Empathy: Listening & Loving Well
Empathy: Listening & Loving Well
Welcome to Christian community – an eclectic mix of broken, sinful, yet redeemed people. Church is beautiful in its testament of God’s salvation of the world, yet has all the hallmarks of living in a fallen world. People make up the church, and it is these same people like you and I who bring with them mountainous baggage, unspoken sins and unheard anxieties as they walk through the doors every Sunday, into every CG and meetup. Yet, we are called to love and to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) in the midst of the mess – how do we better show empathy? How can we share and understand the emotions of others?
The importance of empathy
As Christians, we are called to be imitators of God and to have compassion for one another. We see the ultimate display of empathy in the Bible through Jesus. When he walked the earth, he showed empathy to the sick, the blind, the deaf, and ultimately, us as humans who were dead in our transgressions. Jesus gave up his divine rights to become fully human (Philippians 2:7) and empathised with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). If Jesus, whom we call our Lord and Saviour, showed us great empathy, it is evident that as His followers, empathy should be a characteristic of us Christians.
In a practical sense, empathy is important because it helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to the situation. It helps us to better love, support and serve our brothers and sisters. Exercising empathy is especially important for those struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression and for those who are experiencing a trial or suffering in their life. Remember, church isn’t for the perfect – Jesus himself said he came for the sick and the sinful (Luke 5:31-32). Therefore, it is an expectation that we will have to show empathy for others, so long as we are part of Christian community.
But how can we show empathy if we honestly don’t understand how the other person is feeling?
Has there been a time when someone has shared with you their frustration over something that seemed trivial? Or an instance when someone has shared with you an issue that upset them, and you thought to yourself “The solution is so obvious! All they need to do is take these steps…”. Perhaps you may have said these thoughts out loud to them!
For some of us, exercising empathy is easy – we can step into someone’s shoes and understand their situation in a blink of an eye. Others may find it exceedingly difficult to do so.
No matter if empathy comes ‘easily’ to you or not, we will encounter situations where we genuinely can’t understand why someone is feeling the way they are. And there is no denying - trying to truly understand what someone is experiencing can be quite difficult. More often than not, we think that we can’t show empathy because we haven’t had similar experiences to what the other person is sharing. We get impatient or frustrated. Or when we do relate, we may try to show empathy by sharing our own experiences. Whilst we may perceive this to be providing comfort and healing, we may in fact come across as dismissive or callous.
Empathy can simply mean listening, being present, and relating. So just because you don’t think you are an “empathetic person”, it doesn’t mean you can’t show empathy to others. We are all capable of empathy.
(Some) empathy do’s & don’ts
Listen: it isn’t easy to be vulnerable. When a brother or sister reaches out, remember it’s because they trust that you will support them, love them, and point them to Christ. And trust needs to be reciprocated. So, actively listen with full attentiveness. Remove all distractions. More importantly, remove any biases you may have as a result of your own experiences or knowledge. Be patient and don’t rush the other person.
Acknowledge & connect with their feelings: everyone’s feelings are genuine – a person’s pain, embarrassment, confusion, anger, or any other emotion they are feeling is real. It isn’t our place to dismiss them, rather we need to acknowledge them for what they are. As tempting as it is, try not to belittle their feelings by saying, “Well, it could’ve been worse…”, or to one-up them with, “That sounds hard, but I went through…”. Instead, just imagine if you were going through that same situation – how would you feel? What thoughts might you have? Sometimes, it’s better to say “I can’t imagine how you must feel…”
Ask how you can support them: a common mistake we make is we rush into troubleshooting mode by offering a billion solutions. Be wary not to don your ‘Saviour mode’ cape or succumb to your own pride. Remember, everyone’s situation is unique, and everyone feels loved and supported in different ways. So don’t assume – ask! Maybe the other person just wants to be heard, or a comforting hug. Maybe they want to hear your personal experiences (now’s the time to share, not prior to asking permission). Maybe they do want a solution. Above all else, pray with them and for them.
Our authors Michelle Kwok & Brigette Lo are leaders who serve in our Burwood evening congregation.