Pastor, Your Empathy Is Not Enough (and That’s a Good Thing)

By Harold Senkbeil, adapted from The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart

Over the years I’ve developed, in good Lutheran fashion, ten theses on spiritual cure, the care of souls. 

My first thesis is this: All spiritual care is provided by God the Holy Trinity through his word in spoken and visible form.

You and I as pastors are not the healers; only God himself can heal sin-sick people and provide consolation and comfort to war-weary, battle-scarred, and wounded souls. We’ve been charged with the responsibility to preach publicly the life-giving word of God and dispense and administer the sacraments, which, to quote an honored tradition in the Church, are “a kind of visible word.”

The word of God effects or performs what it speaks. It does not merely describe things but creates things. So while you and I as pastors can—and should—express our personal care and concern to suffering souls sympathetically and compassionately, there is only a temporary measure of relief in our concern and compassion. Genuine and lasting healing comes from God, not from us.

 

It took me quite a while to learn that lesson in the ministry. I was under the false impression that my personal empathy was the main help I could bring to sorrowing or hurting people. Not only was I wrong, but I quickly ran out of empathy. I don’t know about you, but I have a limited capacity for compassion. And when I’m running on empty, I’ve got nothing left to give.

The very first funeral I ever conducted was about eight months out of seminary. A middle-aged farmer died suddenly and unexpectedly. I had just visited him in the hospital that very morning; we thought he was on the mend. I went ice fishing with my father-in-law that afternoon, confident that all was well. But just after we dug a hole in the ice, his brother-in-law pulled up on a snowmobile. “Albert died,” he blurted out. My trip back to town was a whirl of emotions as I tried to remember the little I had been taught about funerals and the care of the grieving.

First up, of course, was a visit to Albert’s widow. In recent years they had already lost two grown sons tragically: One died from cancer and the other was a casualty of the Vietnam War. So I poured out my heart and soul in a valiant attempt to console Albert’s poor widow and their younger children still at home. The days following were a blur of uninterrupted emotional pain and anxiety for me as I tried to fill the family’s great gaping hole of grief and loss as best I could out of my own emotional empathy. Foolishly I tried to draw the caring and comfort out of my internal reservoir, which was rapidly running dry. Somehow I managed to hold it together during those draining days.

Albert was a well-respected citizen in our little community. We had to borrow the biggest church in town to accommodate all the mourners, and that sanctuary was jammed to the rafters. I managed to get through the service and my first funeral sermon intact, although it was extremely difficult for me since I kept trying desperately to lend that whole family my own emotional reserve, which by that time was almost nil.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see the anguish on the faces of Albert’s grieving family as they sat in the front row of the church before the pulpit. When the funeral finally came to a close, as the funeral director shut the door on the hearse, I collapsed into the arms of one of my elders standing by. I was an emotional wreck, the victim of a very common misbelief among us pastors: that people will feel better if we can somehow wrap them up in our personal strength.

Over the years, I’ve found this first thesis absolutely essential in preserving my own emotional equilibrium in traumatic cases like these. I find I can enter into some pretty dicey situations without experiencing lingering stress myself so long as I am consciously aware that the help I seek to bring is quite beyond my own capacity to give. As the psalmist writes: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 121:2).

A pastor who grasps the immense power of the word of God and who stands in quiet awe of his still, small voice need not fear tending the sheep and lambs of Christ even when they are in dire circumstances emotionally, physically, or spiritually. While he deals compassionately and lovingly with them he is also fully aware that no amount of his own love or compassion can soothe the sorrowing heart or free the burdened, tortured soul.

So when helping traumatized sheep deal with tragedy, grief, or emotional and spiritual pain, I consciously seek to tend my own soul as well by reminding myself I’m only a messenger—a messenger for Jesus. My motto becomes that of John the Baptizer: “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30) As much as possible, I want to back out of the scene and let Jesus do the heavy lifting. Armed with his word and sacraments, I can be sure that he will do the healing while I do the tending. I am the attending physician with sworn duties and responsibilities to perform. But God himself is the healer, and He—Father, Son, and Spirit—provides the healing through his word and gracious sacrament.

 

Harold Senkbeil is an Executive Director of Doxology: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care. His pastoral experience of nearly five decades includes parish ministry, the seminary classroom, and parachurch leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including Dying to Live: The Power of Forgivenessand Sanctification: Christ in Action.

Why Archaeology Makes Faith Less ‘Blind’

Biblical archaeology is archaeology focused on the ancient Near East. It includes places like modern-day Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran from 1,400 BC through the first century AD. 

And though students of the Bible often overlook archaeology, it’s one of our most significant partners in Bible study—a witness to the events, culture, and people in the Bible’s stories. 

Though not everyone will have the chance to go on a dig, there are unique benefits (and I believe blessings) that come from studying biblical archaeology.

Here are four.

1. It confirms the history of the Bible is sound.

Biblical archaeology provides a tangible background to the stories we can only read and wonder about in the Bible.

Numerous passages of the Bible [that] long puzzled the commentators have readily yielded up their meaning when new light from archaeological discoveries has been focused on them. In other words, archaeology illuminates the text of the Scriptures and so makes valuable contributions to the fields of biblical interpretation and exegesis

For example, after leaving Nazareth, Matthew 4:13 says Jesus “came and settled in Capernaum,” and Mark tells us that when Jesus returned to Capernaum (likely after retreating for a few days), “it was heard that he was at home.” From Mark 1:29–34, it seems most likely that Jesus’ “home” was a room in Peter’s mother-in-law’s home used for extended families.1

Archaeologists have found the remains of such rooms in Capernaum, along with Roman pottery and coins dating to the first century BC. Their characteristics fit with details contained in the gospel accounts:

They are designed for communal rather than private living, and their crowded layout must have made privacy impossible, hence Jesus’ need to go out of the town to be alone (Mark 1:35, etc.).2

Though these types of discoveries give evidence for the existence of people, events, and places described in ancient narratives, they don’t “prove” the Bible—nothing can prove or disprove the Word of God. 

But they can—and do—confirm the Bible’s historicity. 

2. It illuminates the biblical text.

Biblical archaeology brings us into physical contact with the cultures in which Jesus and his apostles lived and ministered. Ancient customs, places, even articles used in everyday life can shed light on things Jesus and his contemporaries are reported to have said or done:3 

We do not live in the world of the Bible. . . . We cannot anymore correctly reconstruct the customs of the patriarchs from local Bedouin tribes than we can the practices of first-century Judaism from the later traditions of the Jewish rabbis. We must have data directly from the times and places of the biblical world. . . . The details of daily life, society, culture, and religion these archaeological discoveries have given us enable biblical students to understand the ancient context with greater clarity than at any previous time in history (since biblical times).4

Systematic recordings of archaeological findings provide information on the lives of those who lived in biblical times. They give us “a more specific spatial-temporal-cultural context for events and activities, much of which the biblical narratives do not supply,”5 and bring the black and white text in our Bibles into color.

3. It helps you do better exegesis.

One rule for biblical interpretation is “every text must have a context.” The problem for most twenty-first century Bible students is the centuries-wide gap between us and the culture and context of biblical stories.

 

It’s the archaeologist’s job to excavate and collect material data about the past, but these artifacts don’t speak for themselves. Without interpretation, archaeology becomes “[no] more than treasure hunting.”6 

But we can take what they uncover, these “treasures” that aid in the accurate translation and interpretation of a text, to do better exegesis:

Numerous passages of the Bible [that] long puzzled the commentators have readily yielded up their meaning when new light from archaeological discoveries has been focused on them. In other words, archaeology illuminates the text of the Scriptures and so makes valuable contributions to the fields of biblical interpretation and exegesis.7

A better understanding of the way people lived in biblical times helps to bring new or deeper levels of understanding to a text and thus makes you a better Bible student. 

4. It will strengthen your faith.

Concrete, historical records give faith an environment in which to mature.

Each discovery that confirms the accuracy and existence of events, people, and other details helps the Christian to believe in things that have little or no archaeological evidence—like miracles, heaven, or hell. 

Faith becomes less “blind.”

And ultimately, it gives us a more solid defense of the biblical narrative and the gospel.

This should spur us on to stand firm as we wait for the most important intangible reality of all, “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

 

The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife. 

Karen Engle received her MA in Biblical Studies and Theology from Western Seminary. She is an editor for Faithlife and regularly takes groups to Israel.

 

How To Understand Life. By Timothy Baugh. July 18, 2019. (Visit at: https://thesurenderedone.wordpress.com/

“Jesus said to her, (Martha) “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” John 11:31. (English Standard Version.)   The obstacles that we all will face in life- the causes of all of Man’s sufferings- are ignorance of the Truth of Being, our own egoism that exalts itself above God, our attachment to things and people in life, our aversion to things and people in life, and our desire to cling to anything of life. Jesus, the Messiah, knew how the Jews of his day, and the people of any place or time, would question Life and Death. He specifically came to show us all HOW LIFE WORKS; to give us all knowledge of The Truth of Existence, which could ONLY be FOUND IN HIM!   People who today question even the condition called Life/Consciousness or Death/Non- consciousness will argue that there is NO EMPIRICAL “PROOF” of either. But…. LIFE AND CONSCIOUSNESS, so Jesus says, IS A PERSON! HIMSELF. Jesus, by implication, was telling Martha the most outrageous thing ever! He said essentially, you can read it yourself, I AM LIFE! And He also claimed to be LIGHT, and TRUTH, and CONSCIOUSNESS ITSELF! WHO ELSE BUT “SUCH” WOULD EVEN DARE!   Some would say it’s all “lies” or “myth” or “make-believe” coming out of the mouth of ‘someone’. But even if Jesus wasn’t (which historically is IMPOSSIBLE to claim); He wouldn’t have people DIE for something that wasn’t even true! He was THE ONLY ONE OF ALL OF HISTORY who told us WHY WE EVEN EXIST. (See John 3:16). Look at my first statement, Jesus told us of how we should not love ANYTHING or ANYONE MORE THAN HIM! What person would even ‘write’ such about another! Certainly not a Jew that feared his life while living under Caesar’s rule! Let us thank “whoever” or “whatever” LIFE IS. BUT HIS “NAME” IS JESUS, THE MESSIAH.