Empathy: the incarnate reality of place sharing

The Relational Pastor, part 8

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 1112, 13, 1415.

In part 7 of this series exploring The Relational Pastor by Andrew Root, we noted that Jesus' place sharing ministry is the outworking of his indwelling of humanity. This incarnational ministry of Jesus then points to our own, for we are called as Christians to participate with Jesus in his ongoing place sharing ministry. Our participation is fundamentally relational, because the triune God, who is relational, has created us in his relational image. As Root likes to say, "We are our relationships." It follows that relationship is the principal "location" where Jesus' ministry and thus ours occurs. This being so, a key characteristic of effective pastors is the personal quality that we refer to as empathy. Here is Root's definition:
[Empathy is] the experience of feeling (often involuntarily) the very relationships that make a person. Empathy is a feeling that touches the relationships that make us, a magnet that draws our person to another's. Empathy, as a feeling, is how we experience the ontological relationships that make a person. Because it is the feeling of another's person through their relationships, empathy is the feeling of spirit. Empathy is the spiritual reality that takes us into, that moves us to indwell, another. It is a deep feeling of spirit that pulls us from ourselves to others (p91).
Empathy is the antithesis, in fact the enemy, of the individualism that permeates our culture and, sadly, often our churches. Why? Because empathy moves us to see beyond ourselves and to indwell another. But what if a pastor is not particularly empathetic--are they doomed to ineffectiveness? Root comments:
The pastor...need not be the most empathetic person in the church, but should be the one thinking about how to set the space for facilitating those kinds of encounters. And this begins by finding ways for people to tell their stories, to share the relationships that make them them (p94). 
Empathy goes beyond formal knowledge (IQ) and relates to what is sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence (EQ) [for more about EQ, click here]. Empathy is about subjects and is bound in emotions, whereas sympathy is about objects and is bound in rational thought. Sympathy can know, but in knowing can stand on the sidelines. But empathy feels in ways that move us to indwell--to place share.

The neuroscience of empathy
In unpacking the nature of empathy, Root points to the findings of neuroscience, which among other things, tell us that laughter promotes empathy. Neurologically, "laughing represents the shortest distance between two people because it instantly interlocks limbic systems." Laughter literally wires our brains together: "People that laugh together indwell each other. Laughter is a form of empathy that when done with (not at), connects spirit" (p98). Another expression of empathy is the hug. We value laughing and hugging as expressions of empathy because God has equipped us to feel what others feel. He has "wired" us in such a way that we are able literally to read each other's minds:
Our brains are wired to connect: our brains only work...when we are connected. Synapses fire when they encounter the actions and communication of other minds. Science reveals that there is no such thing as an individual, independent mind; our brains are social organs that only work when we (when our minds) are in relationship.... In living in relationship our brains literally connect; they wire together, shaping each other. Empathy, these scientists agree, is a particularly powerful feeling, formed in the brain to allow us to connect our minds to others. Empathy may be formed in the brain, but it is nevertheless spiritual because it sends minds to indwell, to literally connect with other minds (p105).
Physiologically, this connecting of minds occurs in the brain's mirror neurons, which lead us to mirror each other. In conversation, we subconsciously mimick the other person as a way of sharing, thus indwelling the other person. You move your hand in a certain way and I mirror that. In that way we "feel" each other--we participate in one another's feelings--we "read" each other's minds. This is empathy at work.

Created for empathy
As embodied spirits, God created us in body (mirror neurons) and in spirit for empathy. This being so, the more we are together in relationship, the more we literally share in each other's minds. Sadly, our sinful nature rails against this empathy; this deep sharing that is the essence of fulfilling our design to be bearers of God's relational image. Sin pulls us away from empathy toward its opposite, which is competition and comparison where fear rather than love is the driving feeling. "Fear believes that the point of human existence is safety, is self-fulfillment, is your own interest" (p103). And fear leads ultimately to isolation--to living outside of relationship--to loneliness.

Instead of practicing empathy (loving our neighbor as ourself--Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27), our sinful inclination is to draw away, or in staying near to pollute the other person--to thrust anxiety and fear into them (pp103, 108). In these ways we "miss the mark" (we "sin") and thus miss out on the very purpose for life and ministry, which is to share in human relationships, for relationship is the "location" where we share in each other and Jesus, thus sharing together in the life and love of God (p108). Thus ministry of all kinds, and pastoral ministry in particular is about sharing in Jesus' place sharing, incarnational ministry. We'll discuss the idea of "incarnational ministry" next time.

 PS: On the distinctions between empathy and sympathy, watch this: