When Empathy Walks

I’m all about being on time. I’m never late to the party — if we’re talking about literal parties — but if we’re talking about the metaphorical pop culture and other “cool and relevant things” parties, I’m way late for those. I recently stumbled upon an interesting article from a few years ago that is probably old news to the Christian world by now, but I’ll drop my thoughts here for anyone else who was past fashionably late to the controversy and cares to hear my take.

In 2019, theology professor Joe Rigney wrote a pair of letters for Desiring God, the second of which was entitled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion”. The writings are a spin-off from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, his own inverse angle on the dangers of biblical virtues misused by human hands. His sequel was well-written and thought-provoking. However, many, including myself, were left confused by his presentation of empathy and sought clarification on its proper place in the Christian life. God is not like us, and yes, we will undoubtedly distort many of the gifts and graces that he has granted. Rigney nails that part. However, I believe his article enters questionable territory when he labels empathy as both the counterfeit and demonic distortion of compassion.


To understand the origin and aim of his critique, some preliminary definitions may be helpful. Since many salient terms within this conversation have become hazy, we should, at a base level, establish that neither compassion, sympathy, nor empathy is inherently sinful. This post will focus primarily on the categorizations and biblical applications of empathy. 

Broadly, sympathy entails feeling sorry for someone, while empathy entails getting down in the emotional muck with them. To employ more academic terms, The Encyclopedia of Social Psychology defines empathy as “understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation”.[1] The empathizer holds the weight of the other’s circumstances, perceiving where their reverberations fall on the emotional continuum without actually experiencing them. It is a shared emotional experience activated by the outsider’s own volitional effort to discern the other’s state and adopt a parallel emotion, whether positive or negative.

Head Empathy

Speaking from a cognitive standpoint, empathy refers to the ability to mentally take the perspective of another. It requires the capacity for theory of mind, or the accurate attribution of a mental state to another person, which is a critical prerequisite to socialization. Young children who can grasp that others’ perspectives differ from theirs fare much better when playing with other children,[2] and there is arguably a similar relational yield for adults who demonstrate flexibility in their thinking, as this allows them to tune in with others. When we empathize, we’re attempting to intellectually grasp another’s situation by “putting ourselves in their shoes.” We assess the evidence — their body language, words, and tone — and draw a subsequent conclusion: “She must be feeling x because y happened. That would be so hard to bear.” This action has been labeled cognitive empathy. Without cognitive empathy, it will be difficult to also exert emotional empathy. 

Heart Empathy

This second label — articulated by mainstream psychology as emotional or affective empathy — closes the gap between the self and the other in that where a sympathizer feels sorry about what the other is experiencing, an empathizer seeks to feel it with them. The reality should set in deeply enough that we recognize that the sufferer is still there when we go home. When I return to the rhythms of my day-to-day life, the child in foster care is still being tossed from home to home; The patient with a terminal illness is still bed-bound; The friend is still plagued by crippling anxiety and depression. Upon bumping into another person’s struggle, I can either dither at its periphery or prayerfully remain in it with them. One doesn’t have to be a “chain crier” or outward emoter to step into someone’s pain, and I would argue that the kind of empathy that flows from the heart of Christ is simply willing to go there with them (Philippians 2:1-11). It is not forgetful but remembers with mind and heart.


In Rigney’s letter, he propounds that the danger of empathy culminates when the comforter approaches the pit and “jumps in with both feet” rather than entering with one foot and keeping the other on solid ground. The empathizer may then become enmeshed with the sufferer, positioned to stumble in the same way (in the case that the suffering results from or exacerbates sin).

While I disagree with his claim that empathy is a point-blank sin, I can understand the heed to “not surrender your mind to the sinful emotional responses of others”. The risk of spiritual infiltration is certainly real, yet no one is excused from accountability because of their hardship. In fact, the famous “bear one another’s burdens” line from Galatians 6 is housed in a text emphasizing the Christian responsibility to gently correct other believers who are in sin:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. – Galatians 6:1-5

Yet, perhaps over-correcting for fear of adopting postmodern values, Rigney seems to miss that rightly understood empathy does not lead the comforter to enable sin or to engage in joint sin. Neither does it cause the mutual sufferers to succumb to relativism. To empathize does not mean to lose truth, and thus, these extremes fail to represent true empathy; There is a way to stay without letting someone stay in the pit. Be diligent in prayer, proclaim the truth through a gospel lens, and follow up regularly to serve the hurting individual in Christ-like love (Romans 12:15). Point them to the great Comforter.

If we look to God rather than culture for our moral standards, let us consult his Word to ascertain the shape he would have our empathy take.

The Model

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. – Lamentations 3:31-33

The foundation on which we begin is that God himself is the supreme display of compassion and empathy. They flow naturally from his heart. We serve a God who did not just talk the talk; what good would it have done for his Son to come to earth only to talk about how much he loves us? He didn’t look down on our hopelessly sinful state and mail a sympathy-laden greeting card; he took on flesh and was tempted as we are, yet never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). We can have confidence before his throne because he was willing to feel what we feel.

In the life of Christ, we see compassion lived out from both head and heart. He healed the sick, gave to the poor, and even turned tables in righteous disapproval toward injustice. He ultimately went to the extreme while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8) — not after we “got our acts together” — to demonstrate just how much he loves us. His undeserved death was tangible evidence of the love of God, and we love others because of the undeserved love shown to us in Jesus Christ. If we truly grasp the magnitude of what God has done, we will want to strive toward that same kind of love.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. – 1 John 3:16-18

Why Now?

Empathy matters immensely right now. In this cultural moment, we can talk right past each other. We often do so from behind the safety of our phone screens, saying, “I don’t understand how anyone could believe something like that” without actually seeking to understand their viewpoint or decision and how they arrived there. What if, before forcing our convictions on others, we humbly considered the circumstances that might have molded their convictions, or lack of?

Better yet, what if we spent less time arguing futilely about the technicalities of our Christian stances and did something to apply them in relationship with other image-bearers?

For those who submit to God’s word, the biblical values we talk about must be congruent with the way we live from day to day. Anyone can demonstrate keyboard courage, but true empathy puts on shoes. It is legitimized by our compassionate actions. It doesn’t just feel for another but is also willing to work upstream to make change rather than complain about large-scale problems (which are ultimately the result of the downstream effects of human brokenness). Protestants are sometimes so afraid to promote good works for fear of flirting with a works-based salvation that they end up ignoring the call to Spirit-supplied work altogether. Yes, we are justified by faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), but let us not forget that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Put yourself in the way of people who are walking through difficult situations, and seek to learn more about them. Listen to understand. Give of your time, resources, and gifts to actually sit with the people you talk about loving and look into their eyes. All this can be done because we embrace the truth, not because we have abandoned it. Keep showing up and serving, regardless of whether they jumped into the pit or were thrown in. After all, none of us deserve to be pulled out of our respective trenches, but Christ came all the way down to earth to do so.

Human empathy is flawed. If we manufacture even an ounce, it is only by God’s grace. If we are involved at all in carrying someone through trials, we are merely the vessels through which God initiates restoration. He is the catalyst for healing, not us. Because of our cosmic tendency toward sin, we will always be at risk of falsely attributing mental states to others, so we must lean on the Lord for discernment as we seek to understand one another. We need the Spirit’s strength so as to move wisely and not burn out. In the pursuit of Christ-like empathy, pray to love and hate what God does, and pray that the hurting person in your life would do the same. Laugh or mourn with them according to the convictions that prayer stirs.

Empathy walks. Abide in Christ and walk in love.


[1] Hodges, S. D., Myers, M., Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Empathy: Encyclopedia of social psychology. [2] Astington, J., & Jenkins, J. (1995) Theory of mind development and social understanding. Cognition and Emotion, 9, 151 – 165.

[2] Astington, J., & Jenkins, J. (1995) Theory of mind development and social understanding. Cognition and Emotion, 9, 151 – 165.

In Defense of Silence

“But now there was a long morning’s walk until noon, and if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember.” – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Hear me out: We can glean a lot from dystopian fiction. Whether intentionally or not, authors of these novels tend to touch on Christian realities by, with an ironic and satiric bite, highlighting the ugly parts of who we are as a human race and extending woes for what we may become if we continue on our current trajectory. Though their overall direction is not always honorable, the moral themes in these novels can be piercing. They often reflect ideals borrowed from the Christian worldview, such as human depravity (Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:11-18, 23), the folly of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; Luke 8:13-14; Romans 13:12-14), and the necessity of truth (John 1:14, 14:6; 1 John 5:20; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). They might also point to what is worth preserving in life as we know it. Among other things, Bradbury definitely understood the value of silence amidst a cacophony of worldly noise.

We are all being discipled by something. The people in our proximity, the media we consume, and the books we read are actively shaping us, but as believers, we don’t have to assume victimhood. By the Spirit within us, we are well equipped to sift out truth from chatter, and this practice is fortified by a willingness to regularly withdraw and sit in silence, as modeled by our Savior.

To preface, I’m arguably one of the least qualified people to tackle this subject. Lately, I have failed to guard my schedule and have welcomed excessive input from multiple sources, thus allowing noise to infiltrate my heart more than the Word of God. Luke 6:45 says that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”, and I won’t deny that much rotten fruit has been the direct product of my failure to be quiet before the Lord. I write this blog to expand the recent post on silence and solitude, but, more so, to preach to myself – as much as to anyone else – on the necessity of silence for Christ followers.

We all need silence in order to listen, to reflect, and to remember.

Silent to Listen

It is impossible to talk and listen at the same time. Teachers are painfully aware of this fact; when their students talk during class instruction and force the teacher to pause and redirect them, a check for comprehension will inevitably reveal that they retained nothing from the instruction. Whether in a classroom or across the dinner table from a friend, the message being spoken only soaks in with a silent audience. Silence, however, is only the minimum, as the hearer must be attentive as well. We feel loved when heard by someone who listens to truly understand rather than to speak, who doesn’t steamroll the conversation with their own words. Silence is a powerful therapeutic tool across many helping professions, and inversely, a therapist who is always talking makes a terrible therapist.

I am blessed to be studying speech-language-pathology, and even in this field, listening is just as important as speaking. Research in childhood language development has shown that adults can promote early communicative competence and independence by allowing wait time. I’ve been advised to, after prompting for a client’s response, “Wait until [you’re] uncomfortable, then wait five more seconds”. The young communicator is more likely to initiate language when given adequate time to respond. Children need meaningful auditory input, but they also need ample opportunity for verbal expression, which is only cultivated when the other communicator is silent.

If we’re not prudent, our verbosity can become robbery; a propensity to constantly bombard silence may steal others’ ability to develop language, think for themselves, or share an emotional burden. Hence, giving others access to their voice means knowing when and when not to use our own. We can say a lot without saying anything at all, and wisdom necessitates restraint just as much as good content.

Most importantly, we must know how to be silent in the presence of the Lord, lest we miss what he is saying. One sharp example is found in Isaiah 30:15-16.

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, and you said, “No! We will flee upon horses”; therefore you shall flee away; and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”; therefore your pursuers shall be swift.

The nation of Judah sought alliance with Egypt when God had already promised to defend them. They ran in circles trying to do things their own way and eventually failed, and their inability to wait and listen was their downfall.

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add to sin…”(v. 1)

He always knew what was in their best interest, but their quickness to act undermined his authority. In quietness before him, we are saying that we trust him and think him wiser than ourselves (Romans 11:33-36). He speaks to us in his perfect word today if we will listen.

Silent to Reflect

In the west, it is much more natural to medicate with constant movement than to plant our feet and face the brokenness in ourselves and the world. Yet, it has been said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and I agree with this statement so long as the starting point for self-examination is who God is. The most important thing about us, as A.W. Tozer said, is what we believe to be true about God, so we must always begin there. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we diligently carve out recurrent time for thoughtful reflection.

In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt provides a helpful framework for confession and repentance. You might like to use these questions to guide your reflection (in this order):

  1. Who is God?
  2. What has God done?
  3. Who am I?

The gospel applies to every area of our lives, and God’s character and redemptive work through Jesus Christ inform who we are in every season. Without habitual, gospel-centered reflection, we cannot truly confront our sin, and thus, we cannot truly embrace the gospel. This is why we need to regularly retreat, be silent, and meditate on God’s Word. We are actually closest to reality when we rest in distraction-free communion with the Lord (John 15:1-11). What can we ask of him?

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! -Psalm 139:23-24

In prayer, plead with God to reveal more of his character, expose hidden sin, and foster internal (Psalm 51:10) and external (Colossians 3:1-17) transformation.

Silent to Remember

Why should we be silent when there’s so much to be said? Because there is so much more to be heard and remembered. If only God is wise, what he has to say matters infinitely more than any other voice.

How can a man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statues; I will not forget your word. – Psalm 119:9-16

There is a kind of silence that guards us from forgetfulness. The more we reflect on who God is, the more we will come to remember and treasure him. No self-care regimen or escapist contemplative practice can ground us like quiet, focused meditation on God’s character can. If we feel safe to be silent in the presence of our most cherished friends, how much more secure are we in the presence of the Almighty God? Let us quiet our hearts and store up his word within them.

yogi tea + post-christianity.

I started running cross country in the sixth grade; Standing at four feet tall and weighing in at no more than eighty pounds, it just made sense. I’ve been running for about twelve years – though I would now call myself more of a “girl who occasionally jogs for fun” than a “runner” – and I put quite the mileage on my shoes, so I went to a running store a few weeks ago to grab a new pair. I knew exactly what I wanted and expected to be in and out, but due to my passivity and the store associate’s forwardness in equal parts, my quick try-on somehow turned into an extensive gait analysis. Before I know it he’s filming me running across the store and I’m stepping on the arch analysis machine and the whole nine yards. I’m also subtly rolling my eyes because, dude, I’m not new to this thing.

When the assessment was done, he broke it down, talking through my form and what shoes might work best based on my high arch. I nodded along, intending to walk out with the pair I came for and move on with my life, but then he dropped the news about my foot placement: Apparently I’m a heel striker – which can place a strain on several areas of the body, including the lower back. I’ve suffered from lower back pain for years, so once that truth hit, I took his word a bit more seriously. I bought the shoes and arch supports he recommended and took off on a mid-foot landing run, during which I literally cut a MINUTE from my typical 5k time.

It’s incredible how much pain we can unknowingly put ourselves through.

Have I ever really known what is for my good? I’m definitely good at convincing myself that I do, prone to run toward my idea of it and then whine when it is reshaped, withheld, or stripped away.

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Oh fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. – Psalm 34:9-10

When our immediate circumstances don’t match up with our narrow perception of what it means to “lack no good thing”, we can dangerously assume that the promise must not be legitimate. The same conclusion might also be reached from Romans 8:28, which declares that in all things “God works for the good of those who love him”. In both cases, the problem is not with the ability of the promise of good to hold itself up but with our quickness to water it down to our supposed entitlements.

David wrote this Psalm of gratitude specifically in response to his deliverance from a dangerous circumstance, yet his reality is the same as ours today; his greatest good is God himself. We’re not guaranteed financial security, physical and mental health, a dream career, a spouse and children, or any earthly blessing. True well-being is to know God, and his offer of salvation through his Son reveals that everything in between our first and last breath is grace. How could we claim that he owes us anything?

We’re the ones subjecting ourselves to pain by landing on our heels – choosing patterns of sin and untruth – then wondering why misery follows.

I recently read a book called “You’re Not Enough and That’s Okay”. The title says it all, but the book is grounded in the revolutionary premise that low self-esteem is not our chief problem, but sin, and that therefore self-love is not our final answer, but Jesus. Stuckey asks the question, “How in the world could it be that self-love is the answer to our problems when there’s no evidence whatsoever that we’ve ever stopped loving ourselves?” YIKES. I’m actually amazing at self-love because whether I’m leaning toward self-worship or self-destruction, I’m still thinking of myself first.

We could never love ourselves into true joy and satisfaction because “we cannot be both the problem and the solution.

Yet the world says otherwise, and its lies are often wrapped up so nicely. 

The American Humanist Association defines secular humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

If you’ve ever drank a cup of Yogi tea, you’ve probably noticed the little “affirmational” messages attached to the end of the tea bag. They say things like “The beauty in you is in your spirit” or “Your word is your greatest power” or “Your life is based on the capacity of energy in you not outside of you”. 

Ah, nothing like getting your ego pumped up with falsities while sipping on hot tea. Someone doesn’t need to have subscribed to the AHA newsletter to be swayed by messages like this; they’re written all over American culture. There are plenty of ideologies worth challenging – and mediums through which they creep in beyond tea – but I single out secular humanism because I think it’s one of the most pervasive and dangerous out there.

At the surface, I can understand the appeal of a framework that welcomes all, even giving the nonreligious a place to fall. However, it’s worth noting that such a “non-biased” worldview is impossible because every worldview is ultimately making a claim about something. Secular humanism automatically dismisses a dozen other worldviews at once by denying any level of deism, yet claims that Christianity is too narrow.

Bias is unavoidable, so why not stake our claim on something objectively true? An ethic that constantly shifts to match the cultural climate sounds more terrifying than freeing.

If I get to choose to continually adjust my values based on a moving target or to tether myself to the infalliable, unchanging word of God, I will choose the latter every time. His word says what it says and when it makes me uncomfortable or calls me to live differently, it’s not on the table for reformulation. A perfect authority offers much greater peace than “my own truth”, which won’t lead to anything of substance. I need to rely on something outside of myself, and I don’t need it to tell me that I can hustle or meditate or love myself into fulfillment. Following Christ removes the pressure, because I am not even capable of measuring up and that’s the idea.

Submitting to God’s authority by no means colors the answers to life’s questions in black and white, but where we turn in the nuance is critical. Scripture must always be the first place we land, and the spirit brings discernment from there (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). Though sound doctrine is important, we should be careful not to expend all our energy obsessively lining up every single theological duck and aggressively policing our social circles to ensure doctrinal perfection – I’ve seen theology become a ferocious idol. However, we should be aware of any message sneaking in to challenge the core Christian truth of Jesus incarnated, crucified, and risen. The gospel leaves no room for secular humanism and the likes.

The narrow path (Matthew 7:13-14) is freedom.

To circle back around, something noteworthy about my running form is that no one told me it was incorrect. The body of Christ speaks the truth in love so that its members are not tossed into the waves of deception (Ephesians 4:11-16), so we need the delicate balance of grace and truth now more than ever.

It would be ignorant to assert that altruism is unique to Christianity, but good apart from God is only half-good at best, because even our righteousness is as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). We are DEAD in our sin. The gospel is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23-25) but that He sent his son to die in our place to save us. Jesus died on the cross and therefore we refuse to die on the hill of autonomy. Instead, we take up our crosses and die to self over and over again.

Walk by the spirit and land lightly. This is real well-being, real hope, and real peace.

finding a third way.

A few months ago, I ordered a sound machine. I was about to begin my senior practicum and knew that I would have to cope somehow with the FOMO that would come with adopting an early bedtime in a rowdy house full of my best friends, so at 9pm on a Sunday night, I unboxed it, cranked the white noise up, and slept like a baby. A wild semester!!

I find it fascinating that the combination of all audible frequencies drowns out other sounds. White noise numbs us, pushing us toward a neutral state.

Ironically, amidst a cacophony of voices, we drift off to sleep. Sound familiar?

The paradox of my generation is that perpetual parallel dialogue on social media actually makes it harder for us to reach the truth. We can quickly dispense our own monologues before we have listened to a diverse range of perspectives or fully digested the reality of a situation. We can even filter out information from lenses that don’t align with ours. When everyone is proclaiming something from the safety of their own epistemic bubble, we wind up further from the core of what is really happening. We talk past each other until we’re too exhausted to engage at all anymore. Shut it all out, drift off to sleep.

The constant noise is nauseating and if I’m honest, the fog has enveloped me lately. In the heat of a global pandemic and rising political and racial tension, we’re all being pulled in a thousand different directions. Mixed messages are written everywhere and it’s just a mess. We’re telling each other what the appropriate response to cultural events should look like and what shape reform should take. We’re reacting to each other’s reactions and attacking the motives behind them.

Anyone can have keyboard courage, but justice on the ground looks quite different.

How do we land between echo chambers and the forum? We’re not gaining anything if the only voices we’re hearing sound just like ours, but we can’t afford to clear headspace for every voice either. The most proximal questions pressing on me are, “What does my circle look like?” and “Where am I turning for information?” I need to listen to people who look different from me, but I need the voice of God in his Word to be the loudest.

Extremes swallow us up, sucking us into gods of nationalism, partisanism, and tribalism, but there is a better way. I believe that the Christian answer is beautiful and all-sufficient because it rests not on the work we do but the work of Jesus Christ. Scripture draws us to the best answer we have. This is anything but a shallow approach to reconciliation; Of course we still fight for justice in our corner of the world, but we must properly diagnose the problem at hand and understand that we are not the answer to it.

All were made in the image of God and all have sinned and fallen short of his glory. Jesus came to earth to pay the penalty for our sins by death on a cross, and we love other image-bearers from the overflow of the love that he showed for us. Reconciliation is both horizontal and vertical.

My understanding of God should shape my view of what justice looks like in the world rather than the other way around. My politics do not inform my view of God; my view of God bleeds into my politics – and every other facet of my life. God is just and merciful; I will pursue the same.

So what does he have to say about injustice?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8

The problem = human sin and rebellion against a just and loving God

Biblical justice = reconciling hearts to Christ and confronting evil on earth with the gospel

Jesus fought against injustice, but he was most concerned about the salvation of both the oppressed and the oppressor. He is our standard for righteousness, and if we miss him in our pursuit of justice, we miss the point.

Speak out, not for the sake of individual exoneration, keeping in step with the status quo, or calling out the motive of another, but that God’s heart might be seen in our response and people may be set FREE.

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” – Isaiah 30:18

A few words on saying less:

We all know someone who could probably talk for hours if you let them. Some people are verbal processors; some have a stockpile of wise words to share; others, frankly, just love to hear their own voice.

But we can say a lot without really saying anything at all. 

I’m guilty too; sometimes I don’t know what to say but speak anyway just to fill the silence. I shudder thinking about all the occasions on which someone has come to me with a heavy burden and my immediate response has been to talk. 

A friend recently opened up to me about her battle with some pretty intense inner darkness and I poured on the advice, bible verses, and personal anecdotes to walk her through it. On one hand, I hated to watch her hurt and wanted to help. On the other, perhaps I spoke out of pride, hoping that something I said might lead her to an epiphanic moment, that my words could be the right ones to pull her through. Either way, I wound up feeling frustrated because they weren’t landing. 

With a few steps back from the conversation, it struck me that in my lows, words were not always what I needed. Even those of scripture have ricocheted off my anxious heart  I have specifically prayed out texts like Philippians 4:4-9 & 1 Peter 5:7 on countless occasions and still wound up shaky, tearful, and absolutely breathless with anxiety How did I think that my words would fix her situation? 

Sure, there are moments when advice is sought and well-received, but how many times have I opened my mouth when all someone wanted was my ears? Discernment is so much more than knowing what to say; it is knowing when to say it and when to withhold it. 

The interesting thing about being a human and having a tongue is that the venom is reciprocal; we have all hurt others with words and have been hurt by others’ words. I’ve spit my fair share of poison, but I’ll also admit that well-intentioned yet pain-inflicting responses to my cries of mental unhealth still ring in my ears. However, I’m working on giving grace here, because there are realities that are difficult for those who aren’t in the arena to comprehend. Anyone can speak out from the stands, but what they say holds no weight until they’ve been out on the court. 

I’ll shout this from the arena: Mental health is complex and throwing spiritual bandaids on behaviors that are the product of a chemical imbalance is not the way.

Quick-fixing is not burden-bearing.

Imagine the growth that can unfold in God’s time when we don’t rush so quickly to solutions for each other. Regardless of how deeply we care for our friends and want to see healing, our mistake in offering explanations might be that we think what is best for them is that they reach the other side right now. But Peter writes…

“These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” – 1 Peter 1:7

I recently listened to a Tim Keller sermon in which he referenced the prophet Amos and his occupation as a shepherd and caregiver for sycamore fruit. Keller compares the journey of the sycamore fruit to the passive discipline of suffering, which enters in our life and bruises us so that we can mature. “Some kinds of fruit only ripen when they’re struck”, he says. 

If the fire is for our refining, then our role is not to eliminate suffering, whether personal or proximal. We are not the answer to each other’s pain, but we can practice faithful presence and fervent prayer while God does the deep work. The ministry of presence is often about showing up and saying less.

“Why?” is not a helpful question when it comes to suffering, because much of it is beyond understanding (See Job 42). God does not owe me answers and I choose to praise Him for the trials that have humbled me by stripping away all control.

We cannot point to the exact origins of and reasons for trials, but we can seek strength from the Lord himself in their midst. Jesus not only came to suffer and die for humanity but also conquered death by resurrecting. We should live out a rich theology of suffering, confident that pain has both an expiration date and a purpose eternal glorification for those who have put their faith in Christ. 

The darkness presses in, but we rejoice “…because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).

When suffering feels anything but light & momentary (see 2 Corinthians 4:17-18), we don’t have to diminish it. We keep meeting it on the ground with hope, the steadiest truth. We suffer well, with eternity set on our hearts. Dare to believe that joy and suffering can coexist because what stands in front of us is weightless compared to the glory to come.

table talk.

This summer, while my friends were busy being camp counselors, interning with successful companies, and saving orphans, I built a coffee table with my mom…..and LOVED it. Most moms would probably choose a spa day or some retail therapy for stress relief, but when my family hears the miter saw raging from the back porch space turned fully functional wood shop, we know that she’s “unwinding” in her own way. That’s just the heart of who she is—a consistently hard worker and daily washer of feet. Building this table with her was special because I knew that it would be the focal point of many living room gatherings throughout my final lap of undergrad. Tables are the “center of gravity” in a room; it’s crazy how four legs and a flat surface can unite a group of people.

What was most significant to me about this project, however, was knowing that my mom is the person who has taught me more than anyone about what it looks like to welcome neighbors and foreigners alike to the table. I saw biblical hospitality in piles of shoes at the front door, whether owned by friends, local college students, former drug addicts, church members, or foreign exchange students, and learned that the wider we open our doors, the more these titles blend into a shared familial identity. This coffee table is symbolic to me, a reminder that the simple gospel can unfold in our homes, just as it did in mine through my parents’ hospitality. 

Our world is absolutely starved for community. Some of us have come from broken homes, but we are all broken people who deeply desire to be known, seen, and heard by those around us. Proximity, therefore, is powerful, and I believe that tables can be sacred instruments for storytelling and fellowship. 

I find it fascinating that the church began at the table. Contrary to the stage-oriented structure of our sanctuaries or auditoriums today, the first recorded church meetings began in circular seating in homes with the breaking of bread (Acts 1:12-14)!! Meal sharing was commonplace, but Jesus modeled it in countercultural ways. This plays out in Matthew 9:10-17, where we see him being hosted at Matthew’s house. Before becoming a disciple, Matthew had been a tax collector, so naturally, his friend group was made up of “tax collectors and sinners” who joined them at the table. Tax collectors had a reputation throughout Israel for being thieves, scam artists, and oppressors. It made no sense for a Jewish Rabbi to recline at the table with these types of people, but Jesus never questioned reaching out, whether to Samaritans, widows, lepers, or prostitutes, often sharing meals with them. 

This ran against the grain of Jewish culture because table eating was all about status. Dining rooms were a visual representation of affluence and seating was hierarchical, with each couch around the table designated according to societal position. The wealthy would eat reclining on couches, or Tricliniums, that surrounded the table. Typically, only men would sit and slaves would eat standing up. In spite of these expectations, Jesus cared nothing about who sat at the places of honor, but inviting those on the outskirts of society into the kingdom of God was everything to him (Luke 9:46-48; 14:12-14!!) He praised the “sinful woman” who interrupted his dinner with a Pharisee to tearfully wash his feet (Luke 7:36-50) and praised Mary for sitting at his feet to listen to him (Luke 10:38-42). Imagine how confused his disciples must have been when he washed their feet (John 13:1-17). 

Who sits at my table and whose feet am I kneeling to wash? Do they all look, behave, and think like me? Jesus had a diverse inner circle and we have something to learn from everyone. I love sitting in circles because they level us; we take a look around and realize that we’re just imperfect human beings taking a shot at communion before a perfect God. Where we choose to be vulnerable, it will get messy, but this is also where it gets beautiful. Jesus set his table with placemats of grace and truth and it freed people.

We’ll never be the answer to the loneliness and struggle of our brothers and sisters, but we can nudge one another toward Christ, living as a people who know that they are already fully known and loved by God in Him. When we are gracious and truthful in our communities, we’re allowing room for Christ to do his freeing work.

I’ve been tempted to get up and run from the table because of disagreement, dislike, and discomfort, but God has called me to stay. He’s asking me to die to myself and stay—over and over again.

Lean in, not away, and dare to linger at the table. Relentlessly ask questions and listen to understand rather than to speak. How can I be so territorial about my table when the God of the universe has prepared a seat at his table for even me, a sinner? In radical hospitality, he has called us to dwell in his house in worship. What would happen if we made our kitchen tables our tabernacles??

Psalm 23:5 // You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.


the fatality of misplaced hope.

Isaiah 44:9-20 // “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless…The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!” They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

Idolatry was a major problem for the Israelites. Throughout the Old Testament, they can be found repeatedly worshipping mythical gods or images, and involvement with these deities led them to engage in cult prostitution, human sacrifice, and other atrocious pagan rituals practiced by surrounding nations. A famous example is tucked in Exodus 32, where Aaron and the Israelites created a golden calf to worship (because they decided that Moses was taking too long to come down from his exchange with God in Mount Sinai). They continually chose the convenience and eroticism of worshipping counterfeit gods over the actual sacrifice that worshipping the one true God required of them.

In the passage above, the prophet Isaiah is stunned by the stupidity of idol-making. He points out that it literally involves the leftovers of ordinary human activity, being completely dependent on human hands to exist. The further irony here is that the materials of god-manufacture are created by God himself. Isaiah writes that the worshippers’ eyes are “plastered over” and their minds closed so that they cannot understand how ludicrous their idolatry is: why would God’s chosen people worship the things he has given rather than worship Him? They are bowing before scraps.

Reading this passage through Western eyes, most readers probably wouldn’t have much trouble grasping the absurdity of it. No one in their right mind would waste time drooling over statues fashioned out of raw materials. Yet, before we snicker at the Israelites, we could afford to consider that idolatry is equally present in the 21st century, though in snakelike subtly.

We, too, feed on ashes and then wonder why we’re so unfulfilled.

“We don’t have to collect all our necklaces and melt them down and give them to Aaron to make a golden calf. Anything we love to the exclusion of the Maker is a golden calf.”-Madeline L’Engle


idol·​a·​try // 1: the worship of a physical object as a god 2: immoderate attachment or devotion to something

Tim Keller describes it as “turning good things into ultimate things.”

It is the act of exalting created things to the place of their Creator, and it has always been a heart issue stemming from disordered loves. Wherever there is a human body, there is a deceived heart within, and wherever our innate appetite leads us into fixation on something that is not God, this is idolatry. The problem did not miraculously evaporate when people lost interest in ancient gods. Idols such as scientific discovery, wealth, religious tradition and the law were simply put on the throne in their place.

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he addresses the futility of idol falsehood (Romans 1:21-23) as a warning to the church that trouble and distress await those who do evil before the Lord. He recognizes that the deceived hearts of the idolators he is referencing were what turned them aside. Because of their idolatry, he says that God gave them over to a depraved mind. He will not tolerate divided affection.

Sin, is its essence, is any distortion of what is good. The Garden of Eden was in perfect Shalom. God created the earth in wholeness, exactly as it should be, but the bite taken in the Garden of Eden was rooted in idolatry of self, a desire to “be like God” (Genesis 3). Human greed warped his design.

& the most dangerous idol present in my life is myself. Full circle.

I’m really good at putting myself first. The truth, however, is that when I pursue only my own happiness, life quickly becomes opaque with the fog of a million sorry excuses for fulfillment that will never be God. I have to clear a lot out of the way(including myself) in order to see him in full transparency.

We all have countless idols. I know that I could go on and on if I were to list mine (comfort, financial stability, relationships, food, exercise, my schedule, physical appearance, people, even wise words of people…). Anything can become an idol if we choose to make it so.

A few questions can help us assess where we’re placing our hope. As a litmus test for where idolatry is present, ask yourself:

  • Who am I investing in?
  • How do I spend my time?
  • What do I think about the most?
  • What do I talk about the most?
  • What would shake my foundations if I were to lose it?

In Madeline L’Engle’s “Penguins and Golden Calves”, she draws the distinction between an icon and an idol. An icon, she says, “carries within it something of that at which it looks”. Icons are windows through which we can look to get a wider view of God. They should not obstruct our vision. If we look at the stars and then worship the stars, we have made them an idol, but if we look at the stars and then worship God, the stars have become an icon for us, or a glimpse of the indescribable. God speaks to us through many channels and often in striking simplicity. The key is that we attribute the praise accurately.

I know with every ounce of my being that a good and loving God exists, yet I still turn from him, just as the wandering Israelites did. HALLELUJAH that he sent his son Jesus Christ to save me in spite of my depravity. I could never muster up enough goodness in myself to live righteously. Yet, because Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind, God calls me forgiven and offers me eternal life with him.

This is all he asks of us: our full affection, not our leftovers. He is righteously jealous for his children.

Lord, forgive me for trying to squeeze the life out of earthly things when my deepest needs are met in Christ. Help me to clear the stage and redirect my affection. You alone are enough. My soul is satisfied in you, O God.  



the greatest liar.

This morning as I rolled out of bed and stepped into my bathroom, I immediately spotted a huge wolf spider in the corner (*cue me stretching out my fisherman-level exaggeration hands to stress that this thing was no joke*). My heart rate went wild and I’m pretty sure that I actually stopped breathing for a few seconds, but instead of picking up something to kill it with, I ran out to summon someone else to do it for me. [I’m shuddering as I type this because spiders just bother me.]

Maybe partially due to hypersensitivity, I’ve had encounters with them all day long since then. I found a tiny one on my BED before leaving the house; I brought my things into the camp cabin where I’m living for the summer to be greeted by one in the doorway; I almost walked into another dangling from a tiny thread at my head-level; I later stepped right into a giant web.

A friend recently shared that her goal for last summer was to conquer a fear head-on. For her this meant being a lifeguard because what scared her the most was drowning. As I nodded my head in admiration, my internal dialogue went something like, “Mm, good for her, that’s great.” However, as I considered my own fears (those more deep-seated than spiders) and how her challenge would translate into my life, the naturally following thought was “No, I don’t want to face it. I’m afraid of it.” In the moment, it was as simple as that. I was ready to move on to more comfortable conversation, to play with ideologies and abstractions in the safety of a cozy room filled with like-minded people. Hiding can be far too easy.

Fear is a ruthless vine that wraps around my heart, ridden by thorns like apathy, cowardice, and inactivity. It holds me captive, gripping me until I am immobilized. It chokes the life out of me.

We are slaves to the very mechanisms we use to “protect” ourselves, because the reality is that whatever we fear has a stronghold over us. Satan will jump on any opportunity to make us believe the lie that God isn’t powerful enough or else that we can overcome by our own power.

Shackles and chains.

Perhaps the sins most prevalent in my life are those of omission, choices to be cling to comfort rather than act out of obedience when I should.

James 4:17 // If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

Fear can leave us glued to our respective pews on Sunday yet spiritually stagnant on Monday through Saturday.

Body of Christ, Sunday is not the main event, and church is not for our consumption but our commissioning to go out and love like Jesus.

Fellowship with the body is essential, but only a small piece of what church entails. We are to worship and break bread together and then boldly step out and declare the gospel to the ends of the earth. What really matters is how our theology moves into our hands and feet, so let’s move, church. Do something that scares you, because the Lord works immensely when we are willing to get uncomfortable and even fail at times for the sake of uplifting the body in some way.

A man’s journey of faith is never linear; the road is marked by winding turns and unpredictable barriers. We should be a dynamically serving body, willing to take risks for the kingdom and keep trusting the Lord when we don’t know what he is up to.

This doesn’t mean jumping out of a plane if you’re afraid of heights; I believe in small steps of faith every day. Put a foot forward ever so humbly in expectation that he will bring something good out of your efforts.

We weren’t given gifts and talents for our own pleasure but for his ultimate glory.

1 Corinthians 12:13-20 // Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (also see Ephesians 4:1-16)

Perhaps the place where we find ourselves most stretched is the seedbed for His redemptive work. When our weakness is highlighted, his strength looks incredibly strong.

I cannot help but wonder about the “thorn in the flesh” to which Paul referred in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. He wrote that it “tormented him” and pleaded with the Lord to take it away from him. The ambiguity of Paul’s thorn translates into a strange sense of comfort because regardless of what it was, the reality was that Paul’s life told the story of Jesus and revealed God’s power, which is “…made perfect in weakness”. We all fall short (Romans 3:23) but regardless of what thorns plague us, God is strong enough to work in the gaps in which we are weak if we will simply open our hands in surrender.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Turn your palms upward and let him take your fears. Full life awaits on the other side of them.

garden-variety wonder.

My family has taken a beach vacation every summer for as long as I can remember. At the end of each trip, I would always spend a few minutes “saying goodbye” to the beach as the sun rose and last things got packed into the car. I loved the memories wrapped up in our little getaways and leaving the magic of the sand & sea always had me literally on the verge of tears.

As I meet new people from all over the map, I’m continually intrigued by the fact that where a person grows up tends to lose its novelty in their eyes. As someone nonchalantly tells me where they’re from, I often gush, considering how wonderful it would be to live in a place like that while they shrug their shoulders at what has become commonplace to them. The wonderof the beach or mountains or plains or cityscapeis squelched by years of uninterrupted accessibility.

I don’t know that everyone would necessarily ooh & ahh as I tell them I grew up in rural Appalachia and I’ve definitely been guilty of either downplaying or criticizing it.

However, as I’ve spent some time away, I’ve been more inclined to swoon when I come home to Kentucky.

Sometimes it takes leaving and later returning to a place to really break into numbness with new gratitude and reclaim that sense of wonder.

I am from homemade sweet iced tea and crawdads in the creek, from the house on the hill that has always been home. From drawn-out vowels and words rolling off tongues with no hint of urgency. From stringin’ green beans on the front porch swing and hand-plucked basketfuls of blackberries. From hide-and-go-seek at the family furniture store and piles of snails unearthed beneath the back dock. From fishin’ in the dark and five “one more round”s of kick-the-can. From carelessly bare feet and bloody knees awarded by bikes crashed at the campground, where we ran wild and slept on bonfire-scented hair. From the sound of Papaw’s bluegrass guitar and the Christmas story read from his corner chair. From the simple gospel and the “That’s right” and “Amen” echoing throughout weathered pews. I swear that those hills we rolled down so euphorically must roll on for years and everything in between them has shaped me. I’ve grown just as the wisteria above the patio and I smile upon the sweetness of childhood, upon the starry rooftop skies and the world I built in my backyard.

I’m still captivated by beach sunrises & I still don’t leave the ocean without saying goodbye.

Maybe I did always believe that the grass was greener somewhere, anywhere else,

but now I know that beauty can be found wherever we choose to see it.

I’m thankful for where I’m from and where I’m headed,

but no matter where I land, the grass beneath my feet is green enough for me.

spilt milk & bottled tears.

At the beginning of this past school year, my roommate and I hung up some cheap globe string lights. We definitely jumped the gun on decorating considering that our dorm has no air conditioning and the August humidity makes it hard for anything to stay on the walls. Inevitably, a lot of the bulbs fell and shattered within a few days. We eventually gave up and just threw the whole set away, but we kept finding little shards of cheap glass in the floor throughout the year. They had somehow invaded the whoooole room.

As I pulled a trillionth shard out of a box while unpacking my stuff for the summer, I couldn’t help but consider how ridiculous it is that we didn’t just vacuum the entire floor immediately and buy a new, more sturdy set of lights to hang when the humidity settled down. Instead, we picked the pieces up one by one as we found them between August and May. The worst part was that we used a dim lamp as a light source when a set of bulbs would have made it considerably more comfortable.

I guess you could confront me about sloth (definitely part of my problem here hahaha), but I’m really getting at the fact that sometimes we make ourselves miserable by living right in the midst of our mess. When something is weighing me down, I push it aside over and over instead of taking it to God until I’m suffocating beneath its heaviness.

Don’t we all tend to medicate with movement, going & doing & chasing because we’re too afraid to stop, stoop, and clean up our deeper hurts? I live in months (or years) of messiness when I could find freedom in a few minutes of surrender. Don’t take this literally, because a simple prayer is not a guarantee for immediate healing. That would be like claiming that a homeowner can clean his or her house one thorough round and call it good for the year. The truth is that we have to keep pulling out the vacuum.

Maybe surrender isn’t just a posture of hands open to God but also dukes up to the devil (James 4:7)? This is a battle I choose to fight because I know that what He has for me is better than both my mess and the idols that serve to distract me from facing it.

Freedom and surrender are not in opposition because submission to the Lord is the ultimate freedom. Stop running and take your mess to God (and maybe even to counseling & good friends & self-care) because who wants to walk around with shards of glass in their feet??

Hiding is not conducive to healing. You are never too far from grace, so step into the light. God sent Jesus to earth in human flesh to step right into our messes, and he cares deeply about yours.