The trouble with empathy

There is a big problem with trying to become a compassionate person filled with empathy for others.

It hurts.

In fact, it will cost us. Big time. We will end up with broken hearts. Our entire outlook on life will change. We will find ourselves identifying with the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the marginalized, the abused, the weak, the very young, the helpless, the broken, the poor, the downtrodden, the messy — the type of people our culture ignores or disdains.

The Bible tells us to “weep with those who weep”. That isn’t a “pink verse”; it doesn’t say, “…unless you are an American man, in which case you can just pretend to be John Wayne and ride off into the sunset, thus avoiding the whole uncomfortable, emotional scene.” If you are some sort of manly man who never cries — or a woman who doesn’t want her mascara to run — you don’t get a free ride. Weep. And, if you can’t weep, because you aren’t compassionate enough or humble enough, pray for God to break you. Trust me, He will.

We also don’t get to decide who is worthy of our compassion, and what circumstances are deserving of our tears. The Bible doesn’t say, “Weep with those whom you have questioned thoroughly to make sure they didn’t somehow contribute to their own misfortune; otherwise brush them off and walk away…or you can self-righteously condemn and blame them for all the ways in which you think they messed up and brought tragedy on themselves.” It doesn’t say, “Only weep for what is a big major deal to you, and tell the people you think are whiny crybabies to suck it up.”

Jesus identifies with our weaknesses — even when we are being vile and rotten sinners. Even when we are being wimpy. If we claim to be His followers, what makes us think we can be so stingy and withholding of our empathy, love, and compassion?

If we really want to be like Jesus, it will cost us everything. We will eventually end up meek, lowly of heart, and well acquainted with grief. We will anguish over our inability to bring healing to every broken heart and to set every captive free. We will weep over the Jerusalems in our lives. We will share in the fellowship of His sufferings. Our lives will be poured out like drink offerings.

The good news about empathy is that it brings healing to others in a way that we may never know or comprehend. About five years ago, I went to my first retreat for women survivors of sexual trauma. There were three men there who profoundly impacted me because of the way in which they conducted themselves. Most of us had never experienced having men serve us — I mean, really and truly serve. They didn’t make a big deal and announce they were serving us. They were too humble for that, and neither wanted nor expected anything in return, because their motive was unselfish love and compassion. They didn’t “serve” by leading us, exercising authority over us, teaching us, telling us what to do, monopolizing our time and attention, or taking on roles of prominence and prestige. They just cared for us. It was so sweet and so genuine — and an aspect of godly masculinity that few of us had encountered before — that it was one of the most healing aspects of the retreat.

God gave one of those men some special words of encouragement for me during a meeting, and I was thanking him for it afterward. He knew next to nothing about me, and knew absolutely nothing about my life story, other than what could be assumed by the fact that I was at a retreat for sexual trauma survivors. As we stood outside in the Oklahoma sun, God gave this man a sudden flash of additional insight, a glimpse into a part of my identity that I kept hidden. At first I tried to argue with him…no, I’m not that…but he was right. Then he said, “What happened to you was so…” and he described my rape with a word that I had never dared speak aloud, except in those early months and years after the rape, when I would stand in the shower every morning, head leaning against the hard tiles, weeping, weeping, weeping, and those very words — oh, God help me, it was so … — those words would come out in muffled, anguished cries from the deepest, most wounded part of my soul. Years later, this man I had just met was saying, “That’s why it hurt you so much.” And he was right.

Then, with my permission, he hugged me oh so carefully, and he leaned his head down towards mine and whispered in my ear in a choked voice, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry they did this to you. I am so sorry.” And this big strong man, this man who didn’t really know me but who chose to identify with my pain and anguish and devastation — he wept for me. I felt his tears fall on my shoulder, like the most precious, healing gift. He knew. He understood. And he wept.

I want to be like that.

The best part of asking God to give us hearts of compassion and empathy is that we get to know Jesus more as we participate in His healing work, and as our hearts break for the very things that break His heart. That’s our reward…to know Him. And He is so worth it, every tear, every heartbreak. The people we love are worth it. But He is our greatest reward.

There is, however, one terrible dark valley that we have to walk through first, and it’s the real reason we run from empathy. We know, deep down inside, that eventually we will be forced to identify with, to allow ourselves to feel, the very pain we have caused others. We won’t be able to weasel out, if we choose the way of Jesus, if we heed His voice. We won’t be able to say, “Oh, she was being overly sensitive”, “He needs to man up and stop overreacting to every little thing,” “I was just venting”, “She provoked me”, “I was under a lot of stress”, “It wasn’t that bad”, “Yeah, but what about what he did to me?” “Wait, I can explain!” “I thought I was doing the right thing!” “I had no idea!” Our excuses will turn to ash in our mouths. Our lies will be exposed. Our attempt to minimize and deny will condemn us. We will end up face down on the floor, weeping, what have I done? what have I done? oh, God help me, what have I done? 

Weeping with those who weep is all the more devastating, and all the more necessary, when we are the cause of their weeping.

There is a prayer I am too afraid to pray: “God, please show me how I have hurt others, so that I may ask forgiveness.” I am still too cowardly to face the entire truth. I don’t think I could bear the full experience of that pain…and the knowledge that I inflicted it. God help me.

At the same time, I need a tender heart, a loving heart, a compassionate heart, a broken heart. And those in my life need me to have it…for their sakes.

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