A sharply delivered retort, much like a pointy arrow, came sailing my way. It was from a friend who was in the midst of a technical issue, just hours before a women’s event we were part of. “That would have been a great idea a week ago,” she snapped, dismissing my solution, as she persisted in unsuccessfully moving files from one platform to another.
Her pointed remark navigated its way toward me, seeking an emotionally weak spot in which to land. Typically, when arrow-type comments puncture me I’ll immediately take a defensive stance. Depending on the situation, I may clam up, speak up, or mutter a passive-aggressive, sarcastic “Sorry!” Then, with disdain, I’ll yank the arrow from its fleshy mark and armor up with an order of the silent treatment, along with a heaping dose of judgement on the side.
But that morning something else happened. Something so full of God, and so little of me, that it left a lasting impression. I can only suppose that it was because we had bathed the event in prayer, which gave more space for God’s grace.
In that God-filled moment it was as if an invisible force field erected itself between me and that arrow. In a slow motion-like experience, it was as if a part of me reached through the warped force field to feel my friend’s frustration. I personally know the tangled heights of technical vexation, compounded by a deadline! That shared emotional knowledge connected me to her, instead of distanced me, and with that insight the arrow bounced off and fell impotently to the ground. My heart reached out with a prayer that a solution beyond our abilities would show itself, and I apologized, and agreed with her that it wasn’t such a good idea.
I have since named this force field the grace shield, because only grace could have simultaneously protected me, and cared for her. When engaged, the grace shield protects us from others who, for instance, lash out because life’s pressures are tap dancing on their nerves. Being the recipients of emotional shrapnel automatically leads us to believe that the situation is about us, but often the situation is not about us, it’s about unknowingly walking into, or triggering someone else’s emotional storm.
One aspect of the grace shield is that it stops me from making the situation all about me and gives me eyes for others. When I remove myself from the center of my emotional universe and actually turn the eyes of my heart toward the other person, it dismantles my emotional default habit of self-protection. When I lay aside this habit, it gives birth to curiosity and connection instead of judgement and separation. The desire to better understand the other person is the hallowed ground of grace. Grace is other-centric, as modeled by Jesus’ sacrifice. Grace helps us step outside our self-orbiting emotional worlds by ushering in the skill of empathy, which is what the Holy Spirit uses to power our grace shields.
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from their point of view, rather than from our own. Without it, I can make it all about my ego, which would just as soon take command and erect a barbed-wire fence of self-justification, then plant seeds of resentment, which would ultimately sprout the bitterness that I’d conveniently refer to in any future conflicts. Get the picture!
This is the emotional clutter that slowly builds over time and which most of us haul around every day. These emotional habits protect us from being wronged, hurt or frustrated, but unfortunately leave us behind sharped-edged fences. Since we all have these sharp edges, we bump up against each other’s sharp edges all the time. The grace shield can dismantle our fences and actually help us understand what each other is experiencing. When we replace our old knee-jerk emotional habits with the grace shield, we open ourselves up for the movement of God. The grace shield recognizes that everyone is battling something and by the power of the Holy Spirit, extends compassion.
As a core competency of emotional intelligence empathy significantly contributes to emotional and spiritual maturity. Moreover, it’s a pillar of our faith. God is empathetic. As Hebrews 4 says, Jesus came to earth as a high priest who understands our weaknesses, for He faces all of the same temptations we do, yet He did not sin. Jesus’ empathy for our struggle with sin and life was demonstrated by his own experience of being tempted, frustrated, angry, sad, joyful, hungry, tired, disappointed, rejected, accepted, and so much more.
Kindness and compassion are the expressions of grace-filled empathy. You will find them on an emotional engagement path that moves us to a closer connection with each other. It’s what I experienced as I reached through the grace shield toward my friend. Each point on the path is a good place, but not every point leads to action.
1. The path starts with PITY, which says that I see and acknowledge your suffering. I have this experience when I watch the news and see the travesties of the world played out in others’ lives. It’s an assent to the hardship of loss from afar.
2. Next point on the emotional path is SYMPATHY which cares about your suffering. It’s the sympathy card I send to a friend who has lost a loved one. It’s a point on the path that is emotionally closer.
3. Further along the path is EMPATHY which acknowledges, cares, and feels your suffering. With empathy I don’t have to have the same experience, but I will understand the feelings associated with it, such as rejection, loss, disappointment, etc. Emotional identification is what brings us even closer.
4. COMPASSION is the place on the path that moves us to action. It says that I not only acknowledge, care and feel your suffering, I want to relieve it. It adds hands and feet to our heart’s posture.
We know Jesus empathized because His ministry was filled with compassion:
- Mark 1:41: Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!”
- Mark 6:34: Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Jesus also shared compassionate examples through parables of the Good Samaritan and the father of the prodigal son. He did this because God, His Father, is compassionate. God tells us so Himself:
- Exodus 34:6: The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
- 2 Chronicles 36:15: The Lord, the God of their ancestors, repeatedly sent his prophets to warn them, for he had compassion on his people and his Temple.
When you really think about it, this personal connection to a compassionate God is quite unique and amazing!
The path of grace engages empathy and moves toward compassion. While you can go through the motions of extending Christian grace to others, if you do it without empathy and compassion you are missing the heart of grace and the core of your faith. Luke 6:36 says, You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. Pity and sympathy are valuable and commendable, but they stand at safe distances and miss out on the movement of God. Spiritual maturity surrenders to the path and listens for Holy Spirit prompts to know when to act. Those prompts, however, are much easier to hear when we’re not preoccupied with defending ourselves.
The grace shield interrupts hurt. It stops you from being wounded and stops you from wounding someone else. It puts you on the path to empathy and compassion. It doesn’t make it about you, it makes it about Jesus. When you hear the whirring sound of arrows headed your way, you can erect your grace shield and receive the privileged sight of empathy which will lead you down better emotional roads.
So, how do you do that? Simply summon the words grace shield, like a prayer, to your head and heart and invite the Holy Spirit to give you eyes for the other person. Even if arrows pierce through, and even if you can’t offer grace in that moment, your grace shield can protect you from lashing back, or falling apart. Stay fixed in prayer behind God’s protection and engage in the self-exploration of your own feelings with Him. Remember, Jesus understands and is there for us.
So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.
Rarely during emotional tiffs do we think about others in kind, generous ways, but your grace shield opens the door to our gracious God who can help us do just that. He will honor you for honoring the other person. His grace is sufficient, and now you can mobilize it in a new way in order to experience more of God when you need Him most. So, if you’re going to choose to armor up, choose your grace shield and allow God to repel arrows and connect hearts.
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