Reality, Empathy & Discernment: "Our reality" and our response to domestic violence

Discernment is a concept recognised in scripture. For instance, the Apostle Paul speaks of the natural man not being able to discern spiritual things. He speaks of God's invisible attributes not being perceived by people who are without excuse. Our Lord spoke of those who would not perceive the reality that they never truly knew him, despite believing that they were working in his service - surely a warning to all of us.

I remember speaking to one group of ecclesial elders and beginning to explain "the reality" for a person experiencing abuse, only to be interrupted in incredulity by a brother "reminding" me that, "She didn't have her own reality. There is only one reality and that is the truth". Yet we are called to be compassionate followers of our Lord and this requires empathy - it requires an ability to put ourselves into other people shoes and share another's burdens (Galatians 6:2).

The challenge presented by domestic violence is that for many of us, not only is domestic violence beyond our experience but recognising it requires looking past what we have accepted as reality - often for decades.

In essence, what we have considered to be "the truth" was not. It was in fact a carefully constructed façade - a truly convincing "reality" that for all those decades (perhaps) we had accepted. Despite all that the real truth was that within a "happy family", behind closed doors, a much loved fellow believer - a trusted brother (or sister), a diligent servant of their ecclesia (or so we all thought) was in fact a tyrant systematically deconstructing the inner worth and sense of reality of their wife or husband and more than likely their children too.

Not only does having empathy with a person disclosing domestic abuse require us to climb a cliff: to overcome the often decades long belief that our friend - perhaps close friend, and "fellow-labourer" was a fraud, but it requires scaling another cliff with our bare fingers, as it were. That is the cliff that must be climbed to recognise that someone else's reality is so unlike anything we have experienced that it literally beggars belief.

Unfortunately on both fronts: the affront to our picture of "a fellow believer" and the affront to our belief that we all possess normal decent human behaviours and the interests is a cliff too hard to climb for many of us.

Our Lord "knew what was in man" (John 2:24-25) and did not entrust himself to them. This doesn't mean that he judged all men, even though he was capable of it. Six times our Lord is described as having compassion. Luke 13:10-17 is one of those where he heals the crippled woman. On the Sabbath she comes in the synagogue where more than likely he was teaching, and she becomes the focus of his empathy and compassion - he sees her condition. This woman was bowed down or "bent over", perhaps by osteoporosis - often the complication of other chronic metabolic illnesses which resulted in malnutrition and poor absorption of calcium from her diet. His words, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment" demonstrate his empathy for the debilitating prison of her illnesses. He moved internally and acted in response. This is the essence of empathy working compassion.

The ensuing issue that arose was something our Lord no doubt anticipated. The Jews had so codified what you could and couldn't do on the Sabbath that amongst their 39 actions you couldn't do was "healing". Yet the Sabbath was intended as a day of rest, of joy and celebration of God's provision. They had made it onerous in a way that conflicted with the freedom and compassion our Lord gave the woman (verse 16). His words, "a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years" not only show his empathy, but also so dramatically frame the bondage that is domestic violence.

Christ's mission was to set people free. When we reflect on our past behaviours and realise that we have been committing people back to lives of imprisonment and bondage, either by our direct actions - "you should go home", or "you should forgive him and have him back" (for instance), or our indirect attitudes that vilify victims, that judge them when we have no idea of what has gone on in their lives and have no right to know, we need to recognise to notice, have empathy, show compassion, put aside other people's spiritual abuse that says that they should not be freed, and reach out and support them. Empathy has been described as, "the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another" (Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts, 10th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p 211). This is exactly what our Lord demonstrated when he did that and emphasised with his reference to the eighteen long years. He makes an effort to understand her. He recognises the trauma of her life. he treats her as a person with value. He picks up the cues about her emotions and experiences. He is moved by her suffering. He relieves it.

Let us each reflect the empathy and compassion of our master in our dealings with everyone we come in contact with, and particularly, anyone disclosing abuse of all kinds.

Photo by Andressolo available at under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Full terms at