Empathy and Involvement – the “One Anothering” of Biblical Counseling

empathy-3by Marie Notcheva ©

Life is a messy business. Before kindergarden, most of us have figured that out – and life doesn’t stop being messy once Christ pours grace into our mess. Within the Church, real spiritual growth happens in community – what is commonly referred to as discipleship”. Sometimes, there is a “logjam” in a believer’s life, and in those seasons, the counsel of a more mature believer can be invaluable.

As biblical counselors, trained in diagrams, models, and Scriptural principles, how do we relate to the struggling brother or sister in our office? Is empathy enough? Should we remain detached, or get involved? And what is the difference between “empathy” and “involvement”?

Developing involvement with a counselee encompasses how the counselor relates to the person in front of him. How will he (or she) use Scripture and instill hope? The first session of counseling is geared towards how to develop this involvement, using biblical methods. Wayne Mack writes,

Ultimately and preeminently the purpose for that involvement [between counselor and counselee] is to enhance the counselee’s involvement with Christ. This vertical dimension is what makes biblical counseling different from all other forms of counseling.” (Wayne Mack, quoted in John Macarthur’s “Counseling”, p. 281).

This effective type of involvement demands a genuine compassion, such as that demonstrated by Christ towards the masses. We also see this characteristic in Paul, when he counseled and corrected people (i.e. 2 Cor. 11:28-29; Acts 20:31). Besides cultivating heartfelt compassion (recognizing how one would feel in counselee’s position; seeing him or her as a family member; humbly recognizing one’s own sinfulness and considering practical ways of showing compassion), a counselor must develop involvement with the counselee through respect. This includes proper verbal and non-verbal communication; trust and confidence in the counselee; and sincerity. The counselor must be honest and transparent about his or her qualifications, weaknesses, limitations and goals and agenda for counseling.

Empathy is far more limited than actual involvement, because empathy stops short of any action to solve the problem and help the counselee change. Empathy and “support” are synonymous – empathy feels another’s pain and sympathizes, but it is “passive”. Empathy offers understanding, which is important – both in friendships and counseling – but does nothing “active” to help.While the knowledge that one is cared about is important and can bring a measure of comfort, the biblical model of love goes a step further: it is always active when possible.

Offering empathy and assurances that you care, sympathize and understand helps the sufferer’s plight much more effectively when it is coupled with action. The book of James illustrates this principle well:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (James 2:15-17).

In a spiritual sense, this is what empathy is: it feels another’s pain, but does not seek to implement a solution to stop it.

When the Problem is “Unfixable”

The difference between passive empathy and involvement is significant, because Scripturally love is always active. It feels another’s need, and seeks to fill it. God is the ultimate example of this: He gives, seeks, restores (John 3:16; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:25) and commands the same from His followers. Naturally, there are many cases when nothing can be done directly to help a struggling friend or counselee (times when advice is not appropriate; no action can undo an unfortunate event or situation). When one suffers through no fault of their own (for example, the death of a child; a spouse leaving; the sting of rejection), no amount of counseling (no matter how biblically-sound) is going to rectify the situation – or stop the pain. Yet even in such situations, counselor or friend can both empathize and get involved by helping with day-to-day tasks.

Practical help, such as bringing meals; running errands; helping to organize finances can be a very beneficial part of bereavement counseling. However, most people seek biblical counseling because of a problem of sanctification in their life – something is “messed up”, and they don’t know what to do about it. When the extent of a counselor’s involvement in a situation is mere empathy, the counselee may take fleeting comfort from the appearance of compassion (“someone understands me”), but no change will occur because nothing is confronted (and subsequently changed).

When the Problem is Sin

Many of the issues (such as addictions, pornography, and infidelity) we see in the counseling room are matters of life-dominating sin. When “support” is what is meant by “empathy”, it is the most unloving thing a counselor can offer. “Supporting” someone stuck in a sinful lifestyle is harmful, and indicates that there is no answer (and thus no hope) for the problem. The failure of behavioral psychology to address and change counselee’s problems is primarily rooted in the practice of “talk-therapy” – the idea that emoting about one’s problems is sufficient. In fact, simply talking about a problem and not addressing it biblically does more harm than good (Proverbs 14:23). Such empathy gives the counselee no impetus to change and live as God wants him to.

Both empathy and personal involvement are important aspects of Christ-like soul care. Counsel that is truly biblical does not remain detached; but rather rolls up its sleeves and gets involved in the messy business of life. We do this by offering compassion, empathy – and solutions rooted in the hard work of God-honoring change.

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