“If There Is A God, He Must Be A B******!”

Two Bison Butt Heads

Empathy Avoids Butting Heads

                                      Empathy Avoids Butting Heads

Sitting in the dayroom of the psychiatric hospital, a young man played solitaire as I approached. Instead of introducing myself by name, I said, “I’m the new chaplain on the ward. I’ve come to tell you of a God of love.”

“If there is a God,” the man said, as he stood up, “he must be a b******!”, the man shot back, as he slammed his right fist into his left hand. I had taken a seat opposite him by this time. I froze. Unable to speak, or move, I was saved by the chief psychiatrist who happened to walk by and hear the commotion. Engaging the young man in conversation, while puffing his pipe, the doctor calmly asked, “What’s going on?”

“I’m angry!” the young man said.

“Okay, so you’re angry. Let’s take a look at it,” said the doctor.

After a few minutes of conversation about the reasons for his anger, we left the young man to his solitaire. The doctor, however, encouraged me to continue my relationship with the young man through regular visits. This I did and we enjoyed card games and conversations from then on. Repairing the relationship was important, but I leaned another lesson about empathy: don’t butt heads.

Avoiding Judgment

Like the psychiatrist, empathy seeks to understand how the other person feels, but also demands more. Empathy requires that we hold back our negative assessment: “You’re wrong” to say that, to think that, to feel that way, etc. We not only attempt to think like the other person, but we also deliberately refrain from judgment. If we don’t agree at all with what they say, we still maintain our focus on them. Not us.

Empathy avoids butting heads. Few will encounter the kind of  disturbed person I did, but the principle of empathy holds. I led with the welcoming message of God’s love. The young man, however, had personal experiences which made the idea of God explosive. Once again, by failing to know him, I blundered. Also, my beginning with God also introduced the idea of judgment.

When someone shares their troubles with us, we usually find it difficult to hold back how we feel about what they say. It takes discipline to tell ourself, “No, this isn’t about me, right now. I need to hear this person out.” That’s the challenge of looking at the issue from the other person’s point of view. I’ve shared previously on this in “

Avoiding Agreement

 But what if we agree fully with what they’re saying. In that case, we want to jump in with, “I agree! You’re so right.”

Empathy avoids butting heads –negative evaluation, disagreement. In fact, however, it withholds any evaluation at all. It doesn’t matter whether we agree or not. What matters is what this other person says, feels, and experiences. Remember, understanding from their point of view is out target. Whatever blocks communication we want to avoid. Judging the other person does that. If you say what you think, you sidetrack the conversation to you, what you think, feel, etc. We want to keep the person talking so that we learn as much as possible, but also demonstrate how important they are to us.

When They Ask Us

At times, the other person will ask, “Well, what do you think?” Instead of responding directly, empathy might say, “You’d like to know what I think, but I’m more interested right now in how you see it.” Withholding judgment-positive or negative- is another part of expressing empathy. When Jesus spoke with people, most of the time he withheld judgment. People in grief, tragedy, or crisis need to keep talking; we, therefore, need to refrain from putting up roadblocks.

Have you practiced the art of listening to learn another’s point of view, and withheld any evaluation that might stymie their sharing? Send in your experiences for me to share with others, like. Learning empathy is slow, even painful, as you can see by my stories. But people value a good listener as a valued friend, marriage partner, comforter in grief, and as a disciple of Jesus.

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About Grose

Gordon Grose loves most to write, speak, and preach on the message of hope from the book of Job. Using drama, video, and PowerPoint, he has preached and presented this message of hope to churches around the country. Grose pastored three congregations 25 years, then served 12 years as a pastoral counselor in a Portland, Oregon counseling clinic. He now serves with Good Samaritan Counseling Services, Beaverton, OR. A graduate of Wheaton College (IL), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Brandeis University, and Boston University, he comes from a rich and varied background in theological and counseling training. In 2015, Gordon published Tragedy Transformed: How Job's Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours, a book about turning to Job for hope after tragedy. If you have experienced life challenges or personal tragedy, visit his Transforming Tragedy (gordongrose.com) blog to learn more. TragedyTransformed.com provides a sample of Gordon's speaking as well as an opportunity to purchase copies of his book.
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