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Ministry Matters: The Essential Oil of Empathy


A few nights ago, Tiny Daughter was preparing to go to bed. She skipped into the kitchen where I was washing dishes, hands deep in hot soapy water. She wanted one last kiss and hug. I dried my hands and obliged her, and as we pulled apart, she said something that stopped me in my tracks.

“Thank you for being sad with me today!” Her whole body wiggled with delight and she said it in such a cheery way – it almost sounded like she sang the words.

I thought back to earlier in the day to an hour that really hadn’t stood out in my mind. It came after a long afternoon of having my head buried in my book proposal. Working toward deadlines, you know…But my daughter was having one of those days where she just felt unsettled- the kind we all have from time to time. Nothing was really wrong, so there was nothing I could do to fix it. But around 4:00 she came into the living room crying and dragging her blanket; then she slumped on the couch. I knew it was time to set my writing aside and join her on the couch. So I did, swaddling us both up in blankets.

And we laid there. For an hour. We did much of absolutely nothing but just be close. I said  to her in my Mommy “play” voice, “Sometimes you just got to cry and be very, very sad! Yeah.”

Her sobs gradually lessened and she wiped her face. Her brother brought her a snack, which she munched in between sniffles. And then it was time for me to make supper.

Life went on per usual. I didn’t give our couch time a second thought, nor did I realize how much it would mean to her. I’ve comforted my children many times and dried a few buckets of tears. {I’ve been impatient with her moods plenty of times, too} But this time was different because my little girl is finally old enough to vocalize what things mean to her. In her little mind, I was “sad with her.” I hadn’t been sad myself at that time, but in her mind I had been.

This isn’t all that profound…but sometimes it’s really important to be sad with people. There is a lot of pressure at times to produce happiness, to wipe tears, to change attitudes, to cease negative emotion. But, sometimes children- and adults- need someone to be sad with them, and they need for that to be okay. No one needs to improve in this area more than I, especially when it comes to my children. While sympathy is simply feeling pity for another’s misfortune, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy enters into the emotion of another, most often due to previously experiencing it oneself.

I’ve been pondering Jesus. Oh, how perfectly He empathized! At the tomb of Lazarus, He could have said, “You shouldn’t be sad. I’m about to raise Lazarus from the dead!” But instead He took the time to stop and feel what His children were feeling – to put Himself in their place and enter into their pain. And He wept with them.

“Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him!’ And some of them said, ‘Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb.” John 11:35-38

David reminds us in Psalm 103:14 that our compassionate God “knows our frame, and remembers that we are dust.”

And I’m wondering- how good are we at doing that for each other? Remembering that each other is dust. Remembering that we have weak and sinful frames. Remembering that, just as God gives us new mercies every morning because He knows how desperately we need them and yesterday’s mercies won’t do for today- we need to give each other new grace, fresh understanding, maybe a deeper level of empathy?

Being sad with people can be incredibly uncomfortable. I’ve sat with many who have lost loved ones or who have experienced trauma or who are just struggling with something specific or processing a painful experience. Mostly I was quiet, shedding tears with them and comforting them with touch and intermittent prayer. This kind of empathy never gets easier. The questions are always there- How long will they be sad? When will they be back to their normal selves? What if they get worse and not better? What if I’m already drained and don’t have any more “being sad” left in me? What if I feel like being happy right now? What if I walk away not having helped them at all? What if I say or do the wrong thing?

I don’t have answers to all the questions. But this I know- until someone gives you the gift of being allowed to be weak, to cry, to struggle, to be sad, it’s hard to imagine the freedom it brings to them. Ironically, it often helps them feel better. I was amazed at how my hour of being sad with my daughter left an impression on her, and actually made her happy. Who knew?

Consider the Good Samaritan. He stopped his journey when he noticed the pain of another. Scripture tells us that he bandaged the fellow up, and poured in oil and wine. Wine for cleansing, oil for soothing and to promote healing.

All of his actions flowed from his empathy- the most essential oil of all.

Jesus took time in many instances to feel the emotions of His created people {and still does for us each day!} So should we be aware of what may be going on beneath the surface of the people in our lives.  I can hear some of you thinking right now “You’re talking to pastors’ wives! No one is more experienced in this than we are!” And you are right, for we have to be ready to sympathize and empathize and rejoice with an army of people with a myriad of experiences- sometimes all within one Sunday morning. And it’s for this reason that I think we could stand to do a little self check. We get so good at touching many lives that sometimes we neglect to go a little deeper and really care in a way that impacts the person in front of us.

We may never hear people say “Thank you for being sad with me,” but we will have displayed an empathy that is Christ like. We can’t fix each other. Goodness- we can’t even fix ourselves!

But we can comfort each other in the moments where the burden of being sad and being alone is too much to bear.

I wonder….who can you “be sad” with today? Who in your life needs the oil of empathy today?


A Kindred Spirit

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15

4 thoughts on “Ministry Matters: The Essential Oil of Empathy

  1. So beautifully written my friend and so true! This would be good to share at an essential oils party 🙂
    Thank you Leah for allowing God to use you. Jesus’ life is a wonderful example for us.

  2. This is beautifully said Leah. Children’s feelings and emotions are so delicate, thank you for the reminder to protect them. I like how you wove it into the story of Lazarus and show us Jesus wept with them.

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