Mike, great article on Empathy and Involvement. You really described very well how things should be. However, I have a question. While I would say that I have a high degree of empathy, and it does serve me well in helping and giving encouragement and counsel, I’ve found that it has caused me enormous wear and tear emotionally. How does one keep that empathy strong, but in it’s place, to keep that from happening? I identify with people’s suffering, but I want to “fix it” so badly, that it wears on me, particularly when the external aids are beyond my ability to provide. I could not imagine hearing deep problems for 6-8 hours a day, as much as I desire to help. It would destroy me, I fear. Any thoughts? — Jay
Great question. I don’t know how a secular counselor can stand to stay in business, the pressure is so great. But Christians are called to do this in another way.
Here’s what I think about it.
First, we need to believe the Gospel ourselves. This means that we need to believe, in our bones, that only Jesus saves sinners. Only Jesus changes lives. Only Jesus makes people whole, gives them peace, removes burdens, and restores relationships. As counselors, we are tempted to think that we can do something for our friends. They come to us with their problems and we enter into their lives and forget that we are supposed to point them to Christ; not try to “fix” them ourselves. We have two main goals in the counseling ministry: point to Jesus and get out of the way. Only Jesus changes lives.
Second, we need to believe that Jesus wants to help our friends more than we want to help them. He wants to help them more than they want to be helped. Jesus died for them on a nasty wooden cross, he knows what suffering is all about, he died for this relationship might exist, and we need to take people to him, and get out of the way and let him work.
Third, we need to be living examples of what we are asking our friends to join us in. If we want them to take their burdens to Christ, we need to be taking our burdens to Christ. If we want them to take their burdens to Christ, we need to be taking their burdens to Christ. We feel with our friends. There is no way to stay emotionally distant from the stories our friends tell; to not be involved in their lives with them. If we love them, we will feel with them and for them. But we need to constantly remember that Jesus gives comfort, Jesus gives peace, Jesus gives joy. He gives it to us and he’ll give it to them. So we apply these truths in our own life first, and then we point our friends to Jesus to take care of their life. Oh, and we get out of the way.
Suppose my wife were to tell me our home computer has broken down. What would I do? Well, I think I would ask her what the problem is. I would want to know the whole scoop: how is it broken? How did the problem show up? What is the computer doing or not doing now? Etc. Then, because I’m not a computer guy, I would remember that I can’t do anything about it. So, after thinking about it and perhaps doing some internet research, I would suggest to her that she take the computer to the computer repair person. I might tell her how to talk with the repair guy so that when she gets there she won’t look like a doofus. Then, when she gets to the computer repair place, she will set the computer on the counter and tell them the same thing she told me. They will carefully listen, tell her that they will fix it for her and that she can come back in a few days, and pick it up. Then, she would turn around, go home, and tell me that all was well, the computer guy has it, and will fix it. Then, we would pull out our Bibles, read a bit, and then go to bed.
Notice the similarities to the biblical counseling process. I care deeply for my wife and how she thinks about the computer. So I join in with her in commiserating about the fact that it is broken. I would love on her, kiss her, hug her and tell her that all is not lost, I know someone who can help. When someone comes for counseling, they tell me their story, I listen, I feel it with them, I offer condolences, and then I tell them I know someone who can fix their life for them. I give my wife hope, I give my friend hope. In both cases, I feel with and for them, but I’m not the one who can give them real help.
In the computer story, I ask my wife take the computer to the right computer repair guy. In the second, I send my friend to Jesus. In both cases, I send them to the expert. In both cases, I don’t check and try to micromanage the process. I let the experts do their job. In both cases, I can’t actually do anything. My job is to point the Way and get out of the way.
If I worry and fret over the situation (either one) it does no good, and sometimes gets in the way. If I were to become anxious about my wife taking the computer to the store, she might never get there. If I become too involved in a counseling situation, or in the wrong way, because I’m too close or care too much, I get in the way and God is not pleased. This is especially true if I think I’m the savior.
Jesus said, “come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden” (Mt. 11:28-30). He did not say, “go to a pastor or counselor and bare your soul as if it will have a positive effect.” Remembering that he is the healer, the expert, and the only savior, helps us keep our perspective when we are working with hurting people. If we give our friends our load, which is really their load, we will be piling things on them they don’t need to bear. Jesus gives us a load, but he says it is easy and light.
So remember who you are in Christ, remember what you are trying to do in the counseling process, remember that Christ is the only one who can bear the burdens and free the soul. We have empathy with our friends, but we take it to the throne of Christ and leave it there. And we constantly do it as we are listening to our friend.
Two more things: If, at the end of a long hard day, you do find yourself dragging from the hard emotions of the people you ministered to, take the long way home. I live only one mile from where I work. On those days when life has gotten difficult and I’ve had a hard time giving myself to Jesus, I take the long way home. I drive around, take a look at the scenery, check out mountains, and give my troubles to the Lord and leave them with him.
Also, I’ve found that if I have five counseling sessions, and even if the first four are nasty and difficult, but the last one is happy chipper, I go home happy and chipper. But, if I have five sessions and the first four are nice and joyfully productive, but the last one is hard, my soul is sometimes downcast. Because I know that this can happen, I try to schedule myself to have a pre-marital counseling session (or something like that) at the end of the day.