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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to use empathy with love

Lynne Baab • Wednesday February 14 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to use empathy with love

Identify with. Experience. Understand. Those are the verbs in the definition of empathy that I have been highlighting in recent blog posts.

“Empathy is the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. . . . When we empathize, we are attempting to understand and/or experience what another person understands and/or experiences.”
—Verderber and Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts

Today, I want to raise the possibility that the three verbs I have highlighted can be exercised without love and actually cause harm. Ideally, we hope that anyone who makes an effort to identify with, experience, and understand another person’s emotions would be motivated by goodwill. After all, engaging that way with another person is hard, so surely, when people are willing to spend that much energy and attention, they must be motivated by care and affection. Right?

No, not always. My husband Dave and I have experienced insightful and perceptive people who are so skilled at engaging with our thoughts and emotions that they know precisely how to hurt us. Last week’s blog post  focused on the hard work and complexity of empathy. When I posted it on Facebook, I got an intriguing comment from a friend: “There are those who weaponize empathy.” His words brought back memories of those rare but painful situations Dave and I have experienced.

Maybe it starts with a past hurt or grudge. We are trying to listen carefully to a person we find hard to love. We get a solid picture of their thoughts and emotions, and we know exactly how to pay them back. Or maybe we are talking with someone we have strong affection for. Even people we love can irritate us, and as they talk and we enter into their world, we feel our irritation rise. We perceive the place inside them where we could lob a hurtful statement. Because we are irritated, we find ourselves wanting to do that.

I have always presumed empathy is like compassion, rooted in care for the other person. However, now I’m wondering if the specific (challenging) actions that comprise empathy—identifying with, experiencing, and understanding—are like so many other skills that take time and effort to develop. So many skills can be used for good or evil. Graphic artists can create beautiful art for others to enjoy and publications that inform and encourage. They can also make counterfeit money. The pharmacist or anesthesiologist can use their knowledge of drugs to help or hurt. The financial manager can steward money for others wisely or with the intent to defraud. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous to compare empathy to these examples. We usually presume that compassion underlies empathy, and I believe that is generally true.

We have no direct biblical instructions for empathy because the word is not used in the Bible. Compassion is used 63 times, attributed frequently to the Triune God and to Jesus, and compassion always has a component of love and care.

I wrote two weeks ago about the close etymological connection between empathy, sympathy, and compassion. All of them require wisdom in their execution. Sympathy and compassion, as used in the Bible, are postures of kindness. Despite that positive picture, we know we must use compassion wisely to avoid enmeshment or co-dependency. Sympathy must be used carefully so we don’t sound paternalistic or distant.

We need to consider how to use empathy wisely to avoid co-dependency or enmeshment, and we can also pray to use empathy skills with love and compassion. When we engage our brains for the purpose of identifying with, experiencing, and understanding another person, we gain insight into that person. Those insights help us see exactly how best to hurt the other person. Or support, encourage, and care for them. Before this week, I had never linked the skills of empathy with those nasty past experiences when perceptive people knew exactly how to hurt me, but now I see that the skills are the same. Compassionate God, give me your love when I enter into the thoughts and feelings of others.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

Forgiving God, help me grow in empathy and help me to use it wisely and with compassion, care, and love. Prevent me from weaponizing empathy. When I am tempted to make a snide comment or say something mean, and I know exactly how to hurt the other person, stop me. Help me to see others with your eyes, and help me to listen to them with your ears.

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Next week: how to grow in empathy. Illustration by Dave Baab: Cambridge, England, from Castle Mount. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

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