We’ve been reflecting on how to build empathy. How to become more caring. At our first session, we looked at CURIOSITY. How our curiosity helps us be interested in others. At our second sessions, we looked at IMAGINATION. How our imagination helps us see that we are more similar than we think. We are already at our third (and final) session. This might be the most important session of all.
Relationships are difficult. I’m not talking about romantic relationships necessarily. Friendships, family relationships, acquaintances, and so on. Our curiosity and imagination help us form these meaningful relationships in life. But just because we connect with other people, doesn’t mean that everything will go well.
We have misunderstandings. We get into arguments and fights. Best friends suddenly turn into worst enemies. People grow apart and stop communicating. We experience how fragile human connections can be. We experience the limits of human relationships.
I often wonder about this. I realize that the greatest difficulty in human relationships is that we can never “know” another person fully. We can imagine, but we can never be that other person.
We may see that the other person is in pain, but we can never know that pain as much as that person. Even though we are all human, at the end of the day, we see that the difference between me and the other person remains. We see a gap that we can’t be bridged. This gap creates tension, misunderstanding, and conflict. It makes us feel lonely and alone. We try to care about the other person, but we get tired and frustrated. We feel helpless.
Our empathy cannot be based on our feelings alone. Otherwise, if we don’t feel like it, we won’t care. Empathy involves our feelings, but it is not just a feeling. Our care for another person must come from a deeper place. Empathy must come from a place of LOVE.
Love is what completes empathy. Without love, our empathy becomes false and superficial. We become emotionally manipulative. We can pretend like we care, but what we say and do will ring hollow and empty to others.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Love itself isn’t a feeling. Love is about the heart. It is our attitude toward the other person. Love is our willingness to be totally for the other person, no matter what. Love sets everything else in the right direction. Without it, our curiosity and imagination can take us to a very dark place. Love is what ultimately bridges the gap in our relationships.
Isn’t that the good news of our Christian faith? God bridged the gap between himself and us through the cross. God loved us even when we didn’t care for him. God showed us that he is always for us, not against us.
Love doesn’t erase differences. Love embraces differences. Even awkwardness.
When there is love, our empathy expresses itself these simple but concrete and meaningful actions. They flow out of love. They are: ASKING, LISTENING/SHARING, and PRAYING.
First, asking forms a connection between me and the other person. Even if we are curious, if we don’t ask, there’s no relationship. Asking is an act of genuine care. It is a way of loving our neighbour.
The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?“Simone Weil
On the surface, listening seems like nothing. You’re just looking at the other person while they’re talking. But in reality, listening is the most difficult thing to do. Because it demands all of your attention.
We are very good at pretending to listen. We are not good at listening at all. We tune out. We get easily distracted. We lose interest when we can’t understand the other person. Physically, we might be here. But mentally, we are somewhere else or preparing what we are going to say next.
Listening is not about listening to the words. Real listening is about listening to the heart behind the words. You are listening to the person speaking those words. When you do that, it is easier to give them your full attention. You are so focused that you don’t even know you’re doing it. Listening gives empathy its true meaning.
You may not fully understand the heart behind the words. But that’s okay. What matters is that you are listening. Even when it is difficult and frustrating. The other person will feel truly heard by you. They will feel seen by you.
Sharing usually follows from listening. Sharing is another way of expressing our empathy. Sharing is our way of recognizing and reciprocating what we’ve received from the other person. Since they were willing to be vulnerable with us, we also show our willingness to be vulnerable with them. You throw the ball back.
When you share, you are not offering solutions to what the other person shared. Too often we try to fix people’s problems. We think that’s what they need. What they really need is for you to listen and be there. Even when they want you to give them solutions.
When you share, you are sharing about yourself. In your sharing, you are letting them know that they are not alone in their struggles. You are showing them that you are broken and imperfect, just as they are. In doing so, you become more honest with yourself too.
This is why our listening and sharing ends with praying. We do this on Sundays after worship. But I feel like we often get into a habit of it, without thinking about why we do it. To me, praying is the ultimate expression of our care for the other person. It is a way of saying neither of us has all the answers. It is a way of asking God to do what we can’t do ourselves. It is a way of putting our trust in God.
Praying, like listening, seems like nothing. It seems impractical and counter-intuitive. But it is the most powerful thing we can experience. It is also the most effective. James said that about prayer.
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.James 5:13-16
Prayer is the most precious gift that God has given to us. It doesn’t cost us any money. Some of you are here for the first time. You don’t need to know how to pray. Prayer is not a technique. Prayer is simply lifting up what’s on our heart, or what’s on the other person’s heart. What God hears is not so much our words, but our heart that is behind our words. We just need to be simple and sincere.
Community of empathy is built on love. Love that God has shown us through Jesus Christ. Empathetic community is a community that asks, listens and shares, and prays together. Let us spend our last night together asking, listening & sharing and praying with one another.
Find someone from your group. Get into pairs. Find a spot and sit together. I invite you to share with your partner:
- What are you going through?
- What has been most difficult for you personally this past year?
While your partner is sharing, listen. Give your complete attention to them. Ignore whatever is happening around you. Let your partner be the most important thing to you. When your partner finishes sharing, you can begin sharing. Affirm and thank them for what they have shared. Reciprocate how open they’ve been with you. It is okay to be vulnerable. You are in a safe space. Based on what you have shared, pray for each other. Lift each other up to God. Lift up your prayer in faith. When you’re done, find someone else from your group. If you see them waiting, approach them first.