Pros and Cons of Empathy

By Mary DeMuth

I had the privilege of taking the Strengths Finder when we were church planters in France. I remember three of my strengths today:

1. Achiever (Oh how this makes sense! Those of you who have read my writing or heard me speak know I tend to equate my worth with what I produce.

2. Communicator. (Yep, this makes sense. I’m almost a hyper-communicator, written and spoken.)

3. Empathy. (I actually think this one was #2, something that surprised the person who administered the test. “You don’t see a lot of achieving empathizers,” he said.)

Empathy is where I get in trouble. While I love that God has made me empathetic, it does have its negatives.

Positive: I can meet someone and almost always assess their emotional state.

Negative: If someone is distraught, it’s hard for me to get beyond that. I tend to take in their pain, feel it, and then never let go.

Positive: I listen well and help people feel understood.

Negative: I can’t get a person’s sad story out of my head. It replays. It affects my mood.
Positive: I can see potential problems and discern people’s hearts in a few meetings.

Negative: This can make me overly cautious around people, or I can enmesh myself.

Here’s the odd part of empathy for me. Although it endears me to folks, and folks to me, it can be isolating. And it can break my heart. Proverbs 4:23 says: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

When I receive people’s family secrets for My Family Secret, I cringe. For the moment, I am with the person, feeling the pain, dying inside, wishing and praying for healing. It’s hard for me to shrug the pain off. Yesterday when I was a guest on Moody Midday Connection, we received three calls, all very, very hard to hear. Tales of abuse. Unmentionable pain. Broken lives. In the aftermath of the interview, I received several emails of folks sharing their broken hearts, their fractured stories. I couldn’t shake the sadness. I kept it to myself. And I felt alone, carrying a burden way too heavy.

I need to guard my empathetic heart. (And please hear me when I say I’m not 100% empathetic. I fail in this area also). I need to throw my burdens at Jesus’ feet. And I need to learn how to cast others’ burdens there as well. Only then will my load lighten.

But even as I type this, I wonder. How must Jesus feel? He possesses the most empathy on earth and heaven. Hebrews 4:15 says, “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.” He understands. He shoulders. He knows. He’s been here. What must it be like to be Jesus? He knows EVERY painful story of every single human being. Even the secret stories. And he graciously bears them all.

My own inability to bear the weight just makes me love him more.

Mary DeMuth is an author and speaker who loves to help people turn trials to triumphs. She lives in Texas with her husband and three kids.

Led By the Spirit or Driven By Need?

By Arloa Sutter

I have been leading Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago for eighteen years. We care for people who have become crippled by unemployment, homelessness and addiction in a neighborhood where poverty and crime make life stressful. Overwhelming brokenness and need carries with it the reality that there is always more I could do. People often ask what keeps me going. What keeps me from experiencing burnout?

Well, I have experienced burnout and it’s not pretty. When I was in my twenties I worked with kids who were referred to me by juvenile justice officers and school social workers.  I met with groups of young girls who were in crisis. I loved taking them hiking, cross-country skiing and spelunking, but I was unaware of my own codependency tendencies. It felt good to be needed and I found myself pulled into the drama of their lives. I would get calls in the middle of the night to pick up a girl who had passed out drunk in an alley or to negotiate a family dispute. I once called 911 in desperation as a young woman overdosed on my living room floor. My work was compelling: girls in need, in pain, and in trouble, and they were looking for me to rescue them. But by the end of four years I was exhausted. I cringed every time the phone rang for fear of hearing about another suicide attempt.

I know now that much of my early energetic zeal was rooted in my own pride. I had entered ministry recognizing my need for a Savior, but then had begun to attempt to rescue and save others in my own strength on behalf of the Savior. The burnout I experienced as a result would forever change me as I learned the importance of waiting on God in contemplation before rushing in with my own agenda. I learned to be led by the Spirit instead of being driven by need.

Today I start each day in prayer. I ask God to orchestrate my day, to guide and direct me. I ask for Divine connections, for wisdom to know what to do and what not to do. I have learned there is always enough time to do what God wants me to do.

I also listen to my body. I have learned to recognize the difference between good stress that pushes me to my best, and bad stress that means I’m attempting to do something that is not mine to do. When my shoulders tense and my stomach knots, I do a “gut check” and ask myself if this really is my responsibility.

To be led by the Spirit rather than driven by need. That’s my goal. When the chaos mounts, I take a break. Even an hour of contemplation clears my mind and tells me which tasks need to be tossed to someone else and which are mine to juggle.

Arloa Sutter is the founder and Executive Director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries which provide services to homeless adults and runs a community youth program in an impoverished community on the west side of Chicago. She is the author of “The Invisible: How the Church Can Find and Serve the Least of These.”