Like many people in ministry, I grew up without the language of emotions.
I discovered this in my college class on Christian Counseling. When my professor asked if anyone wanted to be her Teacher’s Aid I practically leaped out of my seat! I wanted to be mentored by her!
The first time I went to her office I announced, “I’m excited to learn from you about being a Christian counselor.”
“We can get to some of that later,” Cara smiled. “Let’s talk about you. How do you feel?”
“How do I feel?”
“Yes. How do you feel? Tell me what’s happening in your life and what your emotions are.” Then she looked at me with a warm smile. She was quiet, calm, secure, stable, undistracted, patient, genuinely interested, and filled with concern for my well-being.
That’s empathy. Not sympathy that enmeshes and reacts. Not reassurance that cheerleads and invalidates. Not dispensing insights that put you up and away in your head. No advice. Certainly, no judgment. Just tender-hearted empathy. Just being deeply present to listen to you and gently reflect back what you seem to feel.
I’d never experienced empathy like that before.
Week after week this was the drill. She’d ask, “How do you feel?” And we’d fish for my emotions. She had to be patient because it took a while to catch anything!
I’d been so focused on accomplishing things and helping other people that I wasn’t aware of my emotions. I didn’t know the language of feelings! Unconsciously, I’d been shutting down my heart so I wouldn’t have to be vulnerable or needy.
Being in therapy showed me that repressing my emotions caused me to have problems with the big three destructive emotional postures: depression, anxiety, and resentment. (This is the emotions triad of the Enneagram.)
Cara’s gentle questions and compassionate listening “held” me in Christ’s arms.
She opened up for me the hidden healing pathway of feeling sadness over life hurts, losses, and unmet needs and sharing with an empathy-giver.
My journey of trusting safe and strong people, feeling emotions, and connecting deeply in relationships was just beginning. Later I would resume psychotherapy for a number of years. Without that, I would not have experienced my subsequent spiritual renewal.
The truth is that to grow spiritually we need to grow emotionally. Going to church, reading spiritual formation books, doing spiritual disciplines, actively serving the Lord, or being in a small group only grow your soul if you’re also sharing your emotions with a soul friend as onto God.
The incarnation of God in the human Jesus is the perfect empathy we need. It’s on every page of the Gospels. It’s prayed out in the Psalms. It’s poured out on the cross. It’s trumpeted by prophets and apostles throughout the Bible: “You are not alone! You are loved! You are forgiven! God is totally with you and totally for you!” (e.g., Romans 8:26-39).
Church or any community of people gathered in Jesus’ name is meant to be an opportunity to experience the warmth of God’s compassionate presence (e.g., Matthew 10:40, 18:20; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Corinthians 1:3-6).