R.E.M was right. And we all know it: everybody hurts, sometimes.
Advice from the old song? Take comfort in your friends.
So here’s my question: how can we become a comforting friend to hurting people?
It seemed like every day this last fall, I was being schooled in empathy. I was struck, again and again, by how much was really going on “behind the scenes” in people’s lives. And the more I knew, the more the Holy Spirit grew my empathy.
It’s so easy to judge others, isn’t it? We all know it’s wrong. We all quote “judge not lest ye be judged,” and, if asked, we all say we don’t want to be judgmental. But let’s be honest: we often are. It’s just so easy to assume things about others, based upon my narrow vantage point on their lives.
That kid freaking out in the store. What a brat.
That couple who constantly bicker. Immature.
That wealthy woman who has it all together. Wow, what a snob.
That annoying teen age boy. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
So, how do I become a non-judgmental, grace-filled person? By growing in empathy for others.
Here are six practices helping increase my empathy for others.
1. Always assume there is more going on than you know. Okay, so maybe there won’t be, but I’ve been consistently surprised at that depths and significance of people’s personal struggles, when I’ve got in close enough to care. Knowing that, I’ve started just assuming there’s more, especially in those times when I’m beginning to judge a person for their anger or their sharp criticism or their cool veneer.
2. Give grace. Assuming there’s more going on, I consciously extend grace to that person. I’ll even tell myself, “This person must be hurting,” or “I wonder what’s happening here,” cuing myself to do as Romans 15:7 instructs: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (NIV) This helps me remember to give grace as I’ve been given grace.
3. Ask gently and prayerfully how they are doing. If it’s appropriate, I try to find out more about the person. Depending on my relationship with them, this may just be getting to know them at a basic level, even a simple, gracious conversation in the check-out line, or it could mean leaning in close and asking, “Is everything okay?” I’ve asked that at a coffee counter and seen tears leap into the eyes of the barista. We may not have talked it through right there, but at the very least, I was able to express care and grace and give an encouraging word to another loved person.
4. Hold their story reverently. If people do open up, know that you are standing on holy ground. The stories of people’s lives are sacred material, woven by the grace of God, shot through with beauty and ravaged by sin. To hear anyone’s story is a precious gift, and we hold it reverently. We don’t make it about us, we don’t try to deny what they are feeling. We listen openly, giving people the space to actually share their real struggles. I’ve written here how we can become better listeners.
5. Pray with them and for them. If at all possible, ask if you can pray with them, right then and there. If they are at work, or you are in a place where prayer could embarrass them (especially if tears flow, which often happens in prayer), then either move to a more private location, or commit to pray for them after you leave. If you can pray with them then, make it simple and short: “Jesus, thank you for loving us. I pray you will give __________ your grace today. I pray that he/she will know how much you love him/her. Amen.” Natural voice, no theatrics. After you leave, write down their name where you can see it and pray for them for a week.
6. Reflect on how your view of them has changed because you know more of their story. Wow, I had no idea she was struggling with such deep depression. I did not know that boy’s dad left him and his mom high and dry last year. I was unaware of the fact that her mom was just diagnosed with cancer. And so on. Everything seems to change when we know more about a person’s life. Our understanding grows, our love grows, and we become more gracious and more empathetic.
R.E.M. tells the hurting people to hold on. Hold on. You’re not alone.
As we grow in grace and increase our empathy, hurting people will know they aren’t alone, that they can hold on, that they are loved and heard by us, and by the God who made them in his image.