes a mistake, we withhold empathy.
We have all heard horror stories about people turning their backs on friends at times when they were needed most. We are very willing to be empathetic until we are confronted with human messiness and sin. It is at this point where many times empathy tends to go out the window.
The hard truth that rises to the surface is that without empathy, we are not capable of extending the Gospel, the very thing a struggling person needs. Additionally, it is sinful to have received the compassion that Christ offered to us on the cross and with our next breath, withhold it from the person that stands in opposition to us.
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person — though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
3. We look for opportunities to “educate” the other person in the conversation.
If we are looking for opportunities to assert ourselves as an expert or a guide, we are likely not expressing empathy but arrogance. Empathy is not an avenue to exalt ourselves but a road on which we die to ourselves in service of our neighbor.
Be watchful, my friend, as pride does not always show up in bright, flashy colors but in the shadows where we least expect it. In an effort to display our “Christlike humility”, we sometimes use empathy as a tool to draw attention to ourselves. Without realizing it, we exalt ourselves at the expense of another.
The Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50 lacked empathy as he sought to educate Jesus on the sinfulness of the woman who poured perfume on His feet. However, this Pharisee missed the point because he was too intent on exalting himself and too focused on his religious assessment of this sinful woman to see her deep need for empathy.
4. We try to fix the problem instead of listening intently for how the person feels.
If we are giving another person a how-to guide in order to fix the issue they are facing, we have completely missed the point of empathy. Attempting to fix the situation is not empathy and oftentimes leads to foolish speech as we have not really heard or understood the other person in order to actually be helpful in any way.
Empathy is being willing to sit in the pain and suffering of another person without trying to change it, lighten it, get rid of it, fix it, or drown it out. It is a total and complete invitation to the other to experience the moment of pain with an inward trust and acknowledgment that God can hold this person through the pain and see them to the other side, even if the other side is heaven itself.
John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”, is famously known as being the shortest verse in the Bible. This verse is certainly not short in depth of meaning. There are many practical implications that result from Christ’s behavior in this verse. It implies that feeling the emotions of others is enough. It points to the sufficiency of joining in the suffering of others and experiencing their pain within yourself. Empathy is not by any means a “cop-out”. It requires great strength to allow a moment of suffering to be just that…suffering.
5. We turn someone else’s vulnerability into an opportunity to draw attention to ourselves.
Empathy is not about us. To be empathetic is to sit in the seat of another human and look at the world through their eyes. This requires that we abandon any efforts to put the spotlight back on ourselves.
We have all been in a conversation with someone at one point in our lives where we have poured out our suffering hearts only to be told that they know just how we feel because their grandmother’s neighbor’s pet gerbil experienced the same thing. This is not empathy my friends.
Empathy seeks to understand the suffering of the person in front of us not in an effort to play the comparison game with our own stories of suffering. It is clear from Scripture that when our efforts to “do good” are motivated by a desire to be noticed and seen by others, that the “good” we have done is distasteful to our holy God (Mt 6:1-8; Mt 6:16-18; Mt 23:1-7). Therefore, if our attempts to extend empathy are driven by a desire to draw attention to ourselves, we are missing the point of empathy.
6. We are not willing to challenge our own beliefs, assumptions, or convictions in hearing another’s story.
I truly believe that a large reason why empathy is immensely difficult for many of us is that in order to do it well it would require a certain amount of risk. It is a risk to be empathetic towards others. It is a risk because to do so would mean that we would put ourselves in a position to be challenged, to be proven incorrect or false.
It is simply easier sometimes to put people into categories and thus close down our hearts to those individuals who fall into the categories we do not like or agree with. To open our hearts and take a step toward these people by having empathy for them might mean that we learn some ungodly things about ourselves. It might reveal that we have some unbiblical biases or that we are clinging to stereotypes and stigmas.
Instead of risking having our sinful attitudes exposed, we shut down our hearts towards those who challenge our beliefs, assumptions, and convictions. To open our hearts would mean we might have to change or grow in some way, which is a tremendous task to undertake.
Empathy is not for the weak. It is hard work and requires a complete denial of the self in the moments it is extended. It is a journey that never ends and it is a well that will never run dry. The deeper we voyage into the world of empathy, the more we discover about ourselves, others, and most importantly, our Savior.
We are never more like our Savior than when we step into the experience of another bringing the light of the Gospel with us. Our Savior demonstrated the greatest level of empathy by stepping down from heaven and into the full human experience in order to deliver us from sin and death and to give us eternal hope (Mark 10:45). We would do well to imitate Jesus in our efforts to express empathy towards others during this challenging time of COVID-19 and beyond as He has so graciously had empathy towards us (John 13:12-15).