Have you heard of “Immanuel Journaling”? It’s spreading like wildfire across America and beyond! Kristi and I have found it to be a wonderful and powerful way to foster a greater awareness of God’s care. It’s a helpful tool for praying through your stress, hurt, intercessions, or whatever you’re experiencing, and appreciating God’s empathy and affirmation for you.
Immanuel Journaling has been developed and taught by our colleagues Jim Wilder, Anna Kang, Sungshim Loppnow, and John Loppnow. (John and Sungshim are personal friends of ours and Soul Shepherding Associates.) Joyful Journey: Listening to Immanuel is their inspiring and practical book that teaches Immanuel Journaling, along with Interactive Gratitude and creating an Immanuel Community.
What I especially appreciate about Immanuel Journaling is that it features a step-by-step process for sharing a personal need or struggle with God and “hearing” his voice in the context of his compassionate listening and care.
As an accompaniment to Joyful Journey John and Sungshim have graciously blessed me to share with you a one page PDF worksheet which we use in our Soul Shepherding ministry: “Immanuel Journaling Worksheet”.
What Empathy Is and Is Not
Fundamental to the ministry of Soul Shepherding is the belief that empathy is oxygen for your soul. Your emotional being won’t thrive without tender-hearted listening and care. Furthermore, if you’re not receiving empathy then you’ll struggle to provide it for others.
Empathy is in short supply today! Most people we talk to are needing to learn better how to give and receive empathy.
However, some followers of Jesus think it isn’t empathy that we need as much as compassion. It’s true that compassion is taught and modeled by Jesus and is throughout the Bible. Compassion is acting in lovingkindness to meet somebody’s needs. But compassion without empathy actually hurts people. It’s easy to make the mistake of helping someone without understanding what they most want and need. In that case my help may be more about what I want to do for someone and may not be experienced as truly helpful by the recipient.
Empathy is a relatively recent word that has come into use through the advent of modern psychotherapy. It’s best seen in compassion that’s put into a conversation in which you listen carefully to the other person. Empathy is stepping into someone else’s shoes. Actually, it’s getting inside the skin of their soul to experience how they feel about themselves and their life.
To offer empathy to people is to listen to them with sustained interest while emanating warm feelings, asking gentle probing questions, resonating with their personal experience, and reflecting back what you hear and sense to validate their emotions. We might think that empathy means using the right words to describe someone’s feelings, but actually empathy is the earnest and persevering effort to understand how someone feels. When someone puts energy and soft-hearted caring into trying to grasp what you’re experiencing then you’ll feel cared for.
Empathy is not sympathy. To sympathize with someone is to identify with their feelings, think you feel the same way, and then share your experience with them. For friends to share sympathy with one another can be a blessing. But if you offer sympathy, without empathy, then you’re liable to misunderstand your friend’s true emotions or switch the focus onto yourself.
Empathy is not reassurance. Reassurance it pointing out reasons why someone doesn’t need to feel their emotional distress. It’s trying to cheer someone up, get them to look on the bright side or not to worry. Reassurance is cheerleading and it invalidates people’s emotions. “Oh, don’t feel scared about that — you’ll do a great job!” There is one situation in which reassurance is very helpful and that’s when it’s based on facts that the upset person doesn’t know, like if you’re doctor is looking at your medical tests and insists, “You don’t have cancer!”
Empathy is not pity (as the word tends to be used today). To feel pity for someone is to feel bad for their suffering and to think that they’re in a sorry state. Often people who are pitied feel they’re being looked down upon or judged.
God offers us the perfect empathy we need throughout the Bible, but especially in the Psalms. God’s perfect empathy took is seen in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God becoming human and giving his life on the cross for us (Philippians 2:5-11).
There are many empathy skills that you can practice when someone is sharing with you:
- Listening patiently without interruption, including allowing for quiet pauses
- Being curious and asking questions that invite further self-disclosure
- Putting fresh words to your understanding of what someone feels (being sure to vary your phrasing and not to parrot back what is shared)
- Showing warmth from your heart in your eyes, bodily posture, and nonverbal gestures
- Resisting making judgments or giving advice
- Inviting the person to share more (when someone seems “done” they probably aren’t)
If empathy is new for you then it may come across as clunky when you try offering it to others. With practice your empathy can become increasingly natural and from the heart. If a recipient feels your empathy is robotic or forced then it may be rebuffed. It takes time to be good at empathy so ask people to be patient with you and let them see the sincerity of your desire to understand.
But ultimately empathy is more than words and skills — it’s character. Empathy is either in you or it’s not. Learning to ask for, receive, absorb, and appreciate empathy from other people is the most important thing you can do to be better at giving empathy.
Immanuel Journaling and God’s Empathy
Immanuel Journaling is a way of opening up our hearts to God and hearing his loving concern for us. It invites us to converse with God in a journal or letter format. The authors of Joyful Journey call this “Thought Rhyming with God.” The beautiful idea here is that we are God’s poetry (“poiema” in Ephesians 2:10). The Hebrew poetry of the Bible, especially the Psalms, doesn’t rhyme sounds but thoughts. For instance:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)
The idea of the second line rhymes the idea of the first. In Immanuel Journaling our thoughts rhyme with God’s thoughts, especially as it pertains to our emotions.
Here’s how the divine rhyming of feelings works in Immanuel Journaling:
First, we write to the Lord about what we need from him and how we appreciate him in our lives.
Then we listen to God’s response to us in key dimensions of empathy. To listen to God in this context mostly means tuning into his thoughts and feelings for us, which generally come to us through our own thoughts and feelings. Specifically, you discern that God:
- Sees you in your situation
- Hears what you’re saying (and even what you’re thinking)
- Understands and validates the significance of your emotions
- Enjoys connecting with you (and has warm feelings toward you)
Also we listen for encouragement from God through Scripture.
Lastly, we’re encouraged to find a friend or small group to take courage and be vulnerable by sharing our journal entry or two-way prayer letter. It’s best when each person does an Immanuel Journaling worksheet and they share it with one another. When we do this to minister God’s loving care then we’re being “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Receiving empathy from a person helps us to better assimilate the Lord’s empathy for us. It’s great blessing!
Joyful Journey explains all this and more, with fresh insights from the Bible and psychology, practical examples, and helpful questions. It’s a great for your personal devotions or to share with your small group.
As a companion to Joyful Journey I’ve developed an “Immanuel Journaling Worksheet” (a one page PDF handout) which uses prompts to guide you in writing a conversational prayer to the Lord in which you share your personal need and emotion and receive his empathy and encouragement.
To learn more about Immanuel Journaling purchase a copy of Joyful Journey and visit Immanuel Journaling Ministries founded by John and Sungshim Loppnow. You may want to ask them to do a seminar at your church or to coach you in starting an Immanuel Journaling group!