Love is more than empathy

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What’s the best thing that you can do when you see someone else suffering, crying out in emotional pain?  The answer is of course, that often it is simply to go and sit with them, to say nothing but rather to simply be alongside them, to feel their pain with them and to weep with them. That’s empathy and it’s a great act of love.

But love doesn’t stop there.  This I think is a crucial element of the debate about empathy within evangelical circles.  It is possible that there is a debate about the order of actions.  When we see someone crying should we first of all stop to find out the reason why they are crying and to evaluate whether or not their weeping is justified?  I would suggest not.   As I’ve said previously, you are fairly unlikely to find them opening up to you anyway. Love and wisdom seems to suggest the following order:

  • Come alongside and sit with
  • Share in the same expression of emotion
  • Listen (lots)
  • Keep listening
  • Ask some questions
  • Listen more
  • Share in the same expression of emotion again
  • Then, with permission begin to speak.

I agree with those who resist seeing the final step pushed further up the order. However, what we shouldn’t do is to remove it completely from the process. To do so would in fact be unloving.  If I love someone, then I don’t want to just share in their emotional response, I want to see them come through the situation. I want to see them survive and indeed as a Christian, I want to see them thrive by being holy throughout their suffering.

It’s probably worth commenting that we men often get a bit of a hard press for our desire to solve problems and fix things. Certainly, we can be over quick to find the solution when our loved ones are simply at that stage looking for an empathetic ear to speak to and shoulder to cry on.  However, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that this is the way we have been wired. If God has made us to solve the problems – and I would suggest that this is a big part of what it means for us to subdue and fill the earth -then we should not resist it.

So, it is a good thing to seek to understand why someone is upset and weeping.  And yes, this means that sometimes part of the resolution will be a recalibration of emotions.  Empathy isn’t just about weeping, it is about sharing in all possible emotions.  With that in mind it is worth noting that Jesus didn’t simply accept and run with the emotions displayed by others. Sometimes his emotion includes but at the same time builds on and corrects that of those he meets with. So, at Lazarus’ tomb we see Jesus weeping with the family. However, it isn’t that he just shares in their tears at their loss. He knows the loss is temporary, yet he continues to cry. If he was simply seeking to mirror their emotions, then this would make him deceitful. No, Jesus really does feel with them but his response is not the same grief that they have. Rather, his grief is at the harm evil causes, his grief is for their situation at that point and his grief includes anger.

On another occasion, Jesus goes a step further. He refuses to accept the emotional response of his disciples as legitimate. When they are afraid because of the storm, he rebukes and challenges their fear. He does not choose to share their emotion with them.

In pastoral ministry, there is a time to share in the response of others and there is a time to challenge that response. We challenge out of love because we are concerned for the well-being of others. The easiest thing to do is to stop at our expression of empathy and sympathy. That enables us to appear loving.

But true love doesn’t leave a friend in the pit but seeks to see them lifted out. This may include encouragement and sometimes when it’s their own faults and failings that have got them where they are, then it includes challenge.