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.

Christian testimonies and life stories

My husband has one of the coolest testimonies in the world. He can’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t love Jesus. He never wavered, never backslid, never rebelled, never let up or drifted to the point that he ever felt the need to “re-dedicate” his life to Christ. He has remained steadfast from early childhood until now.

My mother’s testimony is much the same. Well, the details are different — she had a dramatic conversion at the age of 5 and lived through the war in Nazi Germany — but the steadfast, unwavering part is the same.

I simply cannot relate to people like that. Of course, it goes both ways. They look at me, baffled and dismayed by my history of flaky sinfulness, and say things like, “I just prayed that God would make me hate sin”, or “No, I never wanted to rebel,” or “I love Jesus too much to be even tempted by such things.” For example, when I was in my teens, my mother often told me that just the thought of kissing any other man but my father was so unappealing that it made her feel sick to her stomach. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her only daughter was, in contrast to her, a lust-filled perv: icky guys were nauseating but I found the thought of kissing cute guys quite appealing. (Thank God I was weird, awkward, shy, and uninteresting to most teenage boys.)

People like my mother and my husband seem to have an easy strength, a serene confidence, that is beyond my experience and comprehension. They are like Daniel in the Bible — if he did anything wrong, it was so trivial that it isn’t even part of his story. Compared to them, my story is sin-laden and ugly. I’m a walking disaster — a chaotic bundle of ups and downs, highs and lows, starts and stops. Sometimes I think they might need even more prayer than I do. After all, how on earth can they keep from getting disillusioned and disappointed as they watch me run, fall, stumble, wander, and lurch my way through life? Oh, wait…they are made of sterner stuff. I’m the one who gets disillusioned and discouraged. They do what they always do — stand firm and steadfast in the Lord.

They have been spared so much, so very much. I wish people like my mother and my husband could somehow bottle whatever it is that they have, could somehow impart their secrets to the rest of us, so that less lives would be littered with the debris and wreckage of mistakes and regrets. I want my children to follow in their footsteps and not mine.

Sometimes I wonder if my problem is not so much that I possess some terrible character flaw — a greater propensity to sin, rebellion, and weakness — but that I really do not love Jesus enough. After all, what greater motivation is there for faithful obedience than love?

Then I remember something Jesus Himself said: “Who is forgiven much, loves much.” My therapist has mentioned that I tend to extremes, and I have to admit that there is a passion in my life that seems missing in those who do not struggle. There is something that has been borne of desperation, of pain and deep grief — an intensity and zeal — that I don’t see in the lives of those who are calm and steady. They have been spared the lows, but also the highs.

In the end, I have to admit that I wouldn’t change my prodigal story for theirs. Yes, I have regrets. But I have seen and experienced beautiful, powerful, amazing redemption miracles  — and that’s something those who are constant as the northern star can only guess at.

Her name was Tina

She was 7 years old, skinny, often unkempt, a wild little thing who screamed like a banshee, knew cuss words no little girl should know, and was quite the disruptive influence at the church school her grandparents paid for her to attend.

Somehow she stole my heart. I was 19 or 20, still young and idealistic, and I had not yet outgrown my childhood notion that love was enough to heal and fix anything. She was as drawn to me, a childcare worker at the school, as I was to her. At first she called me “Teacher”. Then she broke my heart by calling me “Mommy”.

Her mother, a single mom and an alcoholic, bought her a Raggedy Andy doll so that Tina could, as she claimed her mother told her, “also have a man in her bed at night”. She told me of what sounded like a steady stream of men in her mother’s bed, about fixing her own suppers, and about getting herself ready for school in the morning.

No matter how early I arrived to open up the church before morning day care started at 7:00am, it seemed that Tina would be waiting for me alone on the playground, underdressed for the weather, blonde hair all a mess, her thin little arms wrapped around herself, shivering. I would bundle her in my sweatshirt and hold her in my lap until she warmed up. It was one of those times that she started calling me “Mommy”.

She was impossible. She defied rules, tested boundaries, threw temper fits, fought with other children, and cussed like a little sailor. But she also sang the cutest rendition of both parts of Donnie and Marie’s signature duet that I’ve ever heard. And she craved affection and attention so desperately that it was painful to watch.

One day she flipped out when one of the school dads got playful with her. She shrieked, “Don’t molest me!!” and it scared him so much that he avoided her like the plague after that. I tried not to think about possible reasons for her reaction.

She was a bad influence on my little brother, and on a number of the other children. If she wasn’t clinging to me, I had to watch her like a hawk. She was a troubled little soul, desperately screaming for help.

One day she asked me if she could live with me, if I could be her mommy for real. I presented my case to my parents. In my naïveté, I actually thought I could ask her mother — who obviously didn’t want her — to give Tina to me, and I could raise her and love her to wholeness. Surely, despite my flaws and my youth, I would be a far better mother. We would live together in the “little house” behind the parsonage, and I would make sure she would not impose a burden on anyone else.

To me, she was worth turning my life upside down and backwards, worth giving up any hope of a “normal” future. How could I not do everything in my power to help her, to give her a better life, to rescue her, to save her?

I hated it when my mother would respond to my idealistic ideas with, “It’s not that simple.” This time I really hated it, because she was right.

And then Tina was kicked out of school. I marched into the principal’s office and demanded, pleaded, advocated, begged, guilted, quoted Scripture…you name it, I did it. How could we abandon Tina? Wasn’t she the sort of child who needed this school the most? The grandparents had sacrificed, skimping together money they didn’t have, in a desperate attempt to provide help for their little, troubled granddaughter — and we were tossing her out on her ear? I was eloquent and convincing…well, to my ears anyway. Everyone else seemed relieved to be free of the numerous ongoing and escalating behavior problems that were disrupting the other students. “We can’t sacrifice all the other students for one child,” the principal told me. “Why not?” I had the audacity to reply. “She needs us much more than they do.”

Just like that, Tina was out of my life. I never got to say goodbye, never saw or heard from her again. We had failed her. I was both angry and grieved.

The girl in this heartbreaking video reminded me of Tina…something about parts of her story, the way she looks and her outbursts of anger.

Tina impacted me more than she will ever know. I have no idea what became of her…if she’s still alive…if she even remembers me…I hope that she remembers that someone once loved her and believed in her, and thought she was worth rescuing. More than that, I hope that someone did in fact rescue her.

I hope her story had a happy, hopeful ending, her own version of this one:


Like many survivors, I have been clobbered over the head with demands that I forgive those who have wounded and almost destroyed me. Some of those “clobbering” me have meant well; they believed that forgiveness was the key to my healing, or even that there was a magic equation whereby  forgiveness=instant healing.

Others were more selfish. If I forgave, they thought, all this unpleasantness would go away, we could forget anything ever happened, life would return to normal, and they wouldn’t have to be uncomfortable.

I know survivors whose friends and loved ones told them, “We forgave your rapists and we’re over it now! Why can’t you forgive and move on?”

In some Christian circles, unforgiveness and the resulting “bitterness” is seen as a worse sin than the original offense. I wish I could say I was making this up, but I’m not.

This — and other false, damaging teaching about forgiveness — grieves me so much that I have wanted for a long time to write a series of blog posts on the topic. The problem is that I’m still working out my own thoughts and beliefs. Even worse, I still balk and struggle.

From my own experience, I’ve learned that forgiveness often comes in stages, and that it requires a full understanding of the offense against us. To use a silly example, I might find it easy to forgive you if I thought all you did was steal some loose change out of my drawer. After all, it was less than a dollar. But if I discover you also took my life savings, that would be much harder to forgive. When we rush a rape victim to forgive, before she has had time to process what happened to her and assess the damages to her body and soul, before she has experienced life as a rape survivor beyond the immediate aftermath, it is far too soon for her to know the full extent of what it is that she is forgiving. To her, it sounds as if you are demanding, “Pretend it never happened. Get over it and love your rapist!”

Then again, I cannot ignore the Biblical commands to forgive…to love our enemies. I have come to the conclusion that these things are impossible…at least for me. That which we find impossible or difficult should never be what we demand and insisted upon for others. I have purposed to strike the words, “You need to forgive!” from my vocabulary.

At the same time, I believe that those of us who claim to follow Jesus will eventually be brought to that time and place where God asks us to do the seeming impossible. There are some who will experience a somewhat instant forgiveness breakthrough, like when Corrie ten Boom was able to forgive, when she met him years later, the concentration camp guard who treated her beloved sister so cruelly. (She tells that story here.) Others, like me, are more hard-hearted. I’ll be honest — I have struggled immensely to forgive the worst of my offenders. It came in stages and layers: I’ll forgive this part or this offense, but not this other thing. I argued with God, But this part — surely even You agree that it is beyond forgiveness! Look at the damage it caused! Look at what it cost me! Look at how evil it was! Somehow…eventually…God forgave through me, for me, in my place, and He freed me to forgive my rapists and others who had abused and mistreated me.

But recently — as in these past few days — God has shown me how unforgiving my heart still is. I claim to be a follower of Jesus, yet I still refuse to follow His example in forgiveness, especially for the day in and day out bumps and bruises we inflict on each other, knowingly or not, whenever there are imperfect people doing life together. But You don’t understand! I have the audacity to argue with my Creator, the One who created the universe. I have to see this person all the time and how do I know they won’t do it again? Besides, isn’t repentance a pre-requisite for forgiveness, and how can people repent if they don’t know the full extent of how badly I was hurt? I don’t think they even know how wrong it was!

God helps me in my human frailty. He is so good and so merciful. He puts up with me. He helps me. 

It wasn’t until after I experienced the joy of God enabling me to forgive more utterly and completely than I thought possible, to replace my hurt, suspicion, and withdrawal with more love than I thought my puny little heart was capable of — it was then that He reminded me of Jesus’s words on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I’m so unlike Jesus. It breaks my heart.

I don’t want to be like the unforgiving servant Jesus described in one of His stories. The immensity of my rebellion against God makes people’s sins against me pale in comparison — which is exactly the point Jesus was making. But sometimes forgiveness is more than just hard — it’s completely beyond me. It’s in His forgiveness of me, in His love for me, that I find the ability to do the impossible.

It’s in being able to forgive…the big and little things, the nagging things I don’t want to let go of…it’s in finally letting it all go — like smoke up a chimney — that I make one little faltering step closer to being more like the Jesus I claim to love.

When people whose opinions shouldn’t matter so much tear us down | Monday Motivation 

I wrote this to myself over a year ago. Here’s hoping it will be an encouragement to someone else.

Chase God. He made you and He wants you. Just because He thinks you’re fearfully and wondrously made doesn’t mean sinful humans (e.g., everybody on earth) will agree. Lots of people think you suck. So what? In Heaven, it won’t matter. Don’t worry about them; they are His responsibility. Don’t worry about what they think about you. Their opinion is so flawed, ignorant, and inconsequential, that it is meaningless. Remember that: meaningless.

They do not know you. They do not define you. They are hell-bound sinners, dying for grace, just like you. You aren’t a step-child. They aren’t ahead of you in line. They can’t make Jesus love you less. 

He wants your extravagant worship. They aren’t capable of that. Because they think they haven’t been forgiven much. But you know. Pour it out; don’t be afraid of wasting anything…give…pour…toss it all at Jesus’ feet…tears and blood and brokenness and beautiful scars…don’t be afraid to be scandalous because His grace is scandalous

They will never get it. Not until they see Jesus face to face, and then…don’t envy them those first moments.

When you see Him, it’s doubtful you’ll need a smackdown. Keep it that way. Look forward to running into the Throne Room and jumping into Abba Father’s lap, but don’t take it for granted.

You have beautiful scars. You are a redemption story. You know reconciliation first-hand. Don’t forget that. Never forget that. Rejoice. Celebrate. Until He comes. Don’t expect them to do it. Do it…and celebrate. Celebrate — with wild abandon…with extravagance…with every breath…

Even though some days I’m still not so sure about not needing that heavenly smackdown…