By Aaron Edwards
I believe that just about anyone who has taken the time to self-evaluate and remove some personal facades would agree that how we see and relate to others is directly linked to how we see and relate to ourselves. That is not a far stretch to say. But, like most truths, it’s easier to deal with when the theory remains conceptual, rather than experiential. And so it is with empathy and compassion. Empathy breeds compassion. Empathy is entering into another’s experience. I can be with someone as they are lamenting, and I can lovingly say to them, “I feel your pain.” I believe in that concept. But I don’t actually want the experience of feeling their pain! Especially when I can’t even be with my own pain.
There is the cycle: I cannot enter into another’s pain in a non-codependent way if I cannot sit with my own discomfort/suffering/pain, and I cannot sit with my own pain unless I believe that ALL things are being made new.
There is someone I have known for the better part of a decade who has been a mentor, a life coach, and a ministry partner, but mostly a friend. He showed up in a time in my life when everyone wanted to talk about growing their churches, and all he wanted to do was talk about Jesus—it felt like the most refreshing thing I could have experienced. What he taught me about the most had to do with my marriage and family. He taught me that, as a pastor, the only ministry that truly matters is in my home, and that everything I do for countless other people was just practice for the real work that happens when I walk in my own front door. He was right. It really does work that way. In a world where some pastors pride themselves on a pristine public life while their private lives are in shambles, I determined that my public appearance mattered much less than how much I really cared about creating a home that makes room for authenticity and practices unconditional love.
My friend also taught me that my wife was actually not designed to satisfy my needs—she is there to show me to myself—and that what I need I can only get from the Source. Then I can fill up and pour the overflow back into my wife. He was right about that, too.
Over the years, my friend and I have not only seen but experienced countless instances of being at the end of the rope, positioning into a state of surrender, followed by sheer resurrection bliss. We learned that the only way around is through—a delightful discovery! And if we dare to perceive whatever emotion it is that we are trying to avoid, there’s much healing to be had.
Given the nature of my friend, and the nature of what he poured into me regarding marriage and family, I was not prepared to find out that he had been having an affair with a woman in our community for the last six months. I was even less prepared to see his apparent refusal to fully own the destruction that the affair had caused his family, as well as countless other families that had seen him as their spiritual guide.
This type of thing is not uncommon among leaders, and unfortunately, “religious” leaders are not exempt from this particular brand of indiscretion. However, I was still surprised because my friend and I have been on a journey that has included authenticity, self-awareness, and a willingness to “out” ourselves when we see certain self-destructive patterns developing.
Not only was I caught off guard by the affair and the amount of deception that had taken place in order to maintain it, I was also surprised by his response to the affair. More than anything, though, I was surprised by my own response to the affair, and my response to his response. I lacked empathy.
I often say (half-jokingly) that I want grace for me and justice for everyone else. It’s not really that I have a need for others to get what they deserve; it’s more that I have a self-serving desire to somehow come out ahead. Which means that I think I need something other than what I already have. The need for something other than what I already have is the root of addiction, and more generally speaking, the root of sin.
In the Genesis story, the fall did not take place because of forbidden fruit, but because Adam and Eve felt they needed something they did not already have. They were given paradise and community with their Creator, and yet they thought they would not be whole unless they had something more. something other than what they already possessed.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24, ESV). Jesus did not say for us to believe that we will receive what we ask for, He said to believe that we have received it. We’re created with access to everything we need. We don’t pray to access something that we don’t have; we pray to access something we do have. Everything outside of God that I think I need in order to satisfy my fear of scarcity is a lie—a lie that I often believe.
So when something happens—like my friend having an affair—it causes me to take an inventory that I don’t want to take. I have to be willing to feel whatever I feel, and then continue go deeper. I’m hurt. I’m disappointed. I take it personally. Then I feel righteously indignant; then I want to separate myself from the whole situation. Underneath that, I realize that my friend is showing me a side of myself that I don’t want to see. I’ve never chosen an extra-marital affair, but everyday I long for deliverance from my own brokenness, and everyday I choose something other than my Creator, something outward, to momentarily ease the longing.
And that tells me that, at it’s core, empathy has very little to do with the other person and everything to do with how I see myself in light of the world around me, how I see myself in light of my Creator. I am not going to understand why people do the things they do until I can understand why I do the things I do. And when I don’t feel like taking the time to understand what is happening inside of me, I will be quick to point out what I don’t like about someone else.
Luckily, we have a God who knows our innermost needs; He knows our broken condition. He is making broken things whole. He is making dead things come alive. He has a dream for us to experience wholeness and complete satisfaction in and through Himself, and as much as I try to undermine it, His dream will not be thwarted. That is true across the board.
Knowing that leads to me empathy,
which leads me back to my friend.
Source: Recovering Faith: Words for the Way. Volume 2 [Kelly Hall, ed]