Seven years into my first pastorate, a young lady in our church told me her story of being sexually abused as a little girl. She was deadpan as she recounted the events, mirroring the blank response her parents had given as they reinterpreted her report into something less horrific. I felt all the things for her any human being would—sorrow, anger, grief. I was sympathetic.
Not long before, Dr. Steven Tracy, a church member and mentor, had challenged me to be less aloof in my ministry and more in tune with the pain of those I shepherd. Echoing Paul’s commands to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), he was calling me to move toward my people through empathy rather than sympathizing from a distance.
Now that my opportunity had arrived, I quickly realized why I had avoided it. The call to empathy felt like the terror of standing at the precipice of a waterfall that, after the long drop, crashed into the lake of this sister’s sorrow. The river falling off the cliff was the realization that my daughter was the same age this young lady had been when she was violated. Sympathy situated me on a dry rock next to the waterfall where I could peer down at the sorrow, express my sentiments, and offer some Biblical comfort. No risk. But to step into river would inevitably sweep me off the ledge and immerse me in the pain.
I took the plunge. I allowed myself to imagine discovering that my sweet princess had been taken advantage of by a shameless perpetrator. My heart burned with rage and my eyes welled up with tears. The plunge was violent and disorienting. In the moment, my response was many times more visceral than the abuse survivor telling her story. Yet time would tell that those tears gave her permission to feel a depth of anguish and grief that her parents’ dismissal disallowed.
This experience was exhausting. Empathy is exhausting. The Greek word that describes Jesus’ compassion means having one’s guts wrenched. It does not always happen in the moment as mine did. Often our valuing of another’s pain is a slow burn that later leads to strong emotion. Whatever the timeline, intentionally regarding and moving into another’s emotional reality is necessary if our relationships in the church are to move from communication to communion, from surface-level acquaintance to deep connection. In the arenas God has placed me—walking with abuse survivors, leading a multi-ethnic church, and parenting special needs children—empathy has proven to be indispensable. Most significantly, empathy is essential if we are to reflect the character of Jesus, the eternal Word who became flesh so that God-in-skin might suffer, weep, and die in our place.
How do we take the plunge of empathy?
Let me offer five suggestions that I have learned from those more seasoned in empathy than I am.
1. Tend to your own emotions
I cannot connect with the emotions of another if I am not connected with my own. Like Hannah, who told the priest of “my great anxiety and vexation” (1 Samuel 1:15) or Nehemiah, who asked his boss, the king, “Why should not my face be sad?” (Nehemiah 2:3), we must acknowledge and name what we feel. This may take the form of journaling, processing with a friend, prayer, or any practice that helps us slow down and pay attention to our physical and emotional responses to events and interactions. Like the Psalms or Jeremiah’s Lamentation, we must bring what we feel to God and receive his empathy with us through Jesus, the “man of sorrows…acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
2. Start with the everyday
Hearing stories of sexual abuse or other traumatic events is not an everyday occurrence, even for pastors. However, most of us do have opportunities to empathize in situations that are less intense when someone from our family, workplace, neighborhood, or church expresses strong emotions. Keep your radar on and be ready to give attention and value to what someone else is feeling. Brief pauses to join in another’s disappointment over a collapsed Lego structure, frustration over an unexpected auto repair, or discouragement over a medical setback develops empathic instincts for more consequential, life-altering events.
3. Listen to connect, not to fix, judge, or minimize
Many of us would like to add this asterisk to Paul’s command to “weep with those who weep”—*unless there is a clear fix that I could logically explain. Yet Jesus wept with Mary at Lazarus’ tomb even though in a few minutes he would raise his friend from the dead. Think of how easily our Lord could have squelched Mary’s sorrow with a rational retort: “Calm down, I’m about to fix this!” Yet he chose to feel the wrongness of death and enter into Mary’s sorrow over her dead brother.
Often we observe a logical flaw, unwise decision, or, from our perspective, disproportionate emotional response in what the person is sharing. As much as this may feel like low hanging fruit to address, the first aim of empathy is not correction (which may need to come later) but connection. Instead of assuaging our own discomfort or theirs with solutions or silver linings, we should remain present with the person in their emotions. This may require long, potentially uneasy stretches of silence as they put words to their experience. We ask questions to work toward what is really happening in their heart, even if the answer reveals more mess or deeper pain.
4. Find a personal on-ramp to the emotional reality
This is the crux of empathy. Whether you have a parallel experience (your father died three years ago and her mother died last week) or no similar experience (you have rarely been racially stereotyped and he has three stories from the last month alone), you must find a way in to what the other person is feeling. If no obvious connecting point exists, begin with the emotion and work backwards. “When have I felt the bitterness she feels?” “When have I tasted despair like his?”
Warning: once you begin moving in the person’s direction emotionally, do not say “I know how you are feeling.” Even if your situations overlap significantly, your emotional response is not the same and you need to keep the spotlight on the other person. Simply feel with them and communicate that they are not alone. Identify emotions you observe—“That sounds deflating.” “Did that make you angry?” “What a devastating experience!” Share your physical response on their behalf—“My heart feels heavy right now for you.” “I feel my skin getting hot with anger!” And match the intensity. If they are deeply frustrated, let what you are feeling be expressed in an impassioned grunt, not a sing-song voice.
5. Wait on the Spirit to provide redemptive resonance
Stories of grief, loss, failure, frustration, betrayal, despair, and abandonment permeate the biblical narrative. As you listen, wait on the Spirit to bring such accounts to mind. God may lead you simply to empathize in that moment. Or he may bring to mind Joseph in an Egyptian prison, Naomi bereft of her men, Peter weeping bitterly, or Jesus forsaken by his Father on the cross. To mention one of these is not to quote scripture at someone as a quick fix—I have sat with many grieving souls for whom Romans 8:28 was the last thing they wanted to hear. Rather, these biblical accounts help people locate themselves in the redemptive story of the gospel. No matter how desolate the person feels, there is a direct path to the resurrection of Jesus and the new creation he will bring about at his return. Your role is to patiently walk with that person through their story and through God’s story until they embrace the hope Christ offers.
Recently I reached out to the young lady who bravely shared her abuse account with me. She is a transformed person—strong, confident, and flourishing in Christ. She credits this to God’s gracious work through empathetic figures in her life (research suggests that her experience is not unique). Let us gladly spend and be spent for those with painful pasts like hers, trusting that God has much to teach us as companions on the redemptive journey.
Chris Davis is the Senior Pastor of Groveton Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA. He writes at TheRodAndStaff.com.