The Gift of Empathy

Being a sympathetic person is different than being empathetic. Sympathy can be expressed by anyone whether they have experienced something or not. I can be sympathetic toward someone who has experienced the grief of losing a parent, but empathy requires you to have had the same experience. I cannot empathize with that person’ loss except in a general way about losing a loved one. Obviously, this was true of chronic pain as well. Before I had that experience, I can only say something like, “I am sorry you are going through that.” That is sympathy and can be meaningful, but empathy is being able to say, “I know what that’s like because I have experienced it.”

Note: (Some truly empathic persons may be able to genuinely feel others pain even without the same kind of experience, but this is the exception not the rule. Likewise, we can talk about trying to be empathetic by seeing someone’s situation through their eyes. This is a worthy endeavor, but I am talking about empathy that is earned and naturally genuine).

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Credit: Getty Images

When my oldest was born with acid reflux, it was miserable. He was our first child and he screamed for hours every day. It was demoralizing to the extreme. I remember we got him in to see some kind of specialist and they ran some tests and came out and tried to tell us that it was normal! We couldn’t believe it. They didn’t even have sympathy. But I’ll never forget our pediatrician telling us that he had been through the same thing with his daughter. Even though it had been twenty years earlier, it meant so much to us that he could empathize with our suffering. We, in turn, got to empathize with others going through the same thing with their babies. 

Many people view God as a distant deity, as sympathetic at best and indifferent at worst. Years ago, Joan Osborne sang a song that asked, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like the rest of us. Just a stranger on the bus just trying to make his way home?” The implication was that God doesn’t know what it is to be one of us. And even though we can say that God knows everything, God could not truly empathize with us unless he did become one of us. But that’s exactly what God did in Jesus Christ. Heb 4:15:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Th high priest represented the people to God. Jesus is the perfect high priest because he represents us as fully human, yet not tainted with sin. He is both divine and human, but it is in his humanity that God is able to empathize with us.

Paul wrote about how their sufferings became a means for the comfort of others, just as Christ’s sufferings became comfort for them. 2 Cor. 1:3-7:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

This is the Christian view of empathy. Our God, who knows our struggles firsthand, comforts us and we, in turn comfort one another. That is what Broken and Mended is about. This is a community in which we experience empathy and give that blessing to each other.

No one signs up for chronic pain, but your endurance of it has given you the gift of empathy. When someone hurts every day of his or her life, even though their experience of pain may be very different than yours, you know what it is like to hurt every day too. Maybe we wouldn’t have wanted to acquire empathy on this matter, if we had a choice, but don’t let that gift go to waste. You may truly be a blessing to someone who desperately needs to know that they are not alone!

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What To Do With All That Advice

Not long after my health problems started with injured hips the advice started flowing in. Long before I knew I had a chronic illness, many well-intentioned friends had a hard time believing that someone my age could have hip problems. One man told me that I probably just something “caught up” in there, whatever that means. Others told me that it was probably my back, and I needed to see a chiropractor. Eventually, others told me that if I gave up diet sodas or followed this special diet all my problems would go away.

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They all meant well, but the problem is not a one of them had any idea what they were talking about. Even some of my early doctors did not understand what was happening to me and gave me poor advice. One person brought me magnets. Another counseled me on some kind of electrical impulse therapy. Someone gave some advice that I thought was the craziest I had ever heard, so crazy I thought I would never forget it, but as I’m writing this I can’t remember what it was!

The advice never stops. Whenever you share your story with someone new the advice almost always follows. It is given with no understanding of your medical condition.

I realize that some people do well with alternative medical approaches. I have tried a few, admittedly halfheartedly; acupuncture, deep tissue massage, chiropractor, a few elimination diets, etc. I did try those magnets. I think there are times when I find the mood to try something new. After all, what do I have to lose?

But most of the time I hear the newest suggestion and just listen politely. I already know that I have no interest in their latest simple solution to my complex medical condition. I know it won’t work because it has no bearing on an autoimmune disease that attacks healthy joints and tissues. My doctors barely understand it and we are working together to do everything imaginable just to keep the disease at bay. Your encounter with a new type of therapy that helped you overcome your back injury is irrelevant to what is happening in a body at war with itself.

We live with our diseases and have come across almost all the relevant helpful advice. We know how to use the internet and to network with others who have the same disease. If it seemed reasonable, we probably tried it. We discussed it with our doctors.

But I am not really writing this blog to “Them,” “Them” being the always willing and rarely helpful friends with their advice. I know how it feels to have your illness reduced to someone’s campaign against diet drinks. My suggestion is to smile and say, “Thanks for sharing that. I’ll give it some thought.” You don’t have to give it any more thought than it took to say that. If you try to explain the folly of their ways, they likely won’t get it, and they will think you are stubborn and ungrateful.

I know how it feels to be made to feel like you are not doing everything that you can to help with your health. If you just did this or that, then you wouldn’t hurt all the time. I know how much that diminishes your struggle. But don’t take it out on “Them;” they don’t know because they haven’t been where you are. They probably really do care and just believe that if you listen to them that you will be well. No matter how delusional that thought may be, they are merely trying to help.

Try new advice only when you feel like it is something you’ve been looking for. Otherwise, maybe just let it go “in one ear and out the other.” Just don’t forget to smile!

What’s the worst advice you’ve received?

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What Hurts More Than Pain

Note: I’ve been away for a few weeks finishing a paper for a class on suffering and healing. Jumping back in here with the devotional below which was given in the latest Broken and Mended support group meeting:

You might remember the story of God creating Adam and placing him in a garden. God had previously commented that everything in creation was “very good,” but when he observes the loneliness of man he says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” God created Eve in response to man’s need. Though that story describes the genesis of the relationship between a man and a woman, generally it could be said that it is never good for man or woman to be alone (What we mean here is not the occasional experience of being without company, but being without relationships). We are created as social beings and we need others. When we convince ourselves that this is not true, then we deceive ourselves and choose isolation. But God says that is not good. And when we are honest, we can admit that too. 

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Chronic pain and illness work to isolate us from others like few other things can. First of all, there is the reality that it is difficult for anyone to understand what you are going through. You can’t explain it, and some may even doubt your sincerity. Second, your health begins to limit you from activities and social gatherings. It might even keep you out of church. People who were good friends have little interest in slowing down to your pace. You soon find yourself in a very lonely place. Other attempts to engage with others is ultimately unsuccessful, discouraging you from even trying. Though understandable, your own behavior then exacerbates your dilemma. 

People also feel isolated from God. This may have to do with missing church, but also from feeling like God let you down or maybe you think he is even punishing you or simply does not care.  Depression and suicide rates are much higher in the chronically ill. It is no wonder when pain may be just the start of the struggle and lonely despair may be the end. The Bible has plenty of examples of lonely and brokenhearted people crying out to God. Here’s an example in Ps. 25:16-19:

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish.
18 Look on my affliction and my distress
    and take away all my sins.
19 See how numerous are my enemies
    and how fiercely they hate me!

This Psalm is attributed to David and he did have many enemies. Maybe we feel like people don’t care as much as they should, but we don’t likely have enemies trying to do us harm. However, the result for David is the same for us. His situation pushes him into isolation. But David knew whom to cry out to because he knew this about the Lord:  Ps. 34:18:

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
    and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

The most important thing to remember when we are overtaken by an extreme experience of loneliness is that God cares and has not left us alone. The Bible is full of reminders of God’s promise to be with us and especially with those who have been brought low by forces beyond their control. Jesus quotes a passage from Isaiah and applies it to his own ministry in Luke 4:18-19. Originally the passage said, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,” (Is. 61:1). Jesus, of course, is God in the flesh and came to share in our sufferings and he promised he would never leave us.

We are never truly alone among others as well. Although your experience is unique to you in that no one ever had the exact same experience, many suffer in similar ways, sometimes worse, sometimes less. Broken and Mended exists to bring some of these people together so that we are reminded that we are not alone and that we have a shared journey. We don’t do this just to commiserate but to actually help our situation improve by mutual encouragement and hospitality. Henry Nouwen describes this hospitality as, “a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share.”[1] 

Finally, there are ways to communicate with others who do not share your pain but are willing to listen. Find those people in your family and friends and be open with them. Broken and Mended is not a substitute for church, but it does provide a level of Christian fellowship that can be helpful. You are not alone!

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society  (New York:  Image, 1979),  95.

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You Are Not Just Your Body — Part 2

In part one of this two-part series, I wrote about how we shouldn’t devalue ourselves because our body is breaking down. We are more than our bodies. And we spent a little time talking about taking care of the emotional and mental aspects of who we are. In this post, I want to write about the connection between suffering chronic pain and our spirituality.

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To claim to be spiritual acknowledges that we are more than just a body.

To even speak about “spirituality” implies the belief that we are not just a body. We have something deep inside of us that yearns for spiritual things, that yearns for God. No doubt, there is mass confusion out there about what it means to be spiritual. Some claim spirituality without any real concern for the divine. But if we are really spiritual beings, then we are made by an even greater spiritual being.

If we are spirit and not just body, then presumably there is spiritual health and not just physical health. When chronic illness enters the picture, who we are spiritually is revealed. What I mean is that being sick doesn’t make you more spiritual. Being well doesn’t either. Adversity reveals character and our character is closely related to our spiritual health. A person who gets sick might draw closer to God, but that was because of who that person was already. Another person with the same circumstance may become hardened toward God, blaming Him for his or her struggle.

That’s not to say that there cannot be significant spiritual change triggered by physical adversity. It may be that your illness brings out some things in you that you realize are not healthy and your response is to repent and grow to become a better person. But that process begins with a heart that is predisposed toward improving spiritually in their relationship God. I would still argue that chronic illness reveals who you are more than makes you who you are.

God can use your illness to create deeper spirituality in you, but it comes from a willingness on your part to be shaped. Without spiritual health we will waste our greatest opportunities to grow as a person. I will go as far to say that your illness can be of no benefit to you, if you do not seek to grow from it spiritually. If we were only a body, a purely physical being, then the body and its functionality would be all that mattered. But you are so much more than that!

One of my go-to passages is Romans 5:1-5:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Glory in our sufferings? You can only do that if you believe that your sufferings can produce something other than the pain and disability you experience. You have to have a spiritual disposition that allows you to look for how suffering produces perseverance and then character and then hope.

This is the only prism by which I can look at my battle with chronic pain and illness. I simply will not let this experience go to waste. How about you?

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He Is Risen Means You Get a New Body

Last week, I published the first part of a two-part series (this is not part-two) that proclaimed that you are more than your body. As our bodies break down from chronic illness and we struggle with acceptance over our appearance or physical capabilities that is an important reminder. We are spiritual beings with self-aware minds. Our value is not rooted in our body image.

However, it is also true that our bodies are important to God. God did not simply die for your soul, but also your body. In the great resurrection passage that is 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that our future resurrection is like Jesus’. When Jesus returns, our bodies will be raised and transformed:

“So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable; it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

Think about this from the perspective of those of us with chronic illness. We exchange perishable for imperishable, dishonor for glory, weakness for power, natural body for spiritual body.

This means that we really are raised just as Jesus was. But the past reality of Jesus’ resurrection means a future reality for his disciples where all pain and suffering is replaced with glory and immortality! Praise God for he is risen! He is risen indeed!

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You Are Not Just Your Body — Part 1

In another Facebook group I belong to, the administrator asked people to describe the first word that came to their minds when they thought of their bodies. This is a group of chronic pain sufferers, so I didn’t think the replies would be positive. One word stuck with me, because I can relate to it. Betrayed. Betrayed is how I felt in 2011. I worked my tail off to get in the best shape of my adult life only to injure my hips, and then begin the fall down the rabbit hole of worsening diagnoses seemingly every time I saw a doctor.

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Medical visits seeking diagnoses can be like falling down the Rabbit Hole!

Most people suspect that they are not simply a union of cells and a collection of matter. In other words, there is something deeply spiritual about us all that strongly testifies that we were created as more than a body. But when you deal a lot with the medical culture, especially here in the West, you are often treated as if you are only a body that has gone wrong.

Science recognizes no such spirituality and western medicine is firmly rooted in science. It is a good thing that science dictates our medicine. It is a bad thing that medical practice has seemingly absorbed the naturalistic (This word simply means that there is nothing beyond the natural universe) philosophical assumptions of science (which is really more than just science).

When you go to doctor visit after doctor visit, get a new prescription after new prescription, face another surgery, etc., then it is easy to forgot to tend to your emotional, mental, and yes, spiritual needs. And when you have fallen into the trap as viewing yourself as only a body gone wrong, then that is going to damage your self-perception.

When you think of your body betraying you, it is interesting what that admission suggests. Who is the “you” that has been betrayed? If you really thought of yourself as just a body, then a body gone wrong is just that, but there would be no one betrayed, because there would not be a distinction between your body and you!

But your body did betray you. It isn’t working like it should. If you have an autoimmune disease, even better…your body is actively working against you! But the “you” is your perception of self and who you are. You are a union of body, soul, and spirit (Some say just body and spirit, but that debate goes beyond the scope of this post). You have a mind–not just a brain–that is greater than your betraying body.

The body is important. That’s why we do what we can to treat it! But please do not forget that you need to make sure you are getting taken care of spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. Chronic pain, depression, and anxiety are strongly correlated. But many with chronic pain will spend literally weeks and months of their lives with doctors treating the body, but never make it a priority to speak to a counselor. And the sad thing is that more depression and anxiety exacerbate the chronic pain and vice versa.

Many people reading this post, probably have thought about seeing a counselor, but have never done it. You should do it. It might amaze you what a trained expert can see and point out that you have never been able to put together.

Finally, do not assess yourself by the condition of your body. That is only one aspect of who you are. The body like the spirit is in need of redemption, and God has seen to that in the resurrection. But our body-obsessed culture values everyone by what they look like and how well they function. It is a society that has rejected the biblical view of the whole person. It is a lie. Do not believe it for a moment. You are more than just your body!

Spiritually, there are major considerations as well. How does chronic pain adversely effect your relationship with God? Can it be used somehow beneficially in your walk with God? That will be the subject of Part 2…coming soon.

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Broken and Mended and the Future

I appreciate every person who has read this blog, joined our Facebook group, or participated in our support group. We are still in the middle of our first year and I think it is important to take a moment and take stock of where we are and where we are going as a ministry.

Social Media Presence

The Broken and Mended Facebook group is approaching 70 members! We have recently added several new people. The group serves as information central for Broken and Mended ministry and also a place where people can share prayer requests and offer other helpful insights and information about struggling with chronic pain. I hope to develop an Instagram presence soon. Younger people aren’t using Facebook like middle-aged people and older people are. There’s a lot of people we might able to reach through Instagram. If you are on Twitter, you can follow my account @BrokenandMended_18.

Support Group Report

Our support group has had a good core group of around 10-11 local people from the beginning. We’ve had another ten or so who have participated from other places via Zoom. It has been harder to grow that core group than I imagined and also difficult to get people involved that are not a part of our home church (Woodward Church of Christ). Part of the struggle is just getting the word out. Part of the problem may be geography. I have thought we may need to move the meeting into town at a neutral location. I am not planning on any changes until fall, but I am really considering a change in location to make it clear that this is a support group for all and not just folks from the Woodward Church of Christ.

The Bigger Vision

There is a bigger vision underlying all of this. It just takes time to get there. The dream is to develop a curriculum that could be used in any city across the world. This summer, I am going prioritize development of a workbook that will be designed with the support group in mind.

Other group leaders then could start Broken and Mended support groups in their towns. A little further in the future, I plan to work on a video curriculum to accompany the workbook. I can imagine a group meeting somewhere across the nation or even the world:

They gather to welcome their new members. They play the video, a 15 minute discussion on a relevant chronic pain topic. Then a discussion based on their workbook ensues. Finally, they close with prayer requests and a blessing. Through the years, thousands of chronic pain sufferers could be helped to stay connected to their God and to other fellow sufferers.

I share all this for three reasons:

  1. Those of you who are active participants in what we are doing right now are a part of a very special beginning. Thank you for your patience, as we figure this out together. I hope Broken and Mended blesses you in a special way. By believing in what I am trying to accomplish, you are blessing me. Please stick around!
  2. I want to plant a seed for those of you who live outside of Woodward, OK, to consider starting a group in your location. Could you get 8-10 people in your church and/or community, who struggle with chronic pain, and are willing to meet twice a month? What if all you had to do is find a place to gather and provide consistent communication to your group, while the curriculum and model for what to do was put together for you? Broken and Mended is not just a support group in Woodward, OK, but a movement to “connect hurting people to Jesus and each other.” Maybe you could be one of the first to start a group!
  3. To develop quality materials and to make Broken and Mended a duplicatable ministry, I am going to need to raise some money. So far, the expenses have been minor. I paid for our website and graphics. My church paid for the annual subscription to Zoom. Obviously, the church currently provides the location and other logistical support. However, if I am going to develop professional quality curriculum and video content, I will need professional help. There are other costs associated with providing resources, guest speakers, etc. I’m not ready to start accepting donations yet, but as we move to phase 2 of the development of this ministry, the opportunity to bless this ministry with a financial gift is coming. Perhaps, you will prayerfully consider making a contribution.

I could say a lot more about future plans I have for Broken and Mended (e.g. start a support group for parents and children who have chronic illness), but this is enough for now to let you know where we want to go. I share it because I hope you are inspired to be a part of it or stay a part of it. I am going to need help and I am open to not only suggestions but to whatever practical help you want to provide. I am excited about the future of Broken and Mended and I hope you are too!

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