My friend, Marta, was in turmoil. Her husband had cancer. She was trying to find a good group care program for her 18 year old disabled son. She was maintaing their household pretty much on her own, as her husband could no longer help. She worked full time as a church secretary, and constantly dealt with members who complained to her about the pastor and others in the church. Life was miserable, and as her long-time friend, she held nothing back when we talked.
One day Marta called me, and she was livid. “We had a ladies’ group last night,” she told me. “It was a mockery. Ridiculous. We had to take little jars and put notes in them of all the things we’re grateful for, and then close them up and decorate them. An Attitude of Gratitude, they said. How juvenile. How stupid. We’re grown adults, for goodness sake. It felt like a kindergarten platitude class!”
Part of me wanted to leap into Marta’s boat and paddle out to sea with her on a wave of bitterness and anger. I was having my own struggles, and the desire to give in to my negative emotions under the guise of empathy was tantalizing.
But the Lord stopped me.
As Marta ranted on, I prayed, asking for help. It was as though he spoke insight directly into my heart. Marta’s in great pain right now - no hope, no end to her struggles in sight. I know you're hurting too, but if you join her, you’ll confirm the darkness that’s enveloping her.
What do I do, then? I prayed.
Listen with love. Let her express her pain without feeding it. Meet her need of the moment - someone safe who can withstand her anger. The rest is up to me.
So I had a choice. Tag-team with Marta and together wallow in our misery, or step back and trust that God would meet my need, while I maintained hope for Marta and her future. It wasn’t easy, but offering nothing more than a listening ear, I chose the latter.
Several years have passed since Marta’s season of hopelessness, and my own time of trial. I see Marta regularly on Facebook. These days she expresses joy and gratitude for the memory of her husband, for her son who's happy in a good group home, and for her new husband and his family who have embraced her fully.
I’ve since had several opportunities to practice the lesson the Lord taught me during Marta’s difficult time. Empathy does not mean taking part. Rather, it means to love, sometimes silently, but always present, maintaining our own hope, so the light of Christ can shine through us. Quietly walking alongside someone who is in great pain is sometimes exactly what they need, and what we need, too.