Empathy Before Therapy

two young women sitting on grass hugging rear view

Life is messy. I don’t think there is anyone who has lived a full life, and upon reflection, found a life devoid of troubles—be they great or small. I would consider myself to be a positive person, but I can also be honest about the fact that my adulthood started in a rubble of broken dreams and a shattered heart. When I relive the details of that time in my life, I don’t writhe in pain or ugly cry through the play-by-play. I can tell the bad along with the ways in which God redeemed all that was stolen from me. I learned more about myself than I ever could have imagined at 20. I also had such sweet encounters with God that I know He was very near to me in my time of pain.

When a painful event has taken place, the initial shock seems to paralyze us. In the ground-zero moments of pain, we can almost see the things we “should” do, but they seem impossible. Pain hits like a bomb so close to us that our faculties are impaired. Like a real bomb hitting too close can impair a person’s vision or hearing, we freeze up and feel helpless. We want to both assess the damage, and curl up and try to disappear. When the news spreads to others they come to help. The help—although well intentioned—can invite in guilt that tells you that you’re not doing enough. As much as we all want to tell someone in pain what they “should” do, let’s be more focused on just being present. Pain overwhelms in the initial onslaught and it is okay to spend time surveying the myriad of emotions and simply being held by your Savior. He doesn’t expect you to “DO” anything. Let him comfort you. Let him use his kids to come alongside you and be a support system.

This morning, I was thinking about how Jesus helped those in pain. The first story that came to mind was Lazarus. When Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, he lingered for 2 extra days. I am certain that was in obedience to the Holy Spirit. He didn’t do anything without checking in with his Father. But if you remember in the story, when he arrived to heal Lazarus and found that he was dead, he wept. There is speculation as to why he wept. Most support the theory that he wept because he was affected by the intense emotions of the ones he loved. I tend to agree with this for the most part, but maybe not because I think he was overcome with compassion. I think Jesus would be at the top of a very short list of beings who could completely bring his emotions into submission if he wanted to. However, I believe Jesus knew one of the greatest callings that his life lived on Earth, was to demonstrate how to be like the Father. In this story I believe he is showing those of us who would read this long after his ascension that the first order of business when someone is in pain is to practice empathy not therapy. Jesus had full confidence in the outcome of this tragedy. He could have taken Mary by the shoulders and given her a little shake to snap her out of her grief and said, “Woman, I am here to bring him back to life! Stop your crying and have a little faith!” However, he stepped into her pain and shared her feelings.

Empathy by definition is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This is messy and uncomfortable and at times feels like you are fueling the paralysis of pain. But Jesus himself valued this very important step in being a comfort to friends in pain. I know from experience that having someone come alongside me and validate my pain gives them a greater influence to speak life to me in the days and weeks that follow a tragic life bomb. Empathy opens the door to therapy.

All too often, in our desperate attempts to bring our friend to a better place we offer therapy first. I am guilty of this as a habitual fixer. I want to improve others’ situations and can hardly keep my opinions of how to do that to myself. Therapy is treatment intended to relieve or heal. This sounds like such a kind thing to do for a friend, but I am learning from Jesus that being there in shared feelings and validation is the first-aid salve their souls need most. Therapy is important and there is a time for it, but empathy supersedes the need to guide people out of their troubles.

Romans 12 has so many nuggets of wisdom. In verse 15, Paul tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. This section is all about love in action and that verse is lived out in how Jesus came alongside those who were mourning for Lazarus. I leave you with Romans 12:9-15. May you breathe in guidance from the Word on how to walk out our conviction to love one another. I pray that we can all be more like Jesus and less like Dr. Phill when our friends are hurting. I for one have lots of room for improvement.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.


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