Q: I am confused about how I should feel about people who are going through tough times. I find myself feeling sorry for them, but am uncertain as to how to approach or minister to them. I was wondering if you could give me any insight about this matter.
A: You are not the only one who is struggling with this issue. Many Christians walk around in a state of complexity when it comes to ministering to others. Their heart is to be a blessing to others, but most of the time they feel utterly incapable. They are not sure how they are supposed to feel about the person or situation, which causes them to have doubts about how to approach the individual, and if they can’t approach the person in a proper way, they are inept in ministering to him or her.
The first thing you have to do before you can minister to others is to seek God’s perspective in the right motive. Most ministry hinges on how it makes the individual feel about him or herself. As long as the person seeks to minister out of sentiment or noble feelings, it will fall flat.
The Lord knows where an individual is in his or her plight, the right approach that will best fit the circumstances, and the type of ministry that will ultimately edify. He knows how to reach past the excuses, defuse the walls of isolation, and address the real crux of the matter. Sadly, because of limitations, many times people approach others based on their own past experiences and ideas. This can prove to be ineffective.
This brings us to the second step, as already alluded to. One must make sure he or she is out of the way. Jesus gave up His sovereignty as deity to become man so He could properly identify with us, and we with Him. He met people where they were in their plight. He knew when to reprove and challenge the prideful, enter in with the broken hearted, and bring healing to the spiritually wounded. His way of ministry serves as an example to us, but we must first discern where people are spiritually. We must keep in mind that there is no real formula in ministry because we must minister according to the person.
This brings us to another important issue. It is easy for those who are suffering, to evoke our sympathy. Sympathy is mainly feeling sorry for someone, but sympathy is often a fleshly reaction. It causes many to see themselves as caring, when in reality they often become complacent when it comes to following through with real ministry. On the other hand, those who allow their sympathy to take them on an emotional ride can prove to be impulsive in what they do, causing their sympathy to become subject to being manipulated by those who it is directed towards. My past dealings with my own sympathy was that it often fell short of producing any real action or fruit, and if it did have momentum behind it, it was often misappropriated. Usually, if a person does react because of sympathy, the momentum will only last as long as the sympathy is present. In other words, such sympathy is fickle and can tire a person quickly because it is self-serving and sentimental.
On the other hand there is empathy. Empathy is the capacity to enter in with another person’s feelings and challenges. Another way of putting it is empathy is a well-rounded sympathy that becomes identified with a person’s plight. Sentimental sympathy usually leaves the one who has it feeling good about him or herself, while empathy is active and will express itself in compassion in order to minister to a person.
Jesus never felt sorry for people but He did feel compassion towards them. His heart was to see them healed, saved, and completely restored. But, He also knew when to enter in with them and how, which brings us to the final aspect of ministry—that of burden.
Jesus died for the whole world, but taught the crowds, and ministered to individuals. He understood what His real burden (responsibility) was in regard to His part in securing salvation. As individuals, we cannot save the whole world, nor can we carry the enormous burden of it. We need to discern when a person’s plight is our burden, knowing that God will give us the necessary love, wisdom, and grace to see it through.