Imagine there is a woman in your community who has been afflicted with a disabling spirit for 18 years. This woman is bound by Satan, she is chronically suffering a condition that burdens her to be bent over all the time; she hasn’t been able to straighten her back or stand upright for almost 2 decades.
…Seriously, right now, close your eyes and take 30 seconds to imagine what this woman’s life is like. What if she is desperate to take a deep breath? You and I might stand up, arch our backs and demand our bodies to comply with our desire for a full, satisfying, gulp of air; but this woman cannot make such demands of her body. What about simple tasks, like reaching for a cup in a cabinet, or raising your head to greet someone in public, or lying flat on your back in bed? Imagine the ever-accruing layers of frustration and hopelessness. Imagine the emotional turmoil of constantly feeling sorry for yourself, mingled with habitual inner pep talks trying to cajole yourself to “be strong,” and telling yourself “this is my cross to bear”; all the while feeling as though you can’t ever quite rise above the tide pool of despair.
If such a woman exists in your sphere of relationships, here’s the million dollar question… will you truly attempt to befriend her? Will you unreservedly move toward a person who is so manifestly burdened? Perhaps you will say it depends on her maturity, and whether or not she exhibits wholehearted joy amidst coping with suffering. For instance, if she processes her suffering like the apostle Paul when he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Or if she navigates her affliction like Joni Eareckson Tada who says, “God has chosen not to heal me, but to hold me. The more intense the pain, the closer His embrace.” If she somehow manages to have a sunny disposition amidst suffering, then perhaps you’re not opposed to being in her presence.
But what if this woman happens to be bitter? What if she is processing her suffering like Job when he says, “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, ‘Why do You contend against me? Does it seem good to You to oppress and despise the work of Your hands and favor the designs of the wicked?’” Or what if she is feeling vulnerable and raw like David when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”
If you move toward a person who is so clearly burdened, hurting, and afflicted you will – at the very least – have to reckon with your inability to provide solutions. To be present with someone in their suffering requires the empathizer to repent of their insistence on feeling sufficient. To empathize with someone is to enter their pain, sit with them in sorrow, and share their distress. At the very least, entering a person’s pain will involve acknowledging your inadequacy, and it will most likely force you to confront your fear of failure; because people in pain will often blame you for making their misery worse. Anyone who has ever truly tried to help a hurting person has abruptly encountered their insufficiency, and felt the sting of feeling as if they’ve only made problems more painful for people. For example, how many parents have attempted to enter the complexity and torment of their teenager’s angst, only to be chastised and sent away feeling like a heartless villain? How many people have tried to confront a friend about a character flaw, only to be told that they had no idea what they were talking about? How often has a loving attempt to visit someone suffering in a hospital room been received with bitterness and rejoined with hardness of heart?
Where does the courage to empathize with people in pain come from? The miracle of empathy comes from Jesus of Nazareth. Apart from Him you can do nothing. However, united to Him you will find yourself following a man who elects to suffer with, and for, harassed and hostile people. Jesus of Nazareth moves toward afflicted, and extremely combative people (think zombies …seriously, that’s what we’re like!), knowing full-well that they will despise and reject Him. Jesus dwells among people in darkness, and He aggressively assumes the role: man of sorrows, thoroughly acquainted with grief; and unlike any other person in history, Jesus consciously chose His rank and station to be stricken, smitten, pierced, crushed, and chastised.