Empathy and resilience: shaped by 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.

Today, I work as a chaplain and minister to others who are hurting. 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.

Enduring hardship through faith

Living in caves can be modern experience; it can also be a hard life.  It makes me think of a time when the early saints had to endure an amazing amount of cruel and hardship in the pre-church era. Hebrews 11:37-38 (ESV) says:

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”

This verse indicates that faithful people of God in the Old Testament had been forced to live underground, in deserts, and hid in dens and caves (as were prophets in 1 Kings 18-19). They were a shunned and disparaged because of their faith. They were not just typical Jewish followers but were despised for their deep faith and conviction within broader Judaism. They were living amongst Jews but were still shunned and seen as an abhorrent sect within Judaism.

In the Church today, there is also sectarianism, as in many other major/established religions. Parts of the Christian church also face disparagement and shunning because of their deep faith and conviction. They are not only persecuted by people of different or opposing religions, but from followers of the same religion.

I’m glad we don’t are not as separated by denominationalism as we formerly were. There are still subtle differences but we have come a long way in being respectful of our religious and spiritual differences. I appreciate that it’s our differences that make us unique and special.

I have brothers and sisters in the Lord who went from borderline fence-walkers to devoted Christian believers. I also some dear friends who went the opposite direction and/or stopped attending church. Our society is multi-faceted. Some of us want more devotion and deeper spirituality. Some of us want less or nothing of the sort for various personal reasons. Despite our personal convictions, God is still sovereign and in control, so who are we to judge others for their deep faith or lack of it?!

May we who are faithful, endure, hold-on, and remain thankful for the sacrifice of our spiritual and religious ancestors who paved the way for us. It made our path of devotion and service to the Lord a little easier to walk. God gives each of us strength to follow him; and faith is given to each generation–even this generation, from Baby Boomers to Millennials to generation Z.  God is forever faithful to us.

Driscoll and Harris on Chan

Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris tagteam to inquire more on Francis Chan’s motivations for stepping down from Cornerstone Church, Simi Valley, CA to L.A.  Chan says his desire is motivated by love to give and sanctification, which includes poverty, suffering, and simplicity. I get the sense he believes the church is not where it should be and he wants the church to move back to the core truths as found in Scripture.

… and more on Francis’ spirituality of suffering below. I haven’t heard this kind of message from any pulpit for a very very long time. Sounds like it’s a forgotten path of Jesus that we North American Christians ought to return to.