The healing power of empathy

As a pastor, you are often called to be a peace bearer in the midst of conflict. Learn how you can use empathy to resolve differences and bring true peace.

Daniel Harrison is a Master of Divinity student with a concentration in pastoral counseling, Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland, Ohio, United States.

As a pastor, have you ever wondered how to deal with factions within your congregation and promote the unity of the body of Christ?

Divisions within the church manifest themselves in a plethora of ways: liberal versus conservative, rich versus poor, tribe against tribe, caste against caste, to name a few. All too often, dialogue does not exist, and a misinformed leeriness of other groups lurks.

The problem is indeed a complicated one, and solutions are not easy. While we cannot address all the issues or find a simplistic cure-all for what ails our churches, we must look at one characteristic that, if practiced, can have a monumental impact on the unity of believers worldwide: empathy.

Empathy defined

According to Carl Rogers, empathy is “to perceive the internal frame of reference of another person with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings that pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without losing the as-if condition.”1 In other words, to show empathy toward another individual or group means to imagine what it would be like to be that person or group. One should do so in moderation, without losing the sense of one’s own self in another.

Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, for some may have sympathy for another, without truly understanding another’s situation.2 Sympathy is triggered by an awareness of others based on our own feelings and experiences. Empathy, on the other hand, takes an extra step by striving to understand the feelings and experiences of that person.3 When someone feels mere sympathy toward another, the sympathetic person might be more likely to feel sad themselves, which may actually have consequences on that person’s emotional state. By contrast, one who shows empathy will likely be motivated to assist the victim in the resolution of whatever situation they are experiencing.4 Empathy, then, has a practical component, serving as a catalyst to positive change.

One might be inclined to argue that some are not naturally empathetic, that they do not have the emotional capability to empathize with others. While this may be true in some cases, research indicates humans are capable of learning how to empathize.5 Research also shows that when a person exhibits genuine empathy, it is more the result of a choice than nature.6 Those who seem naturally empathic are able to do so as a result of a lifetime of choices.

Empathy, then, is a deliberate attempt to understand the inner world of another, and a skill that can be learned and practiced. It can have a tremendous impact on one’s willingness to reach out to another in building bridges across a separating gulf.

Natural barriers to empathy Perhaps one of the most common reasons for divisive issues is human egocentricity. As human beings, we naturally see other people and events through our distinct personal or cultural biases.7 We subconsciously and mistakenly assume that everyone shares our own values, norms, and ethics, and we are taken aback when someone around us violates these principles. We assume that others are more like us than they actually are.8 We expect them to reach the same conclusions on outside events that we do, and we anticipate that they will make the same decisions we would in a given scenario. Hence we are prevented from understanding their point of view, relegating them to a certain category.

We fail to understand others because we do not take time to understand them. Sometimes we generalize their character based on a single interaction with them, choosing to apply a label based on that interaction.9 Other times, we stereotype them based on faulty information gained about the group to which they belong.10 For one reason or another, from faulty or incomplete information about someone, we pass our judgment on that person.

But for empathy to flow from one to another, we must be willing to recognize these human tendencies and limitations within ourselves. We must recognize that others operate from a frame of reference completely different than ours, and strive to understand that frame of reference. We must recognize within ourselves the prejudices we carry about another person or group, and choose to deal with these prejudices that prevent us from understanding the other’s behavior. In doing so, we overcome the roadblocks that hinder empathy.

Implications of empathy

Empathy is crucial to maintain social harmony.11 When people are willing to lay aside their personal feelings and take the effort to get inside the mind of someone else, they have the possibility to maintain peace amongst themselves. Such a situation lends incredible aid in repairing a divided church.

Empathy enables dialogue among people who have significant differences. 12 Humans naturally seek the status quo; as a result, not many choose to associate with people different from themselves. They remain wrapped up in their own cultures and subcultures, furthering the rift between themselves and the other. With empathy, such people can take the risks involved in breaking out of their own comfort zone, and, by taking time to understand someone different, they can discover a piece of shared humanity and even learn something from the other.

Thus, empathy not only helps people with great differences to understand each other but also allows them to love one another.13 This type of love Jesus commands His followers to possess (John 15:12–14, 17)—the type of love that, once it understands what another person is going through, actively seeks that person’s well-being.

Imagine if believers worldwide would practice this behavior. Imagine the conflicts that could be solved once the realization occurred that the differences lie in some type of misunderstanding. Imagine the pain that can be healed when people, instead of reverting to defense coping mechanisms, take the risk involved in understanding another person. Imagine the unity and love shared when people choose to go out of their way to show love in practical terms to someone whom they initially may not understand.

The implications for the body of Christ cannot be underestimated. We would fulfi ll Jesus’ prayer that we would all be one (John 17:20, 21). By doing this, the world would be given a true example of the peace it craves, and would know that we belong to Him, just as He prayed.

The repercussions would be felt in individual congregations. Instead of bickering and quarreling, there would be a more focused, sharpened dedication toward real mission. People would be willing to take time to understand what is important to others and discover together a shared priority that can supersede individual agendas.

Conclusion

Yes, empathy has the power to unite people, even those whose differences seem irreconcilable, opening the door to genuine dialogue. It is a crucial element for peaceful interactions to exist between two parties. At a time when believers seem to be separated by various issues, empathy can pave the way for the type of unity crucial to our existence and mission.

As with anything of value, what is necessary seldom comes easily. To truly understand the mind-set of another who is different from us requires a great deal of effort. Even in situations in which we may be convinced we are right, we must take the time and energy to learn how another reached a conclusion opposite to our own. Such work, if executed, will pay tremendous dividends toward our common mission.

Pastors are key in promoting empathy. Perhaps as much as any other role or occupation, the pastor’s position presents constant opportunities for empathy. Through the seemingly unending conflicts, challenges, and resistances facing pastors, they must strive to realize empathy in each interaction, in such a way that it becomes a habit for them. Their congregation needs to learn empathy from the pastor, not only in word but also, and especially, in example.

Once people experience the power of empathy, they will spread it amongst themselves, showing an example of functional interaction. People will be drawn to Christ as they see how those who take His message seriously live out His love.

Finally, if empathy can become a habit in our churches, the differences once deemed insurmountable will fall. Not that conquering such differences will come without great toil, but those who have seen its healing power will be willing to endure the necessary strain and potential for hurt. Eventually, our churches can unite, and we may see God’s kingdom work powerfully in the world.

1 Cited in Jean Decety, “Perspective Taking as the Royal Avenue to Empathy,” in Other Minds: How Humans Bridge the Divide Between Self and Others, eds. Bertram F. Malle and Sara D. Hodges (New York: Guilford, 2005), 145.

2 Paul Lakeland, “The Habit of Empathy: Postmodernity and the Future of Church-Related College,” in Professing in the Postmodern Academy, ed. Stephen R. Haynes (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2002), 40.

3 Decety, “Perspective Taking,” 146.

4 Wallace J. Kahn and Catherine V. Lawhorne, Empathy: The Critical Factor in Conflict-Resolution and a Culture of Civility (West Chester, PA: West Chester University, 2003), 5A.

5 Ibid., 5.

6 Decety, “Perspective Taking,” 154.

7 Leaf Van Boven and George Loewenstein, “Empathy Gaps in Emotional Perspective Taking,” in Other Minds: How Humans Bridge the Divide Between Self and Others, eds. Bertram F. Malle and Sara D. Hodges (New York: Guilford, 2005), 293.

8 Ibid., 285.

9 Daniel R. Ames, “Everyday Solutions to the Problem of Other Minds: Which Tools Are Used When?” in Other Minds: How Humans Bridge the Divide Between Self and Others, eds. Bertram F. Malle and Sara D. Hodges (New York: Guilford, 2005), 160–162

10 Ibid., 163–65.

11 Decety, “Perspective Taking,” 148.

12 Patricia H. Davis, “Women and the Burden of Empathy,” Journal of Pastoral Theology 3 (Summer 1993): 36.

13 Marie McCarthy, “Empathy Amid Diversity: Problems and Possibilities,” Journal of Pastoral Theology 3 (Summer 1993): 26.

 

 


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Daniel Harrison is a Master of Divinity student with a concentration in pastoral counseling, Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland, Ohio, United States.

September 2008

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