Empathy Is Important For Christians

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The one thing that I am learning is that as Christians we need empathy.  Why?  The reason is simple, so we can share in the suffering and pain of our friends and fellow Christians.

I have found in my life that the Lord often uses our deepest pain as the launching pad to our deepest calling.  It is because of the hardships the Lord has allowed in my life, I’m able to feel more than sympathy and give my friends the gift of empathy. It’s a hard-won, precious gift.

The definition of empathy according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is the “feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s place when you have no point of reference. But as God allows certain experiences in our lives, we don’t have to imagine empathy because we feel it automatically; it is a gift we can give a hurting person.

My second child Casey passed away from congenital heart disease.  The pain of losing my son is something I carry with me always. I know what it is to live with pain — emotional and physical. It is from that hardship (among others), I am able to draw from a deep well of empathy.

I was talking with a new friend the other day, and she started sharing how she lost a daughter a few years ago. The hurt she felt was still so raw that she started crying. Tears came to my eyes as I shared that I knew exactly how she felt, because I had gone through the same thing. I explained my feelings of loss, how there will always be a hole in my life where Casey should be no matter how much time has passed. How I often think of how old he would be now and how the pain deepens on important days like his birthday, when he would have graduated from high school etc.. Yet I know my son is with the Lord, and it is only sad for those of us left behind. My friend nodded through her tears and said no one ever understands how she feels. Empathy is a bridge of understanding; through my own loss I could share in hers.

The apostle Paul says in Romans 12:15. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”  We are taught as Christians to share our friends emotional experiences. I am drawn to the action words of this statement. It doesn’t say, “Feel bad for those who are mourning.” It says we need to literally cry with them. Have the same emotion they are having — with a passion — one that brings forth tears. This is a powerful teaching Paul is trying to get across to the church in Rome and ultimately to all Christians. We are all called to show grace and love to hurting people, even when we can only guess at how they feel, but the true depth of empathy is achieved through experience.

Christ was our ultimate example of empathy. He literally put himself in our place when He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. So when God allows us to go through a hardship, we should consider it a privilege to suffer as our Lord Jesus suffered and use our experience to bless others.

It takes a brave person to pray for empathy, braver than me, but God allows experiences in my life that “teach” me this gift. Trials in our lives have many purposes; it took a long time of walking with the Lord and studying His Word for me to discover the lessons hidden in my own hardships and sufferings. They are often for our growth: to teach us reliance on God, to draw us back or closer to our Savior, or to give us empathy for our neighbor.

As Christians, we have a higher calling. We have been bought at a price and are no longer our own, but humble servants to our Heavenly Father. The greatest commandments are to love our Lord with all our hearts, minds and souls, and to love others as ourselves. In a world rampant with selfishness, vanity, bullying and greed, God offers us a better way. We are after all His hands and feet, and what better way to represent our Lord and serve others than with the gift of empathy?

Enough Is Enough

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My favorite paragraph in this article by Gary Thomas is:

I want a man who was abusive to have to explain to a potential second wife why his saintly first wife left him. Let men realize that behavior has consequences, and that wives are supposed to be cherished, not used, not abused, and never treated as sexual playthings. If a man wants the benefit and companionship of a good woman, let him earn it, and re-earn it, and let him know it can be lost.

 

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26

What does it mean to “hate” someone we are elsewhere called to sacrificially love? We are told to love even our enemies, yet Jesus here tells us to hate some of our closest family members. What could that mean?

Hatred here is Semitic hyperbole. In essence, it means “love less than.” There are times when our love and allegiance to God may be at odds with human loyalties; in those cases, love for God, His light and the way of truth, must always prevail.

It’s okay (actually, commendable) for me to love the Seattle Seahawks. But if my wife needs me to take her to the hospital in the middle of a game or needs me to pay her some attention, I have to act like I hate the Seahawks and not even consider my love for them in service to my wife.

Let’s apply this principle in regards to how the church views marriage and divorce.

I recently spoke at a long-standing North American woman’s conference and was overwhelmed by the quantity and horrific nature of things wives are having to put up with in their marriages. Between sessions, I was bombarded by heartfelt inquiries: “What does a wife do when her husband does this? Or that? Or keeps doing this?” It broke my heart. I felt like I needed to take a dozen showers that weekend.

This may sound like a rant, but please hang with me, as I think this conference was a divine appointment. I can’t get this out of my mind.

One wife began our conversation with, “God hates divorce, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I believe He does.”

“So I’ve just got to accept what’s happening in my marriage, right?”

When she told me what was happening, I quickly corrected her. “If the cost of saving a marriage is destroying a woman, the cost is too high. God loves people more than he loves institutions.”

Her husband is a persistent porn addict. He has neglected her sexually except to fulfill his own increasingly bent desires. He keeps dangling divorce over her head, which makes her feel like a failure as a Christian. He presented her with a list of five things he wanted to do that he saw done in porn, and if she wasn’t willing, he was through with the marriage. She agreed to four of them, but just couldn’t do the fifth. And she feels guilty.

God hates divorce, right?

This is monstrous and vile. This woman needs to be protected from such grotesque abuse, and if divorce is the only weapon to protect her, then the church should thank God such a weapon exists.

A young wife, barely in her twenties, held a baby in a blanket and looked at me with tears. Her husband has a huge temper problem. He’s made her get out of the car on a highway with her baby,twice. “But both times he came back for us,” she said in his defense when I looked absolutely appalled. They were separated and she was living with her parents. She wanted to know if she should take him back because his psychiatrist supposedly said there wasn’t anything really wrong with him. Her husband doesn’t think he has a problem that, in fact, the problem is with her “lack of forgiveness.”

They had been married only three years and she had already lived through more torment (I’m not telling the full story) than a woman should face in a lifetime. My thoughts weren’t at all about how to “save” the marriage, but to ease her conscience and help her prepare for a new life—without him.

Church, God hates it when a woman is sexually degraded and forced to do things that disgust her. It should also make us want to vomit.

When a young man is so immature he puts his wife’s and baby’s life in danger on a highway (amongst other things), the thought that we’re worried about the “appropriateness” of divorce shows that our loyalties are with human institutions, not the divine will.

As Kevin DeYoung so ably puts it, “Every divorce is the result of sin, but not every divorce is sinful.”

Another woman told me about putting up with her husband’s appalling behavior for over forty years. I was invited to look in her face, see the struggle, see the heroic perseverance, but also be reminded that counsel has consequences. So when I talk to a young woman in her third year of marriage and it’s clear she’s married to a monster, and someone wants to “save” the marriage, I want them to realize they are likely sentencing her to four decades of abuse, perhaps because of a choice she made as a teenager. When these men aren’t confronted, and aren’t repentant, they don’t change.

Jesus said what he said about divorce to protect women, not to imprison them. Divorce was a weapon foisted against women in the first century, not one they could use, and it almost always left them destitute if their family of origin couldn’t or wouldn’t step up.

How does it honor the concept of “Christian marriage” to enforce the continuance of an abusive, destructive relationship that is slowly squeezing all life and joy out of a woman’s soul? Our focus has to be on urging men to love their wives like Christ loves the church, not on telling women to put up with husbands mistreating their wives like Satan mistreats us. We shouldconfront and stop the work of Satan, not enable it.

Look, I hate divorce as much as anyone. I have been married for 31 years and cannot fathom leaving my wife. I have prayed with couples, counselled with couples, written blog posts and articles and books, and have travelled to 49 of the 50 states and nine different countries to strengthen marriages in the church. By all accounts, I believe I’ve been an ambassador for improving and growing marriages.

The danger of what I’m saying is clear and even a little scary to me, because no marriage is easy. Every marriage must overcome hurt, pain, and sin. No husband is a saint, in the sense that every husband will need to be forgiven and will be troublesome and even hurtful at times to live with. I’m not talking about the common struggles of living with a common sinner, or every man and woman could pursue divorce. (There are many men who live with abuse and could “biblically” pursue a divorce as well.) Charging someone with “abuse” when it doesn’t truly apply is almost as evil as committing abuse, so we need to be careful we don’t bear “false witness” against a spouse to convince ourselves and others that we can legitimately pursue divorce to get out of a difficult marriage.

That’s why I love how some churches will meet with a couple and hear them out to give them some objective feedback, helping them to distinguish between normal marital friction and abusive behavior. Some women need to hear, “No, this isn’t normal. It’s abuse. You don’t have to put up with that.” Others need to hear, “We think what you’re facing are the normal difficulties of marriage and with counseling they can be overcome.” There’s no way a blog post (or even a book) can adequately anticipate all such questions.

I love marriage—even the struggles of marriage, which God can truly use to grow us and shape us—but I hate it when God’s daughters are abused. And I will never defend a marriage over a woman’s emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

I went back to my hotel room after that woman’s conference and almost felt like I had to vomit. I don’t know how God stands it, having to witness such horrific behavior leveled at his daughters.

Enough is enough!

Jesus says there are “levels” of love, and times when one loyalty must rise over another. Our loyalty to marriage is good and noble and true. But when loyalty to a relational structure allows evil to continue it is a false loyalty, even an evil loyalty.

Christian leaders and friends, we have to see that some evil men are using their wives’ Christian guilt and our teaching about the sanctity of marriage as a weapon to keep harming them. I can’t help feeling that if more women started saying, “This is over” and were backed up by a church that enabled them to escape instead of enabling the abuse to continue, other men in the church, tempted toward the same behavior, might finally wake up and change their ways.

Christians are more likely to have one-income families, making some Christian wives feel even more vulnerable. We have got to clean up our own house. We have got to say “Enough is enough.” We have got to put the fear of God in some terrible husbands’ hearts, because they sure don’t fear their wives and their lack of respect is leading to ongoing deplorable behavior.

I want a man who was abusive to have to explain to a potential second wife why his saintly first wife left him. Let men realize that behavior has consequences, and that wives are supposed to be cherished, not used, not abused, and never treated as sexual playthings. If a man wants the benefit and companionship of a good woman, let him earn it, and re-earn it, and let him know it can be lost.

Enough is enough.

I know I’m ranting. But I don’t think it was an accident that I was constantly stopped at that woman’s conference and forced to hear despicable story after despicable story (“forced” isn’t the right word. I could, of course, have walked away). I think God wanted me to see the breadth and depth of what is going on, and in this case, perhaps to be His voice.

Message received! We are called to love marriage, but when marriage enables evil, we should hate it (love it less) in comparison to a woman’s welfare.