I have a pretty persistent habit of saying “I feel you” when someone is telling me about a problem they have or a situation they’re in. Normally, I try to be intentional about using the three-word phrase only when I really do “feel” what someone else is going through, when I’ve been through something similar.
But sometimes the words come out before I think, the slippery little suckers sliding off my tongue at a speed that would make Mario Andretti proud. When that happens I just start rambling, and it never ends well once that train gets rolling. It goes something like this:
“I feel you. … I mean, I don’t really. I’ve never had something like that happen to me, per say. Well, there was this one time I thought I broke my mom’s little angel statue … but I don’t think that’s quite the same as breaking up with someone after 7 years of dating. My bad.”
Once the rambling has led me off a cliff, the other person usually laughs, continues with their story or changes the subject. These are all bearable followings to my show of idiocy and, therefore, socially non-damaging.
But I don’t want to be just socially pleasant. I want to be the kind of person that can listen to another’s problems and help them know that someone else has been there, that they’re not on some crazy island by themselves no matter how it may feel. I want empathy.
Reading that sentence sounds weird, but that’s the truth of it. I want the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The most effective way to gain empathy, unfortunately, is to struggle, fail and get back up. At least, that’s how I’ve gained whatever empathy I have. Struggle, fail, get back up, repeat.
And while that process is painful and frustrating it’s also inevitable and effective. When I was a teenager, my friends wouldn’t tell me when they were having a hard time or when they were struggling with making the wrong kind of decisions. I never understood why people didn’t tell me things, but now I know it’s because I couldn’t understand what they were going through. And that lack of understanding led to a judgmental nature that was hurtful for those who were fighting to change, to make good decisions.
It wasn’t until I realized how easy it was to mess up, to give in to temptations that I was able to open the door to share others’ pain, to hold one side of their sin and say, “I can’t do it alone and you can’t do it alone, so how about we try and fight this thing together.” That’s when I became a real friend.
But what about the times when you can’t relate to what people are going through? I’ve never struggled with homosexual feelings but there are times when I’ve felt unloved and wanted to feel accepted. I’ve never fought the desire to do drugs but I’ve wanted to distract myself from pain and have found other vices or distractions that haven’t been healthy.
Does that mean I’m a better Christian, a better human than the person who did pick up the needle or open the pill bottle? “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
I’ve messed up more than I can count on 10,000 hands. Just because someone sins differently than I do, it doesn’t put any kind of heavier weight on them than on me. Struggling differently just makes it harder to relate to one another. Harder, but not impossible.
To fight the inability to empathize due to a lack of experience, maybe we should pull back. Stop looking at each sin as a specific and look to the root. For those struggling with sexual sins, show them the unshakable, perfect love of Jesus. For those struggling with having a life that seems to be going nowhere, show them the promises of God for a life filled with purpose.
Combat the apathy and embrace the empathy of Jesus. He loved us enough to give His all. Is taking the time to look to the root of others’ struggles too much to give in return?
Editor’s Note: Margaret is a contributor to this blog, but she’s not the only writer whose words you may see here. To read more posts by Margaret or to see the other writers, visit the authors’ categories in the menu at the top right corner of the screen.