When I see an alarming lack of empathy for those who’ve been spiritually abused, I’ve gotta be honest with you, the INFJ in me does a full-body cringe.
Lack of empathy on public display is more than a party foul or an Internet faux pas. It does damage. It sometimes triggers those of us who’ve been wounded. It rips open the scars.
Maybe it’s because many of us who’ve experienced or even witnessed spiritual abuse crave compassion in order to reconcile with the Church, in order to believe that not all Christians are heartless enough to march through a field of wounded wearing boots with cleats.
Or maybe it’s déjà vu, because one very common characteristic of abusers (spiritual or otherwise) is, in fact, a lack of empathy, which is tied closely to narcissism.
Show me your narcissism married to a lack of empathy, and I’ll show you the Most Likely to Abuse Award I’ve got waiting for you in the hall closet.
That was snarky. And maybe even lacking in empathy toward narcissists and those who lack empathy. (Is empathy for narcissists and the unempathetic something worth striving for? Discuss.)
Empathy: Do you have it?
Empathy says, “I get that I can’t fully understand what you’ve been through, because it didn’t happen to me.” Empathy says, “Tell me your story, so I can learn.” Empathy says, “I’m not going to blame you for bleeding grief and anger when your soul is cut open.” Empathy says, “I’m not going to blame you for the way others have behaved toward you.”
Empathy. Some of us have it for certain people, while at the same time lacking it for others. (I know this is true of me. Exhibit A can be found just a few paragraphs up.) And some of us have gained our capacity for empathy over time. Maybe we had to experience something for ourselves. Maybe we read a book or watched a film that changed us. Or maybe we were challenged directly by another person, confronted with our lack of empathy, and finally saw the rocky, empty chasm where our empathy should have been.
In fact, there are a lot of ways we can fill the chasm and increase our empathy over time. Most of us are still nurturing it, coaxing it to grow in our hearts every time we see it missing for an individual person or people group.
But here’s the thing about empathy: I can’t force you to have it.
And here’s the thing about spiritual abuse I hope you’ll one day understand: We almost never see it coming.
Sometimes spiritual abuse hits like a drive-by shooting. We’re sitting in conversation with someone we’ve just met, and the next thing we know they are saying incredibly wounding and insensitive things that rip tender places wide open. Judging. Telling us that sharing our stories of hurt and asking for justice is whining. Blaming us for things that have been done to us. Pinning our pain on lack of Bible knowledge or worse, lack of personal faith. And sometimes these things are said with such sincerity and couched in such loving language we don’t even know how deep the bullets went until the marksman turns the corner and leaves us to bleed.
Try getting over the drive-bys.
We can tell ourselves a thousand times the person didn’t know us, means nothing to us, and that their words shouldn’t matter to us or hurt us … and yet, the words will still sting. Even the person’s potentially good intent does little to minimize the damage. Were their motives really pure? Then call it an accident and not a drive-by. More of a reckless hit-and-run. But the bottom line is the same: We didn’t chose to be hurt by the words that came toward us faster than our hard-won boundaries could be laid down.
Other times spiritual abuse creeps up like a cancer. By the time we feel the pain, it’s too late to walk away without losing a part of ourselves. Maybe we didn’t see the warning signs, because we didn’t know to look for them or because they were never revealed to us until the last possible moment. But when the cancer of spiritual manipulation and control makes itself known, cutting it out of our lives, extricating ourselves from its poison, is a battle not everybody wins. The scars can be spiritually and emotionally debilitating for a time, if not for always.
And sometimes spiritual abuse is a sucker punch, delivered at the exact moment we’re looking for the exit. We see the abuse happening to others. We know we have to get away from it. But turning for the door is precisely what puts a target on our backs and makes us vulnerable. Too many of the wounded have been vilified, humiliated and shunned by spiritual abusers precisely because they saw the abuse and chose to exit the building.
Friends, we almost never see it coming until the damage is done.
But if you haven’t got any empathy for the spiritually wounded, I can’t force it on you.
If you can’t recognize the complexities of spiritual abuse and see that your judgement only harms hurting souls, I can’t help you.
Everything in me wants to stand in that field with the wounded and order you to lose the cleats and take your march elsewhere. Everything in me.
But I’m a realist. I know if I point out the needle-sharp barbs coming out of your shoes, you are likely to present me with a thesis on why the cleats are indispensable for this terrain. You’ll call for reinforcements. You’ll march harder and longer than before.
I know this, because it’s what I do when I’m the one wearing boots.
So, I won’t ask you to remove them. But I will invite you to sit down in this field and stay a while. Listen to our stories. Hear our hearts. Observe our scars. Don’t get hung up on our language. Don’t dismiss our pain. Enter, instead, into experiences you may never fully understand and practice believing a side of the story you may never see with your own eyes.
You might not ever chose to remove the cleats, but maybe next time you’ll tread with greater care.
Have you ever gained empathy in a particular area? What opened your heart and increased your compassion?