Ann Spangler

Ann Spangler is an award-winning writer and speaker.

Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

An image of an annoyed-looking woman with smoke coming out of her ears.

I have a friend whose mother suffers from chronic anxiety. Always a worrier, her mom has grown more and more anxious with the years. Her mother’s doctor recently prescribed an anti-anxiety drug, which she adamantly refuses to take. Because her mother’s anxiety has provoked so many problems within the family, my friend recently quipped that if her mother won’t take the pills then the rest of the family will have to—so they can stay calm enough to deal with her anxiety. My friend’s tongue-in-cheek comment reveals something important about human dynamics. Many of us are easily infected by each other’s emotional weaknesses. Sometimes the weakest member of a family is the one who exerts the strongest influence.

Take, for example, the child who easily whines and cries. Of course there’s nothing wrong with crying, unless it becomes habitual or a method for children to get their way. As mothers, many of us are good at empathy. We understand and sympathize with our children’s weaknesses. But sometimes our empathy can be an obstacle that makes it harder for them to grow up.

Edwin Friedman, a family therapist and leadership consultant, pointed out that people tend to mature more when the leader of an organization adapts toward strength rather than weakness. In that context, Friedman considered empathy an adaptation toward weakness. He counseled leaders to challenge those they lead as a way to help them grow and mature. As Friedman pointed out, there are some people whose real need is to not have their need fulfilled.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t always experience God being as empathetic as we might like. He knows exactly how we need to be challenged in order to become the kind of people who can lead others toward peace.

 

 

When God Draws Near

An image A single lotus flower on the surface of still water.

In July 2007, twenty-three South Korean missionaries, sixteen men and seven women, were on a bus traveling from Kandahar to Kabul, when the driver allowed two armed men to board the bus. For the next month and a half, members of the Taliban held them hostage, moving them to a series of cellars and farmhouses in order to conceal them. Before they were split into small groups, all twenty-three rededicated their lives to Christ, pledging their willingness to die for his glory. There was even an argument about who might be given the privilege of dying first.

One of the missionaries had a small Bible, which was split into twenty-three sections so each person could have a portion of God’s Word to strengthen and comfort them during the difficult days ahead. Two of the men were executed before a deal was reached to release the hostages.

Oddly enough, when the remaining hostages were safely back on South Korean soil, more than one of them would later comment, “Don’t you wish we were still there?” Several spoke of experiencing a deep intimacy with God in the midst of their terrible ordeal—an experience they hadn’t been able to recapture since their return to the safety and comfort of their own land.1

Why this dynamic? Perhaps because in the midst of their difficulties, God was fulfilling his promise that the Holy Spirit would be with those who would be brought to trial for the sake of the gospel. Perhaps also because desperation can excavate more space in our hearts for God. Instead of feeling full and satisfied, we recognize a need only Christ can fill. Very few of us will ever face the threat these men and women did. But we can take heart from their story, believing that God can give us courage for whatever we may face.

  1. Francis Chan tells the story of meeting one of the missionaries on a trip to South Korea in Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 107–8.

 

More Peace, Less Stuff

An image of a white desk in a white room, very simple and calm.

Ever heard of the terms “hedonic adaptation” or “hedonic treadmill”?

Both of these refer to the fact that in order to maintain the surge of pleasure that comes with every new gadget and thingamajig we purchase, we have to keep buying new things. Of the two phrases, I prefer the latter because it vividly captures the idea that we have to keep running farther and faster in order to achieve the same amount of happiness.

But what would happen if we were to step off the treadmill? That’s what several people in the small house movement have done, building tiny homes so they can live more simply and cheaply. Such homes cost less to heat, cool, and repair and are much quicker to clean. One woman who lives in the tiniest of houses heats her home with solar panels and a propane tank, the kind the rest of us use to power our gas grills, making her heating bills about $5 per month. Her “refrigerator” is a small cooler. By having a small carbon footprint, small-house folks hope to have a big impact on the world around them, spending their time and money on causes, people, and experiences they care about. What a terrific counterpoise to the bloated houses many people have been building in suburbs across the country.

Though I have no desire to call a closet home, the idea of downsizing appeals to me because I’ve learned the hard way that owning lots of stuff usually works against my sense of peace and happiness.

You needn’t move into a tiny house to achieve the goal of living simply. Just decide that you want the benefits simplicity can bring and start making decisions with your goal in mind.

How to Get Rid of Fear

An image of a father and daughter walking along the beach, hand in hand.

Have you noticed how easy it is for all kinds of fear to coexist in your heart? You may, for instance, feel fearful for your children, your spouse, your friends, your finances, your future, and your health. You may be afraid of public speaking and taking tests and flying in planes and crossing bridges. When left unchallenged, fear can spread like a contagion inside us. Or maybe fear is something like a great big magnet, attracting more and more fear to our lives. If this is so, how can we neutralize its power?

Perhaps the only way to do this is to replace our fears with what I call a capital F kind of fear. I am thinking, of course, about what Scripture calls the “Fear of the Lord.” But doesn’t associating the word "fear" with the word "Lord" end up ramping up our fears, reviving all the old stereotypes about a wrathful God who is always angry? Not if we understand the term rightly. Scripture links fear of the Lord to many good things: wisdom, safety, long life, prosperity, and a sure foundation. Fear of the Lord can protect you from evil, death, bitterness, and ruin.

To fear the Lord is to revere him, to stand in awe of him, so much so that your primary aim is to please him above pleasing yourself or others. Like a young girl who feels secure while walking alongside her father, you heed his voice because you know that doing so will keep you from straying too close to the edge of a cliff or wandering off in the company of a stranger. You know that your heavenly Father has your best interests at heart. Fearing God produces a kind of foundational security, reducing and reordering the lesser fears that threaten you.

Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is a “life-giving fountain,” the beginning of wisdom, and the door to friendship with God. By fearing God, we reduce the other fears that plague us, avoiding evil and courting blessing.

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