Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17, NIV)
I was reading in one of my pastoral care books that the point of pastoral care is not to solve people’s problems. This was a theme of my CPE experience this summer as well. We are told that when we encounter a person in spiritual and emotional pain our job is not to do anything but to be with them. Don’t try to solve their problem. Don’t try to fix them.
Of course, this advice is always offered with the assurance that “just being present” is actually doing something for them. Being there is actually doing something, but it is a kind of doing that is acceptable.
I understand the caution against running in and blindly imposing some sort of “fix” on people. I get that we at times try to “help” people when our real motive is to reduce our own discomfort with their suffering. I understand all that and appreciate the counsel to avoid such things.
But I remain unconvinced about the general stance of passivity in pastoral care. I have two primary reactions. First, it feels like it is born out of the sense that we don’t have anything to offer people who are in spiritual and emotional pain. The best we can do is be with them and affirm their experience. I just don’t buy that. We have Jesus and the gospel. Or rather Jesus has us. And since I believe this, my second concern is that taking the passive empathy approach feels like the person James writes about in the quotation at the top of this post. We have food. If we tell a spiritually hungry person, “I feel your pain. Bless you.” are we not falling afoul of James’ teaching?
I got my knuckles gently whacked in CPE this summer more than once for not being able to let go of these ideas. My new pastoral care book notices that such attitudes are the signs of an inexperienced pastoral care provider. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll grow wiser with more experience.