Empathy A Sin? You’re Kidding, Right?

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photo by Drew Hayes

Empathy has been getting a lot of press recently, and not in a good way. Past controversial statements by John Piper came to light recently concerning empathy. This occurred amidst the July resignations of staff members from Piper’s former church, Bethlehem Baptist Church, (a church he pastored over 30 years.) The seminary affiliated with the church, and the president which Piper appointed, have also taken a stand against empathy.

In a podcast in March of this year, the president of the seminary, Joe Rigney, even called empathy a sin.

I had to read that a few times. Empathy a sin?

photo by Youssef Naddam

What Is Empathy?

According to pastor and professor Scot McKnight, (author of A Church Called Tov), the naysayers of empathy are distinguishing the virtue of compassion from the potential vice of empathy. (A Church Called Tov, https://amzn.to/3h0TEyK)

The former means to “suffer with” and the latter “to suffer in.” Or, to “feel with” and “feel in.” The former is rational; the latter appears to be less (than) rational, and perhaps irrational. At least in their constructions, it’s OK to suffer with but not to suffer in.

Furthermore, McKnight continues by saying, This may be the most unwise piece of pastoral theology I’ve seen in my lifetime. Pastors without empathy are not pastoring. 

Warren Throckmorten, professor of psychiatry at Grove City College, defined empathy as following:

Empathy is simply understanding the inner world of other people. It is all about being able to relate to them and understand what they are going through. It quite important in human functioning and when absent, is associated with cruelty and antisocial behavior.

Isn’t Sympathy Enough?

Potentially, there are several reactions each of us has when we learn of a life crisis which a loved one, co-worker, or a neighbor is facing. Very recently, we all learned of the plight of thousands of people in Afghanistan who were attempting to flee from the brutal regime who is now in control. Tragically, we now know many of those were left behind to a fate that is difficult for Westerners to imagine. What stirred within you during this event?

A few had apathy. Some felt sympathy. Others felt empathy. Still others felt compassion, but which ones were moved to take some type of action?

I like how Dr. Allan Schwartz, LCSW, PhD, described it in his post discussing the three.

Sympathy carries with it more than a small dose of pity for the other. Of course, the problem with pity is that it strongly implies a superior attitude to the one in pain or need. In other words, it is never helpful to feel sorry for the other person.

Consequently, sympathy feels sorry for the hurting person. However, if I understand him correctly, sympathy feels little more than pity for the one in distress.

Throckmorten’s definition sounds a bit harsh. Nevertheless, in comparison to compassion and empathy, sympathy takes the least action. We may share a feeling with someone, then move onto the next thing on our schedules.

photo by Iluha Zavaley

Empathy & Compassion

McKnight looked to Merriam Webster to define compassion and empathy.

Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Schwartz sums it up well:

In fact, empathy precedes compassion. Empathy without compassion leaves the individual drained of energy as a result of feeling what the other feels. Empathy occurs immediately and leaves no emotional room between the individual and the one who is suffering. Compassion is more cognitive in nature. There is a sense of self awareness that provides some necessary space between the two people. The empathizer experiences the same suffering with the other, leaving the empathizer overwhelmed. As a result, compassion allows the individual to be more helpful than the individual who experiences empathy alone.

Truthfully, both are necessary  – empathy and compassion. As Schwartz stated, empathy precedes compassion. Without empathy, there would not be compassionate action.

photo by Rodnae Productions

The Fear of Vulnerability

Shane Moe is a marriage and family therapist in the Twin Cities area. He also provides care for trauma survivors, many of whom attended Bethlehem Baptist. He views the empathy-as-sin folks in a different light. Moe looks beneath the theological posturing and sees men who fear vulnerability. Traditionally, vulnerability in men signified weakness.

Revealing emotions is for women. Men are expected to be stoic and tough.

Additionally, and disturbingly, a lack of empathy is a characteristic of narcissism.

There are reasons some of my clients’ family members who exhibit narcissistic traits and who have engaged in consistent patterns of spiritual and psychological abuse toward my clients have been attracted to this ‘empathy is a sin’ teaching (and to this church): It feeds perfectly into their narcissism and psychological dependence upon maintaining power and control.

Sadly, there remain many patriarchic church cultures where male leadership distance themselves from feelings and emotions. Furthermore, they label them as sinful and isolate women, (whom they deem too emotional) who cry for help from abusive husbands. The traumatized and abused find no empathy and therefore, no compassion.

photo by Gus Moretta

Jesus, Our Example

Contrary to this, the New Testament Jesus is frequently said to have splanchnizomai. This word means – to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity.) McKnight paraphrased its meaning as follows:

It means to be moved with emotion and pity for someone in pain and pastoral neglect, and it leads from understanding to actions that help alleviate the pain (like healing, teaching).

Let’s look at just a few of these instances.

Matthew 9:35-38, ESV

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

Matthew 20:29-34, NKJV

Mark 1:40-41, ESV

40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”

Mark 5:18-19

Luke 7:12-13, NKJV

12 And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.

Luke 10:30-33

Our Response

Throughout His time here on earth, our Lord was moved with pity and compassion to take action in assisting those in need of His care. He moved to meet basic needs for food, needs for healing, and miraculous needs by restoring a widow’s son to life. Jesus met people where they were, (empathy) and took them by the hand (compassion) to deliver them to where they needed to be.

In 1 John 3:15-18, ESV, we have a clear admonition from ‘the disciple Jesus loved.’

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 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? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Theologians and preachers can quibble over word definitions and etymology until they are breathless. However, no one can argue with the simple truth of the words of Scripture. Furthermore, the example of the life of our Lord Jesus is all we need to know how to care for our brothers and sisters.

Can I hear an Amen?