Empathetic Words

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Honestly, the first time I heard that phrase I thought,

 “This is for sissies. What man needs to be empathetic? Guys are meant to be tough, strong, and forceful with their words. No way I’ll ever be empathetic.”

As soon as that thought crossed my mind, the Lord reminded me in no uncertain terms,

“And have I ever been empathetic with you?” 

Jay Stringer, in his book Unwanted, talks about the way that empathy brings healing to brokenness. We each have a story to be told. We want to be heard. More than that, we want to be known, understood and loved. The most violent offender, the guy who was a school bully growing up, the class clown, the quietest introvert, all of us on the personality spectrum crave this. In fact, our sin has riddled our story with pain and wounds that impact us to this very day. This is why we long for empathy.

Empathy is described by Jay Stringer as a two-winged bird. One wing is kindness, and the other wing is honesty. Without both wings, you don’t have empathy.

Kindness, Stringer explains, is “developed through receiving care from others and choosing consistent patterns of self-care. In experiencing kindness, you will be more attuned to the needs of others.”

When someone shows you kindness, you have the option to receive it or reject it. Receiving and in turn showing yourself kindness through self-care are key to you becoming a kind person to others.

Honesty, as Stringer also explains is “developed through a growing maturity to engage harm and dignity of your life. If you cannot see the way harm has marked your life, you will overlook it or minimize its impact on others. If you do not recognize the dignity of your own life, you will be blind to or dismissive of the dignity of others.

Empathy then is a balance of kindness and honesty both received and shown to others.

I recall being nine years old and severely injuring my knee on my friend’s stingray bike. I spun out on freshly laid tar and gravel on my street. I recall my mom carefully cleaning the cut of gravel pieces, tar, and blood. It was excruciatingly painful and yet my mom was so gentle and kind. (In hindsight we should have gone to the emergency room, for stitches, but we had no money. Decades later, the scar is still there, but the wound has long since healed.)

After a very rough senior year of high school where I struggled with suicidal thoughts, Max showed me empathy while at summer church camp. He listened to my story, my anguish, my tears, and my desire for healing. He was kind by listening and honest in showing me the hope I had in Christ. For the next several years as I went through university, Max consistently discipled me through letters and the occasional visit during breaks. It was Max’s empathy toward me that set in motion a passion for mentoring.

God shows us empathy. In 2 Corinthians 1, we read:

“[God] who comforts us in all our affliction,

so that we may be able to comfort

 those who are in any affliction with the comfort we received.” 

Bottomline, to the extent you walk by the Holy Spirit through the twists and turns of life, you can experience the empathy of God and in turn, extend empathy to others.

Influenced by Jay Stringer’s book, here is a map of a conversation with someone in pain with three options for responding. Most of us converse with others in one of three ways:  fight, flight, or empathy.

Fight is simply that. Someone shows you pain, and you push back harder.

The easiest way to explain flight is you change the subject.

Empathy engages both kindness and honesty.

Look at the next three examples and decide which is a fight response, a flight response or an empathetic one.

Let’s say your friend meets you for lunch with some heavy news about a conversation he had with his wife.

Your friend:    “Every time I bring up money, she lays into me.” Money is tight being newly married. She doesn’t seem to understand.”

You:                   “Dude, you just need to tell her how it is. You aren’t made of money! She needs to buckle down.”                                       


You:                   “Dude, I’m so sorry she gets on your case. Did you hear it’s going to be good weather this weekend? Wanna go camping?”


You:                   “Dude, I’m so sorry she gets on your case. Tell me more about how the conversation went.”

Can you see the difference between fight, flight, and the empathetic response?

A lot of times your response to others in pain boils down to how vulnerable you are when in pain and how you respond to kindness.

“Jesus, help me listen to my friend as he goes through this tough time; to show kindness and honesty.”

I’m rethinking the value of empathy and have concluded true followers of Jesus should be the most empathetic people on the planet.

Next time you are involved in a painful conversation pause, ask the Spirit to help you be both kind and honest. No fight, no flight. Empathy is how Jesus speaks to us.

Warrior On!

David Riffel is the Founder and Executive Director of Having gone through his warrior years (18-30) essentially without a mentor, God has placed in him a heart for warriors, to come alongside them in various ways as they figure out life. David’s newly released book, Mentoring Warriors: Coming Alongside Young Men 18-30, outlines principles for mentoring and gives advice for warriors in six key areas of life: self-management, life skills, education/career, relationships, faith, and identity.

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