Why it’s neither kind nor helpful to respond to PTSD sufferers with “grow up” | Trauma Tuesday

Recently I watched a video which I don’t care to identify or link to, because I don’t want to to carelessly indulge, even in the slightest way, a possible attention glutton. Besides, this really isn’t about that particular person; it’s about an attitude he shares with far too many other people.

But before I get to that, let me offer my thoughts and understanding of what it means to be “triggered”. I may step on a few toes here, and I want to make it clear that I am speaking for myself and not for all survivors.

For those unfamiliar with PTSD, or needing a quick review, here is a fairly concise explanation. When those of us who suffer with PTSD talk about being “triggered”, we tend to mean that something brought on an episode of emotional and physical PTSD symptoms. In other words, we were forced to relive our trauma. Maybe it was “just” that our emotions, heart rate, endocrine glands, and nervous systems reacted as if the trauma were happening again, right at that very minute. Maybe we dissociated. Maybe we had a flashback, during which our bodies and minds were convinced the trauma was happening again. Maybe all this was followed by night after night of terrorizing nightmares, and days of anxiety, during which we constantly felt as if about to jump out of our own skin, until we were utterly exhausted and spent.

What we experience can be far, far worse than I am describing.

If you have ever undergone something truly horrific, devastating, life threatening, or terrifying — torture, a violent assault, a particularly frightening accident, or something similar — you no doubt remember how you didn’t just “get over it” the instant things stopped. Even if you didn’t end up with PTSD, you felt shaken and distressed for quite some time. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, we don’t suddenly feel back to normal once we realize, “Haha, it wasn’t a real threat after all, and my nightmarish assault wasn’t happening all over again! Silly me!” (No, I don’t think it’s silly to be triggered. Nor is it a sign of weakness or fragility, despite what some may think.) It can take us a while to recover, and for our bodies, instincts, thoughts, emotions, hormones, digestive systems, cardio-vascular systems, brain chemistry, and nerves to catch up with present reality.

Now I realize that not everyone uses the word “triggered” in that way. Some non-survivors have co-opted it for their own use. However, when they say they are “triggered”, they mean that they are reminded of something sad or painful. A smell of perfume may prompt someone to feel grief over the loss of their beloved grandmother, or even to remember her death quite vividly, but that is part of almost everyone’s life in our world. Remembering and being upset over bad memories is a far cry from feeling like you have been pulled back into and forced to relive the most traumatizing, dehumanizing, terrifying experiences of your life. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, it’s as if our trauma is happening all over again. Past and present collide.

At the risk of offending survivors who disagree with me, I think the word may have been misused and overused by some of us. But, whether I am right about that or not, the thing we need to remember is that we are all at different places in our healing journey, and we all have different triggers. So we should be careful not to judge or belittle other survivors for being triggered “more easily” or by different things. (And, yes, mere words can be triggering.)

To make things more complicated, what might be triggering one time may not be triggering another time. It’s the seemingly unpredictable nature of PTSD that made many of us feel like we were teetering on the edge of “going crazy” until we were finally diagnosed  and given tools to help cope with the aftermath of our trauma.

Many of us in various survivor communities become fiercely protective of one another, not because we view each other as fragile, but because we place such a high priority on healing. Part of that process is learning self-care, and “trigger warnings” are a way of helping each other with that. My friends and I don’t avoid using the word “rape” or talking frankly and even graphically amongst ourselves, often to a far greater degree than we can with most non-survivors. However, if we are heading into potentially difficult territory, we will caution each other along the lines of, “Make sure you are in a good place, and be prepared, before you read this…before you watch this movie…before you go to this place…before you listen to what I am about to say…” In other words, we’ve got each other’s backs.

My healing journey has involved a lot of hard, painful work on my part. I was blessed with a wonderful therapist who shares my faith, some amazing survivors I call my “tribe”, and some truly remarkable people who have loved, encouraged and taught me along the way. Some of those people have done so in person, and others through books, art, music, sermons, and the online world. Most of all, it has been the grace of God and His love as my Heavenly Father that has brought me to where I am today. I am thankful that things that used to trigger me no longer do. In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any noticeable symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. Even the recurring nightmares are gone, as are the flashbacks. I’m able to go places, do things, and minister in ways that would have been unthinkable as recently as two years ago. (I’m hoping my symptoms are gone forever but recognize that may not be the case.)

I didn’t suddenly “grow up”. It was a long, hard road to get here, and the people who dismissively urged me to “get over it” were not only unhelpful and unkind — I believe that the enemy of my soul tried to use them as roadblocks to my healing. After all, the Bible says that Satan came to kill, steal, and destroy. He hates having his damage undone. He hates redemption and reconciliation. He hates God.

Does that mean I think that anyone who fails at loving survivors is someone who hates God? No. However, as I used to tell my kids, when we don’t treat others with love and compassion, it’s as if we are playing on the wrong team in this battle of good versus evil.

In my more idealistic days, I used to think that if I could just explain this sort of stuff, people would treat trauma survivors with more compassion. I saw the main problem as a lack of knowledge. Perhaps I’m becoming cynical, but I’m realizing that more and more people simply do not care — and that includes some of the very people who should be setting the examples for compassion, gentleness, and kindness. Sadly, not everyone wants to love as Jesus does…or maybe they just don’t want to love us that way.

That brings me back to the video that inspired this post. In it, a man mimics and ridicules those who say, “That’s triggering”, and responds with a dismissive smirk, “Well, grow up.” I fully recognize that there are people who, while they are right to value freedom of speech, mistakenly think it should be best expressed and protected by saying anything they want, no matter how cruel or offensive, and refusing to be held accountable or to apologize. I know all too well that there are people who mock the very idea of compassion and who accuse anyone encouraging kindness and gentleness as being overwrought and overcome with emotions. I know that there are men who will grow irate if anyone objects to their “jokes” about rape, and that there are people who seem to make a sport of threatening, intimidating, mocking, and harassing sexual trauma survivors. I know that there are also people who aren’t malicious, but are simply lacking in empathy. I know that there are some people who mean well, but are unfortunately clueless and oblivious.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that we should legislate away free speech or legally mandate trigger warnings. To put it another way, as much as I might feel like outlawing shock jocks and blasphemers, I’m not sure I’d like to live in a society (at least not here on earth) where they are outlawed. At the same time, of all the things I’m willing to advocate for, being an insulting jerk without being called out for it is certainly not one of them.

And, I’d like to add, if you are going to insist on being an insensitive clod, please confine yourself to a line of work where that is an asset and not a liability. In other words, stay out of the helping professions and out of any sort of ministry where people might actually think you are supposed to represent Jesus. (Perhaps, if you are that fond of and prone to offensive speech, consider becoming a shock jock. Then my friends and I will know not to listen to you.)

It seems that I can’t bring myself to end this post without including my two favorite stories about PTSD.

The first one was told to me by a Viet Nam vet. After a tour of duty, he was taking an afternoon nap at his grandparents’ house when something triggered a flashback, during which he ran outside and shot up the backyard. His grandfather had been watching the whole scene from his easy chair. I suppose some would think that the grandfather should have, at the very least, urged, “grow up!” But he was himself a combat veteran, having fought in World War 2, and he understood what used to be called “shell shock”. Very calmly he asked, “Well? Did you get ’em?”

“That’s why I loved my grandfather so much,” this tough former Marine told me years later, his eyes shining with tears. “He understood. I shot the heck out of his nice backyard and he never said a word about it…just sat with me and calmed me down.”

My second favorite story is one I read in a book somewhere, and it also involved a Viet Nam vet. He was at the dry cleaner’s when a car backfired out front. Next thing he knew, he was face down on the floor. To his surprise, so was the young woman who had been waiting on him. Rather sheepishly, he said, “Saigon,” followed by the year he had been there. She nodded and replied, “Beirut,” followed by the year she had left. They both got up, brushed off their clothes, and tried to go on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (And, by the way, I’m fairly certain neither of them urged the other to “grow up”.)

Maybe it’s because I have a weird sense of humor, but both stories crack me up…at the same time that I find them sweet and endearing. Those of us with PTSD, whether our symptoms are in the past or not, want what most people want — compassion and understanding. We are glad when those things are extended to other trauma survivors, and disheartened when such human kindness is withheld.

There was a time, some years back, when I felt compelled to explain to someone why I had an overreactive startle reflex, why I was hyper-vigilant in certain settings, why I acted “wacky” sometimes, and why I had a weird set of “quirks”. I offered this explanation: “You know how some people who fight in wars get PTSD? Well, I fought in a different war, a private one, and I lost.” I didn’t want pity, or to be treated with kid gloves. What I hoped for was understanding: I’m not this way on purpose. It’s a boatload of fear and pain that caused this. If I could be any other way, trust me, I would. 

It’s always a risk when we disclose the trauma in our past. We don’t always know what to expect. Sometimes we get a dismissive, “well, grow up!” — or far worse. Sometimes we get shrugs. Sometimes we get awkward silence. Sometimes we get a “me too”. And sometimes we get someone who views us as their neighbor and loves us, as much as humanly possible, the way Jesus taught.

That last type of person? They are the ones who God can use to “bind up the broken-hearted” and to “comfort those who mourn”. They are the ones who do what the Church should be doing. They are the ones who help us heal.

And they are the ones who would never dismiss a PTSD sufferer with, “Well, grow up.”

Why it’s daft to marry a convicted serial pedophile | Marriage Monday

In following the recent controversy regarding Douglas Wilson (that he still sees nothing wrong with performing the wedding of a convicted serial pedophile) it’s easy to think certain people have lost all common sense. Surely no sensible church elder would respond to a young woman in search of “Mr. Right” with, “I know just the guy! Lucky for you, he got off easy for molesting children and didn’t have to serve out his life sentence, so he’s available — which obviously makes him Mr. Right!” Surely no mature, sensible woman would agree to marry such a man after their second date. Surely no sensible pastor would perform the wedding for such a marriage, especially if the serial pedophile openly declared his intentions to father children. Surely no sensible people would rise up in defense of pedophiles marrying: but doesn’t the poor pedophile deserve to be happy? Doesn’t he deserve the right to marry? After all, he said he was sorry for molesting toddlers and young children…and for his peeping tom shenanigans right after he got out of jail…and we should forgive and forget! What about grace? Give the poor guy a second chance!

We all know that sometimes starry-eyed young women who are madly in love don’t like to think of much beyond the excitement of planning the wedding — probably all the more so if they have fallen for the charms of a young predator well-practiced in manipulation and deception.  That is why it is essential that those with level heads urge the would-be bride to consider the serious and enormous consequences of marrying a sex offender. If nothing else, she needs to realize that not everyone may share her enthusiasm for having a convicted child molester in the family or around children — and she needs to know why. Too much is at stake to get caught up in the giddy excitements of a young couple “in love”. Heaven help us if we cannot depend on the pastors, elders, and older women of the church to advise wisdom and prudence.

So, for those lacking in common sense, and for those bewildered souls at a loss because they can’t find a verse in the Bible expressly forbidding pedophiles from marriage, would you please allow me to suggest a few reasons for caution before you rush off and marry a convicted serial pedophile or encourage your daughters to marry one?

1. His criminal past will never “go away”. He will be required to register as a sex offender and his information will appear online in easily accessible databases (Easily search for Steven Sitler here.) There will no doubt be conditions of his parole. There will be lifelong restrictions on his activities and interactions with children.

2. Everyone — church members, neighbors, parents, children, his former victims, vigilantes — will be able to discover his status as a sex offender, along with all the information they need to find him, should they search for him by name or search for sex offenders in his vicinity. (Search by zip code or location here.)

You might argue that #1 and #2 do not trouble you in the slightest, and that you have no qualms being forever publicly identified as the wife of a convicted child molester — in fact, that and every thought of your beloved fills you with delight and joy because you are oh so very much in love!! If so, provided you make certain you will never be able to have children with this man, you can probably stop reading at this point. The rest of my cautions are in regards to having at least one child.

3. Your husband may never be allowed to be with your child unless he is under the direct observation of a court-appointed supervisor/chaperone. If so, this means you will never have a normal family life. You will someday have to explain to your child the odd, unrelenting, and draconian measures you have to take in order to ensure his father does not have access to him or her while you are sleeping, talking on the phone, using the bathroom, brushing your teeth, putting on make-up, doing household chores, changing clothes, or showering. You will have to explain why his father cannot take him to the bathroom at home or in public. You will have to explain why your child can never be alone with his or her own father, even for a minute…why your child will never be able to have a private one-on-one conversation with his own father…why there can never be a normal father-child relationship between the two of them. (Even more overwhelming than the many awkward explanations will be the unrelenting stress of living this out. It would be far easier to have your husband reside elsewhere and pay him visits without your child.)

Note: if you are the court-appointed chaperone or supervisor of your husband, you must give up the idea that your marriage can be either patriarchal, complementarian, or egalitarian in practice. You will be responsible to the court to make sure you and your husband implement the court’s decisions and instructions — or else another, more responsible person will have to be appointed to be present whenever your husband is around your child.  Your husband must not be allowed to get by with trying to pull the “father rule” or “wives submit” cards in these matters, or even the “but we didn’t mutually agree that I can’t spend time alone with my own child” card. You will be his supervisor. At times you will no doubt feel like his warden, jailor, or parole officer.

4. You will have to explain to your child why his father cannot volunteer for any activities that involve children or that might put him in contact with children.

5. You will have to explain to your child why his father cannot accompany him on father-child outings at church or school unless you or another chaperone is along and never lets him out of their sight. Even then, the church or school may not allow it.

6. You will have to explain the precautionary measures taken by you, your child’s school, your church, and others in order to supervise your child’s father and make sure he never has the opportunity to be alone with a child or vulnerable person.

7. You may have to explain the ongoing involvement of Child Protective Services in your child’s life.

8. You will have to explain why other parents will not allow their children in your home, or your husband in their homes. You may have to explain why your husband is not welcome at family gatherings (holidays, reunions, weddings, funerals) when children are present. 

9. You will probably have to explain, much earlier than you had hoped, what people mean by “child molester”, “pedophile”, “baby rapist”, “degenerate”, and “pervert” — and why they use these words to describe your child’s father. Your child’s sex education may include hearing from others — or reading on the Internet — the exact acts his father forced upon other children.

10. You will have to explain to your child why you thought a convicted serial pedophile would make a good husband and father. 

11. Worst case scenario #1: you may have to explain, if your child discloses sexual abuse by your husband and you believe your child, that you thought you were being vigilant every second…or that you thought you only let your guard down for a moment…or that you made a terrible mistake in trusting your husband. You will have to explain why you chose, knowingly, to put your own child at such dangerous risk by marrying this man in the first place — why your happiness was so much more important to you than any child’s safety and well-being. You will have to admit that there is nothing you can possibly do to undo the pain, damage and harm your foolishness and selfishness has caused to your innocent child. If you have any shred of decency left, you will have to repent, and beg your child’s forgiveness — and give him the freedom to withhold it from you. You will have to explain what you will do from then on to seek justice, healing, and safety for your child. You will have to face the very real possibility that you may lose him or her. You will have to live with the knowledge that your decision to father a child with a convicted serial pedophile  has caused your child irreparable harm…but your the pain of your regret is a drop in the bucket to the devastating pain and struggle your child has to live with.

12. Worst case scenario #2: Your husband sexually abuses your child but intimidates, manipulates or threatens him or her into silence. You cannot understand that your child is reacting to trauma, so you cannot understand what might be his troubled behavior, his sullen attitude, his personality changes, his fears and anxieties, his anger or depression. You may never figure out why he “rebels” or “acts weird”. Perhaps he or she engages in self-harm, withdraws from other people, and spends much of his time escaping into over-activity or mindless entertainment. Perhaps he or she has unexplained injuries and illnesses, seems accident-prone, wets the bed, has recurrent nightmares, is jittery and jumpy, has meltdowns, does poorly at school, is clingy, stutters, acts out, runs away, shoplifts, engages in promiscuous sex and risky behavior, ends up on drugs or in jail. Perhaps he or she even attempts suicide. You will either not be able to figure out what is wrong or will be reluctamt to face the truth. You will prefer to think your son or daughter is the problem, not that he or she is falling apart because of the sexual trauma your husband — the man you chose to father your child — inflicted. Should he or she in desperation try to tell you the truth — or you begin to suspect it on your own — the convicted serial pedophile you married will be quick to point out how foolish it would be to take the word of such a troubled, immature, and sinful child over that of your godly, upright, repentant husband. He will probably be convincing because serial pedophiles are master manipulaters and deceivers of adults. That’s how they gain access to the children they prey upon — they groom adults to trust and believe them. That’s how your husband married you.

One more reason to avoid marrying a convicted serial pedophile? To prove that you are not the foolish Bible-thumping ignoramus some accuse us of being — to prove you are not the sort of person who protects children in the womb only to hand them over, once they are born, to be raised by known child molesters.

Why it’s hard to believe us

Spend any time around those of us who are sexual trauma survivors, and you will hear account after account of how people — even our own families and loved ones — disbelieved us and sometimes went so far as to take up the side of the predators, rapists, pedophiles, and abusers who perpetrated against us. It is such a common occurrence that, when I encounter the opposite, I am deeply moved. Once when I met parents who stood by their daughter even when others insisted she was just “crying rape”, I was so touched by their family’s story that I hugged them, thanked them profusely, and started crying!

Today I read something that was linked to in the comments on one of my previous posts. It is an open letter from a pastor, a humble admission of his serious error, that says, among other things: “Though I never doubted that Jamin was guilty, I trusted his account of the circumstances more readily and longer than I should have, and conversely I disbelieved the victim’s parents.” He describes the sex offender as, “deceptive and highly manipulative”.

It’s hard to believe us when our perpetrators and predators are accomplished manipulators. After all, unless our abuser was a complete stranger who jumped out at us from the bushes, he first somehow gained entry into our lives, and usually managed to deceive enough people to gain a position of trust. Those who prey on children need to be somewhat accomplished con artists in order to deceive not only the child, but everyone around the child.

We, on the other hand, usually are not skilled liars and manipulators. Furthermore, we are traumatized, and traumatized people don’t always behave in a way that others might find credible, reasonable, understandable, or even likable. We are trying to piece together horrible events, trying to make sense of them, trying to sort them out in our minds, trying to deal with the horror of it all, or perhaps trying to escape thinking about our nightmarish ordeal at all. That’s bad enough, but then there are everyone else’s reactions to what happened to us, and not all of those reactions are helpful or healing. In fact, all too often, the reactions of others only adds to our trauma.

Our abusers, on the other hand, are not traumatized. They seem calm and rational, with a well thought out and plausible-sounding answer to every question. If they are serial predators, they have honed their “act”, and know just what to say or do in order to manipulate, and play on the sympathies of others.

In the immediate aftermath of trauma, we don’t always “make sense” to other people. Our stories don’t always sound believable. Usually we can’t bring ourselves to say much, and what comes out may be a chaotic jumble. We may get things out of order, remember things differently a few days or weeks later, only let a few details out in dribs and drabs, and be afraid to talk about major aspects of what happened to us. We may try to protect our abuser, if he is a family member or loved one. We may feel intimidated into silence. We may be too upset to admit the most shameful aspects of our abuse.

Years after my rape, when I finally told as complete an account of it as I could to my therapist, I halfway expected him to say that it sounded too unbelievable, too weird, too unlikely. I expected questions like, “How bad could it have been if you went to work the next day?” or “What do you mean, you have no idea of the extent of your injuries?” or “How convenient that there are those gaps in your memory!” or “What on earth is that nonsense that you supposedly ‘went away’?” I expected him to poke holes in my story, to cross-examine me as if I were on the witness stand, and to tell me that mine was the fishiest-sounding rape story he had ever heard. I was shocked that he believed me, shocked that he never cast one suspicious look in my direction, shocked that he didn’t try to blame me in the slightest for anything that happened that night.

Then again, he was a therapist. My anguished telling of what had happened to me wasn’t the first, or tenth, or even hundredth sexual trauma account he’d ever heard, and he knew all too well what trauma does to us, even years later.

Pastors don’t know these things, nor do they have the experience and training of my therapist. Ordinary people don’t either. But, unfortunately, many are arrogant and assume they know things that they don’t. They sit judge and jury over survivors and their families and judge us less than credible, because we cannot make them understand. Sometimes they are even joined by other survivors — who have not walked far enough in their healing to have enough empathy and wisdom to do otherwise — who help rub the salt of skepticism and disbelief into our wounds.

We understand that our predators seem believable and trustworthy. After all, they had to dupe us and set us up before they could betray us. But you will probably never understand how deeply you wound us when you believe them over us.

Please believe us. Please.

And, if you’re reading this, and you have any reason to think that you may have added to a survivor’s trauma by your lack of support, please — in the name of all that is good and holy — humble yourself and apologize. Let your words be a healing balm. You may never know how desperately that survivor has longed to hear you ask forgiveness.

The open letter I wish Douglas Wilson had written

Pastors are not infallible. None of us are. Sometimes we want to believe so desperately that someone has repented and changed, that he or she is trustworthy, and that the past is in the past, that we throw caution to the wind…only to have our trust betrayed. “But they promised…!” 

Humility enables us to admit that we were duped, overly trusting, naive, mistaken, whatever. Pride blinds us and makes us prone to repeat our mistakes.

First some background: Doug Wilson’s Failure to Safeguard Children

And now the open letter that I wish Douglas Wilson had written, instead of the numerous blog entires he has been churning out of late:

In light of the recent court proceedings involving Steven Sitler, and the resultant coverage of those proceedings in the media, I believe that it is necessary for me to make a public statement taking full responsibility for my actions in this matter. Rather than get bogged down in details that are readily available elsewhere on the internet, I would like to confess the following.

I made several grave errors in judgment. As Mike Sloan and Beth Hart have stated, “Offenders are masters of deception and manipulation, often saying what people want to hear so that they attract attention and compassion toward themselves and away from their victims.” I was deceived. But it’s worse than that: my pride prevented me from listening to the warnings and advice of others with more knowledge and expertise.

Furthermore, I misapplied the Scriptures that state it is better to marry than burn, and that each man should have his own wife because of the temptation to sexual immorality. Obviously Steven Sitler is not dealing with garden-variety sexual temptation. His desire to abuse, molest, and harm children will not be fulfilled or healed by the love of a good woman, and it was naive of me to think so.

I believe in the power of the gospel to transform lives; however, it was both naive and prideful of me to think that I could judge whether or not Steven Sitler’s repentance was genuine. Anyone can appear godly and contrite in half a dozen meetings in his pastor’s office — especially when the pastor is, like me, unqualified and untrained in counseling sex offenders — and the fact that he was willing to read some books means little. Furthermore, if he was truly repentant, he would understand and accept that he can never have a close relationship with any child, and certainly cannot be in an authority position over one. Thus, a Biblical marriage — one that is open to life — would be out of the question for him.

If I had to do it over again, I would have advised the elder in my church to give up on his misguided matchmaking efforts. I would have advised against marriage for Steven Sitler, and quoted Matthew 18:6 to him at every opportunity. It would be far better for a serial pedophile to have a great millstone around his neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea than for him to have the opportunity to harm and damage any more children. If we would not allow him to babysit children in our church nursery, certainly we cannot encourage him to have children of his own. It was wrong of me to perform that marriage ceremony.

I wish to repent publicly of my pride, arrogance, and lack of compassion.

Furthermore, I wish to repent of erroneous statements I have made regarding the very nature of marriage itself. Years ago, I foolishly wrote, “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants.” What a mischaracterization of the beauty and tenderness God intends for the sexual relationship! What an offensive way to describe the act that God designed to be an expression and means of intimacy, unity, and fruitfulness! 

In addition, I maligned many good, decent, loving men by claiming, “Men dream of being rapists.” I should have stated that only ungodly, immoral, depraved men would dream of such a thing, and that men with these desires need to repent immediately — and women need to protect themselves from these men until they demonstrate lasting fruit of repentance. Counseling by someone far more qualified than I am would probably be in order as well.

I deeply regret that much harm that has been caused by my pride, foolishness, poor judgment, and grave error. I pray that those I have harmed and offended would find it in their hearts to forgive me. I am grief-stricken over how I have contributed to the sufferings of even just one innocent child. May God have mercy on us all.

Of course what Douglas Wilson has really written is nothing like this.

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.