Empathy: shaped through suffering

If you remember back in grade school standing in line waiting to be chosen by the assigned team captains for a team in sports. Almost every time, I would be picked last for a team. Because I was the skinniest and one of the shortest boys, I was almost always the last one chosen. I was nicknamed Conan (from movie Conan the Barbarian, the god with a great muscular physique).  I hated that I was skinny and short.  I hated all the slight comments I heard spoken about me from other kids, intentional or not. Gym class was never fun for me. Being singled-out last place can affect how a person views oneself.  I developed a less-than-ideal view of myself.  I endured this all throughout my elementary and even into my high school years.   I didn’t enjoy grade school. I did develop some empathy for other kids with lower views of themselves or who were picked on. 

I know others have suffered much more than I have but I want to relate this to what I’m about to share here. There are Christians (and other religious minorities) who suffer due to their faith within anti-Christian societies. People languish in prisons, sometimes unjustly, like political and religious prisoners. Women have been abused, raped and used in sex trafficking People, including children are inflicted as innocent victims of wars, bombings, and ethnic-cleansing, and boys are forced into becoming soldiers. People suffer in silence with bouts of depression, mental illness, and thoughts of suicide. There is serious suffering happening in the world today much more severe than tauntings in school yards, but nevertheless, words can intensely hurt too and adolescent teens know this.

I have learned throughout the latter years of my life that suffering shapes a person. It can shape us in a bad way; and it can also shape us in a good way.  Either way, the shaping of a person can always result in something good.  There is always something we can be grateful for.

As we experience healing from our life’s hurts, and allow God to use us, the suffering we have experienced can become a blessing to others.  Little do others know that the person who has suffered can become a giver of empathy and understanding to another who is experiencing suffering in one’s life.

As a stone has been shaped by water and heat and pressure, one’s own suffering through the pressures of this life can shape us to increase our capacity to have more empathy for others.  In order for God to use a person, we must allow God to heal us and rebuild us from the inside so that over time, we can develop an inner resilience. As we mature and find healing and strength, God will shape us into vessels that God may find useful. This will then enable us to journey with them and enter into their loneliness and desolation. To do this, requires healing from one’s own past hurts. This is inner spiritual resilience.

People who have not gone through the pressure of being shaped by suffering, and experience healing will find it difficult to empathize and understand the pain and hurts of others.  Lashing back at others and those who hurt us will still be a natural reaction from our past hurts. But if you have suffered, you can consider it a part of the joy you receive when you can offer of yourself empathy and understanding to the person who is suffering.

In looking back, I realize today that God used my suffering and increased my capacity to empathize with people’s pain. Bringing a small measure of empathy and understanding into people’s lives is what gives me some consolation. Pressure and heat shapes a stone. So pressure and suffering shapes a person’s capacity to bring empathy into other people’s lives.

Why I don’t feel enough compassion

It was a dark and rainy Friday evening in downtown Victoria. I felt like having a burger after watching a series of short IMAX films. I drove to a fast food burger joint close by, ordered a couple burgers, and sat down. After a few bites into my burger, I couldn’t help but notice this lady who came in.   She looked decrepit and hungry. She was either homeless or was living in less-desirable conditions. Her facial expression looked desperate.  She looked as if she had been aged prematurely either by drugs or alcohol.  I saw her rummage through the trash in the restaurant; and as I watched, my heart sank.  She was desperate and hungry.

Usually, I ignore transient people on the streets; but tonight, sitting right in front of me was a person opening the trash to look for scraps of food.  Though I wanted to ignore her I could not.  It was extremely challenging to enjoy eating my Whopper while watching her dig through the trash bin.  It was getting quite uncomfortable.  My heart was sinking.  I also couldn’t ignore what I was feeling. Sadness and sympathy.  I hadn’t felt this way in a while. Normally, I would assume store policy would prohibit people from coming in to search the trash bins. Store was likely under-staffed.


I was also feeling a heavy sense of guilt weighing down on my heart. Part of this guilt was due to some of my dark and uncompassionate thoughts.  “Why did I have come into this burger joint tonight?  Why couldn’t it have been on another night? Why did I have to sit myself down here in this spot.”  I had chosen this spot because I wanted some privacy.

I had ordered two burgers.  One was in my hand; and the other was still in the bag—still unwrapped and untouched.  I thought for a moment, “I should give her one of mine. I really should. I had two anyway.”  

My other thought was, “I’m still hungry myself too.  I could just gulp it down quickly and walk out of here fast.  My mind and heart were battling between these two alternate thoughts. Something within me refused to follow through with this latter thought—on this evening anyway.

I stood up, walked up to her and said: “Ma’am, have my other burger in this bag.” I handed her the bag, then returned to my seat, and finished my burger. This discomforting feeling didn’t go away.  

She continued to rummage through the other trash bins in the restaurant.  A minute later, she returned and told me: “Thank you.”  I nodded back in acknowledgement.

After I did this, it felt a little better—but not much better.  I asked myself afterward, “Did I truly do this for her, or was it for myself?”  Maybe a bit of both.  What do I mean by, “for myself”? I discomfortable seeing her dig through the trash to look for scraps was unbearable.  I could get rid myself of this discomfort by simply giving her my burger. Instantly, my guilt would be gone. But that would be for my own sake. What about her? She still had a hungry tummy to fill or she’d be going to bed without dinner.

This lady was desperate–desperate enough to dig through the trash in the restaurant with the eyes of customers looking at her. She obviously had nothing to lose by doing this.  She could care less if others saw her digging through the litter. The person who was most self-conscious was probably myself—not her. I’m the one with the problem. The moral and ethical issue was duelling within me.

After I finished my burger, I was still hungry. I decided to walk up to the front to order a second one.  I still had a sense of guilt mixed with a sense of satisfaction of having done something good.  But was it really “good” or was it something any decent human being would have done?   I have a job that pays a reasonable salary.  Can’t complain.  She couldn’t afford a simple burger.  

After I placed my order for a second burger, this same lady came up to me and thanked me again a second time.  I asked her if she would like another burger.  She didn’t tell me either yes or no.  I would have given her another one if she said “Yes.”  I probably should have given her a second burger anyway—even without an affirmative “Yes.”

She began sharing with me that she was living in a hostel close by on $10 per night.  Then she pulled out some change and placed it on a counter-ledge next to me.  It couldn’t have been more than a dollar. Not sure why she did that.  Was she trying to pay me back a little something?  I certainly didn’t expect anything.  She then put her change back in her pocket and walked away.  

I admit it. It was an uncomfortable situation for me.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this brief interaction.  Not sure why she share this bit of herself with me.  Was she wanting to share with me more of her life story?  Or was she probing if I would be willing to give her some money?  I didn’t know.  I just had all kinds of questions but was afraid to ask further.

I was feeling a little too uncomfortable to know what to ask or do. My heart was preoccupied with this moral and ethical duel within myself. I feared more for myself than for her. I feared that I didn’t have enough compassion to bear the load required to love another human being.

Anyway, after picking up my second order, I decided to take it to-go in a bag. I wanted to eat in my car. I was parked on the 4th floor of the Johnson Street parking garage.  Weird thing to be eating a meal in a such sterile environment—facing the grey concrete walls of a parking garage. As I was chomping down on my burgers, I was running through some thoughts in my mind. 

“What was her past life like?  Was she always like this or did she once have a better life? Perhaps, she could be a divorced mother with kids who were sent to foster homes? How did she end up in such impoverished conditions ravaged with substance abuse?  What if she had lost a good job, had fallen on hard times, and had somehow gotten trapped in depression and mental illness?  Might she have been taken advantage of by crooked men who forced her into a state of dependency?  All these “What ifs” were running through my head.  And what if I were in her position or circumstance?  How would I feel?  And what would I to do?”


I also realized something else.  People who regularly donate their pocket change to others on the streets see them as brothers and sisters in need. They are actually far more compassionate than me.  They are far more willing to lend a helping hand. By their standards, I would consider myself a heartless and uncompassionate person. Such a weird thing to think about myself in this way.

This evening revealed something of myself.  I don’t feel enough compassionate for the poor and hungry. Others with more compassion are more willing to give. Why so? They might be people who knows what it feels like to have fallen into hard times.  At one point in their lives, they might have been in dire straits themselves and have received grace. This is why they know how to say, “Thank you and God bless.”  

I don’t feel enough compassionate for the poor and hungry.

I’ve been a poor student in my young bachelor days.  My life nowadays is too comfortable. Today, I don’t feel the compassion I used to feel.  Considering that I’m a Christian, isn’t a Christian supposed to be as compassionate as Jesus?  Yes, but…

I hadn’t felt this uncomfortable in a long time; but this wasn’t the first time I had seen people digging through the trash looking for scraps of food.  I had seen this almost every time I walk through downtown, but why today?

Days before this incident, I had been thinking to myself, that perhaps I should be giving more of my time and of myself to serve the poor in downtown.  Not sure why I’ve been having these thoughts.   Was God speaking to me through this event? Was God showing me that I ought to do something more for others?   Helping others in abject poverty has been a neglected part of my life for many years.  Was this just coincidence, or was God trying to tell to me something?

A person’s shoes: Where have they walked in them?

One of the things I am most grateful for in my work and ministry is being able to walk with people in their struggles in life.  It might be marital problems, health problems in their own lives or in one of their family members. It might be a work-related issue.  Issues can vary far and wide.  I am also grateful when I can be a vehicle who enables consolation in their hearts.  When they show appreciation, I am grateful.  One of the things that I’m least grateful for is not being appreciated and verbally devalued (can be either by colleagues or bosses). For me, this places me in a desolate place.

Think about shoes–yes, ordinary dirty pairs of shoes–and to ponder on where each person’s shoes might have taken them. We don’t know where a person might have walked.  They might have walked in places thousands of miles away and we would have no idea of what their experiences were like.  The person is potentially a storehouse of valuable insights but we fail to ask them to share with us from their experiences of what they have learned. We don’t take the time, and we don’t care to.

This is also an area where I have failed, as well.  I have failed to ask more about the experiences of my friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues.  I have failed to take the time to ask and sit down and listen.  I am needing to learn and to become a vessel to which they can pour into. For these things I confess. In Prayers of Boundless Compassion (p.12), Rupp writes as a prayer with which I pray along:

Holy One of the Burning Bush, like Moses we take off our shoes.  We are in awe of your presence, not in a fiery bush but in the heart of each human being.  Deepen our respect for one another’s history of experience, the unique personality and diverse giftedness.  Heal us of quick judgments that are often untrue.  In our relationship with all people may we approach them with respect and a sincere desire to hallow their sacred journey.  Together we stand before you, Holy One aflame in our hearts.  May we walk in peace with each person who comes our way.”

A broken and imperfect people

Do people view Christians as imperfect people? Yes, we Christians are imperfect; and we don’t need to hide this fact. And I’m one of these imperfect ones. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am imperfect. I have known some who put on a facade–like a make-over to look like that “perfect and righteous Christian.” Nothing can be more phoney. Pastors, elders, deacons can be pressured to put on a facade because of fear of not looking like that good example. This can be true of any church.

Our younger generation are totally not into this “old school” hypocrisy of “fake it till you make it.” They want people to be real, genuine and true to themselves. They want this of themselves. I don’t mean that we show off our sin like a peacock. By this I really mean that we ought to trust in God’s forgiveness with boldness and courage. Without a true understanding and experience of God’s grace, the freedom to do this is impossible.

This generation has been raised in a non-religious society but it realizes its need for God and spirituality. I see the rise of two cultures clashing. One culture realizes the imperfections we all have and rebel against the injustices of our society’s leaders, including our political, business and religious leaders. It wants to fix this broken culture.

The other culture realizes our own need for a savior because we have seen our hopelessness of trying to fix ourselves and our society. This savior has been revealed to us, and He is the one who saves us from having to rebel and fight (not that we don’t strive to improve society). This second culture is the Christian or Jesus culture.

I have been a broken person and see my own imperfections more than anyone else. I just try not to show it or make it too obvious. If this is how you feel too, then you’ll understand it is why we need a God who loves us despite our imperfections. We don’t need a god to make us feel better about ourselves. We need a savior who loves us despite our brokenness. This is what grace is. This is the most liberating way to live.

This understanding of righteousness and setting God’s righteousness above our own human righteous is how Christ built the Church from nothing. A personal spiritual revelation of God’s grace is the only thing that can revive the Church today. I see a new generation of Christians rising up today that is full of faith and a new found sense of spirituality. This gives me new hope in the Church.

Everything about me has been and is going back to God’s grace. It’s amazing. Yes, it’s God’s grace that’s amazing. It truly is. When I listen to the song: Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace) by Hillsong, I’m amazed by the words of the lyrics. It goes like:

All these pieces
Broken and shattered
In mercy gathered
Mended and whole
Empty handed
But not forsaken
I've been set free
I've been set free ….
You take our failure
You take our weakness
You set Your treasure
In jars of clay
So take this heart Lord
I'll be your vessel
The world to see
Your life in me….

Then the amazing part goes like this:

Oh I can see You now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying Yourself down
Raising up the broken to life

After I realize God’s love despite my broken and shattered life,
Despite my need to be mended and be made whole,
Despite my failures, weaknesses,
God still wants to make me into a vessel of his to be used by him.

This is why I can see God more clearly today. I have looked into God’s loving eyes who gave himself up for my broken life. Now I’m set free. Set free from having to hide my imperfections. Set free from human performance. This is true freedom.

Yes, Snoopy needs God’s grace too.

Examen: Learning to be grateful

I’ve recently learned about two very useful questions to ask of myself.  

1/ For what moment today am I most grateful?
2/ For what moment today am I least grateful?

These two questions of St Ignatius’ examen is a practical tool for daily inner reflection.  I’m going to answer these two here today and share my answer with you.

1/  On my spiritual retreat last week, I took some time to examine and reflect on my own life.  It was a time of spiritual rejuvenation.  

I was most grateful this week for the opportunity to return to listening to praise and worship music. I hadn’t taken the time to sit down and listen to the new music from recent artists and groups like Hillsong. I didn’t know the new stuff that was being played in our contemporary evangelical churches. Anyone else out there been through periods of not having listened to new worship songs but do appreciate the music?  It’s been a dry period for me in the past. But now I’ve been refreshed through new music.  I took the opportunity to reflect on the words of numerous worship songs and was really blessed and nourished by them.  For this precious time, I was most grateful.

2/ For what I was least grateful that day was having my wife go through surgery.  She had go fly to Taiwan in order to get surgery that otherwise, would’ve taken a very long time to receive here in Canada. She already had to wait for many months. We have a broken health care system and my fear is that it will get worse in the future as the population ages.  Anyway, through my self-reflection and self-examination, I realized I still had much to be thankful for.  Her mother, and her sister in Taiwan took some time off work to care for her during and after surgery.  This is very big help. I’m thankful for this. So in what I had thought I was least grateful, I realized that I still had things for which to be grateful.

Reflecting on these two questions helped me realize that I had more to be thankful for than I had thought.  Thank you God for your grace, mercy, and blessings.

Recently at my spiritual retreat I came across another book entitled, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn (Paulist Press, 1995). A good brief book that explained to me how and why the Examen helps. I add this below as added reference.

My favorite cross

Symbols can be powerful. It helps people recognize the meaning. My favorite symbol is a cross, specifically, the Jerusalem cross. People say that it represents the gospel and the Church being sent to the “four corners of the world.” This pic below is the Jerusalem cross. There are variations of it.

Do you have a favorite type of cross?



Competition and comparison

Our society is full of competition. Competition and comparison causes people stress and is one of the causes of depression. Out of competition and comparison come spite between colleagues in work places. We look at pop culture and see how we don’t measure up to their good looks, fine voices, and persona. We compare ourselves to them. No wonder why people feel down on themselves.

People spite their co-workers with harsh criticism; slander them with false accusations. Low self-esteem stem from some of these things. A source of this can be the deception for one’s need to compete and compare ourselves to others. We want to be more significant and feel important about ourselves. It is one of the reasons why people who fall victim to this, or get tired of this endless wheel of competition end up quitting their jobs and severing their relationships and/or even marriages.

During my recent stay at a spiritual retreat centre, I came across a book by an author of whom I did not know or read from before. My host recommended to visit the library and locate the devotional writings of Joyce Rupp.

Compassionate One, when I think poorly of myself because I do not match cultural norms of how to speak, think, look, or act, lead me to acknowledge and appreciate the gifts I have been given. Draw me inward to my core goodness. I will sink into that cradle of kindness and gain strength from what has lasting value. Disengage my strong connection to the “rush, push, and shove” approach to daily life. Release in me whatever craves to be the best, to rise to the top, to show off who I am and what I can do. Hush the strong voice of insecurity that steals energy from my spirit. Calm the anxiety that aches to have the spiritual life of another. Lift the darkness from my inner eye so that I see wth gratitude how enriched I am in my relationship with you….”


This is from Prayers of Boundless Compassion, 2018 (p. 6). Rupp is a Servant of Mary, a Catholic spiritual guide, and retreat leader. I very much like her style of writing. This has imagery and is visual and it draws and directs the reader into a spiritual direction. It speaks to me and is well written and draws from her experience. I shared this excerpt as my personal prayer today. I pray to the Lord: Help me seek and trust in your goodness and the fruits of your Holy Spirit. Fill me with more of your compassionate presence, with who you are, and make me more like you, O God.


Wait patiently for him

Evil and wickedness can unseat people and families from their moments and places of comfort.  Illness/injury, loss of work, family struggles, and other personal trials can cause a lot of discomfort.  These are trials and evils–not necessarily caused by the evil one or other people.  No noticeable cause. Nothing external or people to blame.  It just happens when it happens. 

The Lord wants us to be still and wait.  The psalmist wrote in v. 37, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.”  The writer wrote this in the context of chaos and evil being plotted against him and occurring all around.

This is very hard to do. The fallback is to become anxious, and possibly stirring up a hornets nest and possibly making others as anxious as one’s self. To be still before God and wait patiently for him without an answer or solution to our problems is one of the hardest things to do (or not do).  We want answers or at least an acknowledgement of our struggle from God.  Not later, but now. When we hear silence and nothingness, it feels we are unheard.  We feel insignificant because we feel ignored.  

Hope in the Lord and keep his way.  He will exalt you to inherit the land…”, says the psalmist (v.34).  We are waiting for a reason, not for no reason. We are waiting for God and his rescue. 

(posted while on my retreat at Rivendell on Bowen Island BC)

Be still before the Lord

Today, I finally found some time to rest.  I let out some tears and a moment to cry.  Nothing bad happening.  No evil. No chaos.  None.  Reason for my cry was that I finally found some time to rest.  Weeks and months and a year went by.  Work and life was busy. Non-stop without time to rest.

As a servant, the work of helping and walking with others through their struggles and chaos, and administration, and even sermon prep in chaplaincy does not equate to rest. Ministry is still work. Yes, it’s still work, though it’s a part of God’s calling.

During this moment during my spiritual retreat on a small island, I was reading Psalm 37 while listening to the song Still.  That’s when the tears started rolling.  I realized my need for a time to rest.  Rest from serving, from helping others, and just “find rest my soul…in quietness and trust,” as the song writer said in Still.  

Hide me now
Under Your wings
Cover me
Within Your mighty hand
When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you above the storm
Father, You are King over the flood
I will be still and know You are God

Find rest my soul
In Christ alone
Know His power
In quietness and trust
When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you above the storm
Father, You are King over the flood
I will be still and know You are God

(song: Still, Hillsong)

(posted while on my retreat at Rivendell on Bowen Island BC)