Softened by Empathy

I’ve seen empathy manifest as a spiritual gift in several people throughout my life. Often these people will be praying for someone when all of the sudden, they just start weeping. They may not have the perfect words to pray over the person, but they “feel-all-the-feels.” Whatever emotion the person they’re praying for is feeling is transferred over to them in order to give them direction to pray, kind of like that bug girl, Mantis, in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a powerful, but heavy gift to carry.

If we could learn to feel-the-feels of those around us, we’d start to show more compassion and love for one another. But without empathy we’ll continually return to the science of who we are and judge one another rather than live by the unconditional love of the Holy Spirit. Without empathy we’ll never be able to see ourselves in the skin of our neighbors. Henri Nouwen convicts us all of this:

Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, and destined for the same end. With this compassion you can say, “In the face of the oppressed, I recognize my own face and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands. Their flesh is my flesh, their blood is my blood, their pain is my pain, their smile is my smile. Their ability to torture is in me, too; their capacity to forgive I find also in myself. There is nothing in me that does not belong to them too; nothing in them that does not belong to me. In my heart I know their yearning for love, and down to my entrails, I can feel their cruelty. In another’s eyes I see my plea for forgiveness, and in a hardened frown I see my refusal. When someone murders, I know that I too could have done that, and when someone gives birth, I know that I am capable of that as well. In the depths of my being, I meet my fellow humans with whom I share love and hate, life and death.”

Henri Nouwen. (With Open Hands, page 56)

Can you see yourself in others? Do you try to imagine yourself in their shoes? Nathan Foster has practiced this art and found in doing so that, “The rude cashier at the grocery store, turns into a wounded person spewing venom on anyone willing to take it. The guy who cuts me off in traffic is pitied for the frantic pace he lives. The woman scantily clad in inappropriate clothing is just baring a deep longing for a love she can’t seem to find” (The Making of an Ordinary Saint, page 146). Pastor Greg Boyd practiced this kind of empathy while walking around the mall one day. 

As I replaced judgmental thoughts with loving thoughts and prayers of blessing, something extraordinary began to happen. I began to see the worth I was ascribing to people, and I began to feel the love I was giving to them. As I ascribed worth to people, not allowing any other thought, opinion, or feeling to enter my mind, my heart began to expand. In fact, at certain moments I felt as though I would explode with love. I was waking up to the immeasurable value and beauty of each person in the mall that afternoon.

Gregory A. Boyd (Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God, page 14)

What about you? Do you see people? Not simply acknowledge them, but really see them? When someone yells at you does your heart break because of their words or because of their pain? Because when you see someone—really see them—even the most hardened of criminals become people needing God’s love.

In another one of his books, Boyd recalls hearing a story on the news one night about a man who murdered a child and it left him feeling incredibly unsettled. As he prayed over the story, he had a vision of a child locked in a closet, begging his dad to let him out because he hated the dark. Boyd said his heart broke and he cried as he sensed God to tell him to pray for this little boy. But this also confused Boyd since the child had already been killed. What good would praying do? God cleared up the confusion and explained to Boyd, “This isn’t the boy who was murdered. This is my precious, tormented child who murdered him. Pray for him”(Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now, page 130).

And so we must give our hearts to God to learn how to better love and pray for those around us. Yes, we do desire justice, but we leave vengeance in God’s hands as we do what we can to lead both our friends and enemies to Jesus, as we are both softened and emboldened by the power of empathy.

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