I have a painful “gift” – perhaps you have it too.
I was at a writers’ conference, visiting the publishers with a friend. One publisher was sharing about their goals to share the gospel and as an example he shared the story of a missionary who had written for them and whose family was challenged by terrorists to recant their faith or be murdered. The story was that the husband was told first to recant or his wife would be shot immediately. Their eyes met and she reportedly told him determinedly don’t even let the thought cross your mind. The husband refused to deny Christ and the wife challenged, also refusing to deny her Lord, and then their child was challenged and also refused to recant. All were shot, and the husband only survived. I burst into tears. Apparently not used to that reaction, the publisher and my friend looked at each other in shocked surprise and I excused myself.
I joined an authors tour group in Israel and when we were taken to the Holocaust memorial I got through about half when I began crying and could not stop. Our guide suggested I wait outside the last area where she was speaking. I could not bear to hear or read the personal stories. My heart hurt over the suffering and loss of my brothers and sisters in the faith, and felt the loss as close as I would my own actual relatives.
I can hardly bear to watch the news anymore. Tragedies abound from all kinds of abuse, disease, acts of hatred and natural disasters. It is overwhelmingly oppressive. I am sure part of my response is my own experience with abuse, and the ‘gift’ of empathy. I couldn’t bear it—if God hadn’t shown me just that – I cannot bear such weight on my own.
So what am I to do with all these emotions, feelings, concerns, and cares?
1 Peter 5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Philippians 4:6-7 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Though the word empathy I use is not in scriptures, examples of it are:
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Heb. 13:3)
Galatians 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.
And the apostle Paul said – I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:22) … meaning that he willingly identified with them, which is a compassionate form of empathy.
One dictionary defines empathy as “perspective taking” – our ability to identify with and understand other people’s emotions.
Empathy is much more involved than sympathy – feeling sadness or compassion. There is said to be three parts or kinds of empathy:
Cognitive Empathy – a knowing or understanding of another person’s experience and/or listening until I understand. The only way I believe I could have the knowing or understanding is if the Holy Spirit gives me the understanding, or if I have experienced it. I think of 2 Corinthians 1:4 – who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God
Emotional Empathy– to feel physically along with the other person as though their emotions were contagious. Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Compassionate Empathy– when we understand the person’s predicament, feel along with them, and are moved to help them.
My kids call me a fixer. Are all moms fixers? I am not sure, but it is both a strength and a failing for me.
I know I am merely human, and I cannot ‘fix’ all the tragedies and challenges of life but I can take action that will help each one – and it has nothing to do with what I can ‘afford’ materially to do for someone.
Far more important is prayer. Not even, I’ve done all I can and now all that is left is prayer. No – it is prayer first.
Who, besides You, Lord really knows and has the supplies for all their needs – spiritually, physically, emotionally?
Beyond prayer is there may or may not be something that God has led me to DO for them or to share with others who can care for them.
I hope this has not turned out to feel like a lesson. I’m just really reminding myself how I need to evaluate the personal, public, national and international situations and needs that could overwhelm me and render me useless before God and man. I am still in training camp, learning to acknowledge it is not in my power to ‘fix’ anything or anyone and to wait and respond after getting directions from God, rather than reacting.
So how about you, if you haven’t given up, and followed my lengthy confession… Do you also have the sometimes-painful gift of empathy? If so, how do you deal with it?