Empathy is a Spiritual Discipline


On the whole, when we think of “spiritual disciplines,” what comes to mind are worship practices with medieval roots like Lectio Divina or walking a labyrinth or chanting the psalms. And these are all good things to do. So where does empathy fit in?

I was talking with a friend this past week about the impasse in my church with regard to full inclusion of GLBT believers and the most recent call for dialogue from the Special Committee on Civil Union and Marriage. And I realized that, by my count, this is the fifth such call from the national level of the church to all of us since 1975, when the first taskforce was appointed to study ordination of GLBT faithful.

My friend and I agreed that what has been lacking in our discussion in the church has been empathy — and then I heard coming from my mouth the comment: “Well, empathy is a spiritual discipline… and not one we practice very well in the church.” Though I was not sure, myself, exactly what I meant, I was sure what I had said is true: empathy is a spiritual discipline we practice poorly in the PCUSA.

Indeed, if sharing of our differing positions on GLBT inclusion was all dialogue meant, surely we would have come to some resolution by now, more than thirty years in. Obviously more is required of us. One commitment that could help is cultivating the spiritual discipline of empathy.

According to the dictionary embedded in my laptop, “empathy” is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is the quality that allows us to love our neighbors as ourselves because we have an ability to connect our own feelings, thoughts or experiences with those of the stranger, the other person.

This is a good thing to practice, but it is not quite what I am trying to get at.

I am talking about the effort to understand and share the feelings of another so deeply that we nestle into their feelings and perspective — even if those feelings are uncomfortable and foreign, even if their perspective is one we do not easily or necessarily share.

When I invite a colleague in Pittsburgh Presbytery to coffee or to lunch, I try to enter a space of careful listening and repetition of what I hear. I am not seeking to persuade, or even to catalogue the arguments between us. I am seeking to find my way into the way my colleague thinks, to get behind my companion’s eyes and see what he or she sees.

This is a spiritual discipline, and it takes practice. This is what I am calling empathy.

I know empathy is a discipline because, in my experience, it is difficult and demanding. And I know it is spiritual because of what it requires of my spirit. I have to be strong and vulnerable at the same time. Strong enough in my convictions to hold them without getting hurt as I explore different ones; vulnerable enough to truly entertain the views of the other as potentially changing my own. When I accept this challenge and engage my spirit with those who disagree with me, I come away moved by having stood on Holy Ground where opposites are held together as one. This is what God does all the time.

We probably all wish that our opponents would practice this ability to step into our shoes. Of course, we do not have any control over them. We do have control over ourselves. We can decide to wholeheartedly exercise the spiritual discipline of empathy toward those we disagree with day after day, conversation after conversation.

It will be hard work. We may talk with an adversary in the name of empathy, but be tempted to think the whole time about our rebuttal. We may strive to understand their perspective, but only to more effectively craft our own arguments in response.

Conceiving of empathy as a spiritual discipline requires far more. It demands that I also love in my neighbor that which is not like myself. That is very hard work and only improves with practice. But loving that which is foreign to each of us may be the narrow gate to justice and reconciliation within the PCUSA that has eluded us for so long.


Reverend Janet

3 Responses
  • Ron Furgerson on November 5, 2009

    Reverend Janet — I appreciate your comments on empathy and can certainly see much positive in what you say. It is certainly almost impossible to really love someone in the Lord without being able to understand them at some level, i.e., understand what makes them the way they are. That said, it frightens me to think about getting too far into the other person’s psyche — especially if that person is engaging in and promoting sinful actions. All of us were formerly in darkness. But as children of light we should have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret, much less to try and join with them in depraved thinking such as could be the result of carrying empathy too far (Eph. 5:8-12). As you indicate, in our dealings with others we are assuredly standing on Holy Ground and if not cautions we will make it anything but Holy. Blessings to you as you faithfully seek to serve our Savior with love and grace. <

  • Janet Edwards on November 6, 2009

    Deepest thanks, Ron, for your thoughtful reflection upon my proposal that we in the church go beyond identifying with what we see of ourselves in another person to a more difficult empathy where we seek to identify with that which is foreign to us in the other person. I especially appreciate your honesty in saying that this kind of connection with a stranger can be frightening and in articulating the ground of your fears based on Ephesians 5:8-12.

    In reading your thoughts, two things come to my mind.

    First, the GLBT people I know, including those in the church, are children of light. They live like those at home in the light. Their lives clearly bear the fruit of goodness, justice and truth (Eph. 5:9). From my experience, Ron, you do not need to be afraid of empathizing with them.

    Second, you highlight one crucial aspect of this kind of empathy, which is a suspension of judgment of the other person. To put it more positively, this empathy requires a presumption that the other person is, in the end, no different from you or me, however frightening or foreign they may seem to be at the start. Deep empathy requires an acceptance that judgment belongs to God, not to us, and that each person is a beloved child of God who has goodness in them waiting for me to discover.

    Of course, more could be said, but I hope that is enough for your prayerful consideration. And I so hope that we may find a way to continue this conversation.

    Peace be with you, Janet

  • AAdardona on May 15, 2013

    I want to wish you good luck and all the best

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