Empathy is Oxygen for Your Soul

by | Jul 3, 2024

A pastor from Africa recently attended a Soul Shepherding Institute retreat where he learned about empathy in a way he described as a “cultural revolution.” He shared: 

“In my culture, giving and receiving empathy is considered to be for weak people… we have all been taught to project strength based on self… The Holy Spirit led me to see that my ignorance has been ruining my relationships without me being aware of what was actually happening.” 

Maybe empathy is a foreign concept to you. It might not be understood or embraced on your mission field. 

But empathy is one of the major ways to agree with Jesus’ loving kindness for you and share his heart with others. It’s essential for spiritual growth. It helps you become healthy and whole in your relationship with Jesus and others. 

You can’t breathe without empathy! It’s oxygen for your soul. 

What is Empathy?

So, what does empathy look like?

Empathy is not sympathy. Nobody wants pity that keeps you at an arm’s length. 

It is also not cheerleading that says, “Don’t feel sad. God has a purpose for you.” This type of “look on the bright side” advice from someone who doesn’t truly understand can feel invalidating and hurtful.

Empathy is not just listening—that’s only how it starts. Empathetic listeners are attuned to the feelings of others and feel with them. They draw out deep emotions by asking curious questions. They create a safe space by putting together words that reflect the pain and desires of others and acknowledge their significance.

Hearing empathy sounds like compassion in words: “It seems you feel disappointed…I understand this loss leaves you feeling empty… I’m concerned for you—tell me more about your experience…”

The Bible exhorts us to love one another in the same way Jesus has loved us (John 13:34). Paul teaches that two of the purest attributes of love are patience and kindness (1 Corinthians 13:4). A primary expression of patience and kindness is being quick to listen but slow to speak (James 1:19). That sounds like good empathy! 

Obstacles to Empathy

Receiving empathy requires that you feel your emotions. It means slowing down, paying attention, and getting honest about your hurts and needs.

Adjusting your pace to make space for emotions can be challenging—especially when you are on mission for Jesus! You might be worried that slowing down will threaten the effectiveness of your ministry. Maybe you fear using your valuable time to look inward is selfish or unloving to those you serve. 

And slowing down isn’t the only challenge to attuning to your emotions and receiving empathy. Many of us have learned to deny our feelings instead of embracing them. This is especially true if your parents, pastors, or other role models used compulsive behavior—drinking alcohol, working long hours, or excessive activity—to avoid their internal experience. 

Even “faith” (an unhealthy version) can stand in the way of a fully integrated spiritual and emotional life. It could feel wrong or like a “lack of faith” to express your anger, shame, or anxiety to God and others (although this isn’t true).

Jesus’ Perfect Empathy

Jesus felt the full range of human emotions and shows us how to navigate our inner world.

The Savior of the World frequently stepped away from his mission to pray and shared his feelings of sorrow, grief, abandonment, and anxiety with Abba (Luke 15:16, Matthew 14:13, Luke 22:44, Matthew 27:45-47). He received comfort from his friends and asked them to be present with him during the most difficult time of his life and ministry (John 12:7-8, Matthew 26:38). 

Jesus models for us the power of emotional honesty and receiving empathy from God and others. And he desires that you come to him boldly to embrace his empowering empathy for your weakness (Hebrews 4:15-16). 

The Son of God gives perfect empathy because he has walked in our shoes and knows how we feel. Jesus set aside his divine privileges, left the glory of heaven, and took on human flesh to experience our life, suffer our trials, and feel our longings, pains, and joys. He took on our sin and embraced the ultimate pain of death on the cross (Philippians  2:5-11; Hebrews 4:15). 

Christ’s empathetic love ministers the divine gifts of forgiveness, new life, intimacy with God, and the power to love other people well. It heals loneliness, fear, and shame and brings reconciliation to relationships. 

Receiving Jesus’ empathy happens both in prayer and in relationship with people who serve as his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 1:3-7). Friends who feel your hurt, stress, and longings minister the nature of Jesus with you. 

Learning to Give and Receive Empathy

Are you a compassionate companion to others on the mission field? Are you a friend who gently listens and emotionally holds distressed people?

Empathy has to be in you before it comes out of you. It’s like being on an airplane when an emergency strikes and the oxygen masks come down. Putting your mask on first and taking a deep breath of oxygen allows you to help those around you. Once you are breathing well, you can help someone else breathe, too.

Seeking out empathy can be especially difficult if it wasn’t safe for you to have needs in your formative years. Learning to humble ourselves and  “become like little children” through healing and re-learning is necessary for all of us (Matthew 18:3).

Sadly, I talk with a lot of people who are surprised they struggle with depression, anxiety, constant relational conflict, or addiction. They say things like, “I wasn’t abused. My parents weren’t alcoholics. My family loved me.”

I often discover that they received little to no empathy during childhood. Their adult life is the same. This means they might not have the tools to embrace empathy even when someone has compassion for them. 

It is sad when you talk to somebody who was mistreated or cared for poorly as a child. All of us were raised imperfectly in comparison to the loving parenting of Abba (Matthew 7:11).

But if you lack empathy, you are not helpless. You can take courage from Jesus to feel and to heal. You can forgive, release your past, and walk into Christ’s abundant life. You can trust the One who came to heal broken hearts (Isaiah 61:1).

The flow of empathy only works when you grasp how to be vulnerable and receive. That’s why it’s important to seek out empathy. Learning to ask for what we need is a transformative part of our apprenticeship to Christ (Philippians 4:6). 

Even so—it can be challenging to confidently and experientially become conscious of Abba’s listening ear. It could be hard to attune to his loving Spirit when studying the Bible. 

That’s why it’s not enough to go off by yourself and read the Bible (although this practice is important). The emotional child in you needs more than just studying or teaching. All of us need other ambassadors of Christ (like a spiritual director or soul friend) who mediate his compassion, warmth, and friendship in a way we can see, feel, and know (2 Corinthians 5:20).

You can find a wounded healer. You can become a wounded healer.

Who is a safe person you can talk to today? Who can you share your inner feelings with to help you trust God’s tender heart for you? Who needs your listening, caring heart? How can caring for the emotions transform your mission? Every day is an opportunity to give and receive empathy.

I pray that you breathe Jesus’ loving and compassionate nature deep into your soul!

The Soul Shepherding team of Spiritual Directors is a safe place to share your emotions and receive Jesus’ empathy. Plus, the Soul Shepherding website offers more resources to go deeper with Jesus in emotional health.

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