06 June 2008

Emotion and Empathy

I'm still undecided as to whether I learn more from hearing confession or going to confession. I learn to know my parishioners better in hearing their confessions; I learn to know myself better in making confession and receiving Absolution from my pastor. But as to whether I learn more theology from the Word of Absolution and the pastoral care that I am given to speak according to my office, or from the counsel and care that are granted to me with Holy Absolution, that's hard to say. Either way, what do I have or receive that is not given to me by the grace of God?

I've recently been searching for the right way to comprehend and deal with feelings and emotions. There's evidently something "in the air" these days, because it's not only me but others who are also struggling to come to grips with elusive and vacillating emotions. Lutherans have rightly tended to downplay the role of emotions in the realm of faith and doctrine, but have probably overdone their precautions in the realms of piety and life. Or maybe I'm only describing myself and my own past efforts to avoid depending too much on feelings. Fair enough, we shouldn't depend on our feelings, and we shouldn't do anything "too much," but neither should we despise this aspect of the way that God has created us: to live in love toward one another and in love with Him. Feelings and emotions are not the problem, but sin, which has warped and twisted our feelings and emotions, turning them inward instead of outward. The solution is not that we should deny or avoid them, but that they be sanctified by the Word of God and prayer; for these also are God's gifts to be received in faith and with thanksgiving.

Anyway, although I basically know all this in my head, there's still the challenge of putting it into practice. How does one get a handle on his emotions or channel them in a positive direction? The first and foremost response is to confess the ways in which my emotions have been misdirected — in selfishness and anger, in pride and envy — and to receive the free and full forgiveness of those sins and failings in Holy Absolution. Christ be praised for such gifts of His!

In doing that, I have also received some most beautiful pastoral counsel, which seemed at once so strikingly profound and so simply obvious — it was like settling into a comfy easy chair at the end of a long, hard day. Rather than fleeing my emotions, or allowing them to drive me further and further into myself (which is into sin), I can learn from them to know and love my neighbor. In other words, my emotions can teach me a kind of empathy that I would otherwise not know or have for others. I guess it's just a variation on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Well, sure, that makes perfect sense.

So why didn't I think of that? Because I have nothing that is not given to me, and this I needed to be taught by the one who is sent to speak the Word of the Lord to me. Apart from that, my feelings and emotions, and my struggles with them, are always getting in the way of clarity and compassion. Apart from that Word that is spoken to me from outside of myself, I only end up spiraling downward, ever and always collapsing into me, myself and I. But now, instead, this Word of the Lord, this pastoral care that has been granted to me, calls me out of myself with my own feelings and emotions in tow. Instead of pining away for myself, I can understand my neighbor's feelings and emotions in the light of my own experience. My desire to be loved and understood can direct me, according to the New Man who lives in me by grace, by the Word and Spirit of God, to love and understand my neighbor. My fears and frustrations, my anger and anxiety, my hopes and dreams, my cares and concerns — all of these things become a school of understanding, in which I learn to know my neighbor's griefs and sorrows, hurts and needs.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to become our merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, became like us in every way (save without sin); He also has partaken of blood and flesh, like unto our own, that we might be made like Him by grace. He prays and intercedes for us as One who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows in His own body to the Cross. In love and mercy and compassion, He has suffered for us, that He might also suffer with us. He feeds our mortal flesh with His own Body and Blood, given and poured out for us, that we might have life by His death, and peace and rest forever. As we, therefore, are given to have the same mind and heart and the Spirit of Christ in us, so let us learn from our emotional experiences to know our neighbor well, to comprehend him (or her) in compassion, and to serve as we are served. In knowing and loving our neighbor, we are also known and loved by Christ our Lord. How much more shall I, having been sent by His charity to shepherd His sheep and to care for them with His Word of the Gospel, deal with them with a sympathetic and compassionate heart.


organistsandra said...

Your insight, and that of your Father Confessor, is amazing.

I’ve had struggles too with emotions. Part of my struggle is not wanting my sinful and selfish inclinations determine how I relate to my neighbor. I want to get along and not have conflicts and misunderstandings. I don’t want to hurt others, and I don’t like feeling hurt.

How do I use my emotional struggles to help me learn to love and understand my neighbor? Are my neighbor’s struggles similar to mine? It seems like the reason we have conflict is that we perceive things so differently. We think differently and interpret words differently. I suppose we all struggle with self-centeredness, with making false gods, with loving ourselves more than others. But beyond those universal things, it seems like I better not assume anything.

Maybe one thing is to know just that my neighbor has struggles too, and assume that he, too, wants to let God’s love has its way with him. Maybe just knowing that he has struggles too, can shape my love for him and my ability to relate compassionately and not selfishly.

Is that at all what you’re getting at?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Yes, Sandra, that is certainly a big part of the point. We often don't realize how much our neighbor is hurting, because we are so caught up in our own hurts and fears (or joys and excitement). But the reality is that our neighbor has feelings and emotions that are much like our own, and struggles and desires and good intentions and sinful inclinations, and the whole gamut.

People are all different, as you say. Yet, one of my observations is that Christian people are more alike in their struggles than most of them realize. I see that from my perspective as a pastor; but I also see how much all of us tend to hide those struggles from our neighbors (and our neighbors from us).

None of really knows another person perfectly. In our sin, we do not even know ourselves perfectly. We know ourselves rightly (and perfected) only in Christ Jesus, by grace through faith in His forgiveness and gift of life. What is true for us by His Word of the Gospel, is also true of our neighbor by that same Holy Gospel. Along with that, we can understand our neighbor better than we do, and approximate a way of knowing him (or her), by letting our own feelings and emotions suggest that way that someone else may also be feeling.

As I indicate above, it is another way of thinking about the golden rule; that is to say, the way that I feel gives me some guidance in knowing how best to help and serve my neighbor, as I myself would want to be helped and served.

sarahlaughed said...


Thanks Pastor! It has been weird and somewhat even eerie for me to find out that my brothers and sisters in Christ are SO MUCH like me.
I think that the reason we (at least I)do not realize this more is because we are all afraid to open ourselves up to each other and expose our fears and dreams. We don't want to admit that we aren't in control - especially of our emotions.
Often we do a fairly decent job of covering our true feelings - leaving a false trail, if you will. But when we let off our guard, or when we make a conscious effort to take the risk of hurt in order to share our feelings, we (at least, I) often find that instead of considering me a hopeless idiot, my brothers and sisters can relate or at least give me the comfort of the Gospel when I need to hear it most.
This is a blessing I am most grateful for.
At the same time, it also often makes one feel very insecure to communicate empathy. I don't know why. Many times, for me, this arises when I know what I would need and wish to hear if I were in the same situation, but am uncertain whether the other person would want such a thing, or, if they do want it, would wish to hear it from my lips.
Anyway, since Jesus uses our poor words as he pleases, and his good works all belong to me in baptism, I don't really need to become depressed about all those times when I haven't said the right thing.

thinkinginside said...

Dear ThinkingOutLoud,

I have noticed in my struggle to love my neighbor with my emotions that much of my feelings about my neighbor have more to do with my own internal dialog concerning what a certain event or word "means" than with the objective event or word that was spoken.

And, I have found that this monitor of meaning (my own internal dialog) is subject to past hurts, fatigue, personal family culture, communication style, hormonal swings, difficult emotional interactions that I have recently gone through with other people, hopes, dreams, wishful thinking, desires and a host of other confounding factors.

I have also found that the same internal dialog is going on with my neighbor too.

So, what is truly amazing to me is that any two people can communicate anything with any degree of accuracy, especially when it relates to feeling, which is not subject to logic, but rather to association.

In my best moments it has been helpful to me to remember Luther's admonition to "put the best construction" on events and words.

In my worst moments, I just beg God to make me do the right and loving thing, even when everything in my heart and brain do NOT want to do the loving thing.

Oh wretched man that I am, who can save me from this body of death?