Judgment and Empathy

When we judge people, we forgo the opportunity to understand them and their situation. When we judge people, we are assuming a position of superiority such that, since we are no longer ‘on their level’, we are unable to understand what they must be feeling, how they might have been hurt in the past or what the journey of life has been like for them so far. In short, we lose the ability to empathize with them. This is the gist of my latest epiphany, which I’ll try and explain below…

Empathy: The picture above is that of a Rubic’s Cube for the blind. As I’m sure we all know a Rubic’s cube normally has different colours on each square, with the aim being to make each side only one color. This seemingly innocuous game is exceedingly difficult fora blind person. To have to feel the braille on each square to know what color it is and then remember the position of each color and so on.

If I saw a blind child playing with this Rubic’s Cube, I would instantly think “Ag shame, I feel so sorry for that child – life must be so difficult for him”. Traditionally we would call this pity.

For those not familiar with South African culture, and more specifically, the Afrikaaner sub-culture (of which I am becoming increasingly acquainted) the words ‘Ag shame’ are almost universally applied to situations of pity. If someone has had a really bad day, if someone’s dog dies, whatever it is ‘Ag shame’ can usually be said, with differing degrees of sincerity depending on the situation. The problem with ‘Ag shame’ is that if one looks a little deeper, you’ll see that we are actually putting ourselves in a superior position to the other person. If we say ‘Ag shame look at that beggar’ (we are rich and don’t have the problems of poverty), ‘Ag shame man, he failed his exams’ (we passed our exams) etc etc. While the analogy only goes so far, and there are notable exceptions, I still believe that often when we pity someone, we are actually judging the person in our heart since we see ourselves as superior. To put it more mildly, because we identify ourselves as being in a position of superiority, we are unable to sympathize or empathize with them.

The reason why I am telling you all this, is that recently I have started to realise the importance of empathy in the life of the Christian. Empathy is defined as:

empathy: identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives

Using the example of the Rubic’s Cube above, pity is feeling sorry for the kid, empathy is truly understanding what it must be like for that kid. What it’s like to wake up and not see light or color. What it feels like to never have seen what your face looks like in a mirror, or to never be able to appreciate the vistas of nature. What it will be like for him to be unable to see his child ride a bike one day or see the expression on his daughter’s face when she gets married – that is the beginning of empathy. Because this is so difficult, people often say that you can only emapthise with someone if you have actually been through what they are going through, otherwise you are sympathizing. For example, my grandparents are dead therefore I can empathise with someone else whose grandparents have recently passed away. If I hadn’t suffered that loss I would only sympathise.

While technically the above distinction between empathy and sympathy may be true, I am going to take it that it is possible (albeit difficult) to empathise with someone who is going through, or has gone through, something you haven’t. So you may be asking, why do you care so much about empathizing, and the answer is that I believe it is fundamental if we are to heal broken people and since we too are broken people, to experience healing ourselves.

As I mentioned earlier, when we judge people we lose the ability to empathise with them. Empathizing with people is ESSENTIAL if they are to feel comfortable opening up and revealing their innermost painful secrets and those areas in their life which are fraught with insecurity and doubt. This opening up is necessary if the person is to be healed, whole and free.

On a more practical level, it is in true dialogue or conversation that  empathy becomes vital. When someone’s person/spirit feels that you will not judge them and that this is a safe environment, they will open up to you and talk about their hopes and fears, their dreams and desires. When people feel they are being understood and that they are valued, frank conversation can be profoundly significant. Particularly when people are talking about their failings, their past or their insecurities, empathy and non-judgement are prerequisites for such a conversation.  Not only does empathy encourage people to open up, miraculously, it is one of the key ingredients of healing. The Holy Spirit works through us most powerfully when we are filled with compassion (compassion and empathy are closely linked!). Think about it in your own life: which are the conversations that changed your life, the ones where people told you all the neatest theology and the 10-steps to well-being or the ones where you true friends just listened to you? On this topic Paul Tournier in “The Meaning of Person’s” says:

“The people who have helped me most are not those who have answered my confessions with advice, exhortation or doctrine, but rather those who have listened to me in silence, and then told me of their own personal life, their own difficulties and experience….those who impose upon us their ready made solutions, writes one of my patients, ‘those who impose upon us their science or their theology, are incapable of healing us”

This is so true and yet in most situations, instead of listening, we still persist in offering advice and theological pointers. I am a firm believer in the importance of theology, teaching and seeking advice, but often we are too quick to offer these when they are not called for. By that I mean that providing theological advice is not what people need when they come to you to share their innermost feelings. To quote Tournier again:

“Paradoxical though it may seem, the true dialogue is by no means a discussion…it is important here to make a distinction between intellectual argument and personal encounter. Answer ideas with ideas, but answer the person with the person. Then often the heart’s true response is silence.”

I think that one of the reasons we do this, is because we don’t know how else to respond and when faced with such uncertainty we revert to what we know: advice and theology. To use a proverb: “When you’ve got a hammer, every problem looks like nail”. More than likely it is because we have not empathized with people. I think if we truly knew what some people have gone through we would not be so quick and flippant to offer our 2 cents of advice.

So I think what I’m saying here is that every day we are faced with situations where we can either judge people or try to understand them- but they are mutually exclusive. The Gospels frequently talk of Jesus being filled with compassion. Seeing a naked adulteress doesn’t arouse compassion unless you try to understand her and her situation: ‘How desperate must she be to have sold her own body?!’, ‘How degrading this must be for this poor woman?’ etc. And this is not just for that woman 2000 odd years ago in Israel, it is also for us here and now: Jesus is our high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15). There are numerous scriptures speaking of showing mercy, compassion and love (all closely linked with empathy) and many other scriptures deploring us judging others, being prideful and not freely showing the grace which we have so freely received.

So the next time you are faced with the choice: judgement or empathy…please try and understand.

One response to “Judgment and Empathy

  1. jannaoberholzer

    There’s a preach by Andrew Wommack, think it’s called ‘Flowing in the Spirit’ or something, and it speaks about compassion. Truly amazing! Try listen to it. Clint has it, maybe he can send it you?

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