Empathy A Sin? You’re Kidding, Right?

This site contains affiliate links to books. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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?




Shame: Healthy Shame Versus Toxic Shame

This site contains affiliate links to books. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Photo by Caleb Woods

There is healthy shame and there is toxic shame. I have known mostly toxic shame throughout my life, gleaned from dysfunctional parenting and religion…

but I have ever so gradually learned that healthy shame is possible to achieve.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.

Brene Brown, PhD.

from her book: I Thought It Was Just Me: (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” (https://amzn.to/3ia61d0)

Healthy Shame

All toddlers experience a healthy amount of shame if their parents set boundaries for them. I have never met a toddler who liked the word no; however, providing limits for young children enables them to develop important developmental and socialisation skills. Not to mention keeping them safe.

It also helps parents to maintain sanity.

I find it fascinating that shame is so embedded in the human race. Even infants and toddlers, when told no, display signs of shame, (feelings of “I am bad.”)

 Shame deactivates the sympathetic (nervous) system and activates the parasympathetic system. The infant becomes quiet and may try to hide.  A healthy parent or caregiver recognises this and reconnects immediately; the parent repairs the relationship, comforts and soothes the infant, and either shows them how to do the activity appropriately, or redirects the infant’s behaviours to another activity.

The child experiences small amounts of shame that are manageable within a safe and secure parent-child relationship.  This is the easiest time to teach the infant:

  • “Its not you, it’s the behaviour”
  • “Its not our relationship, it’s me teaching you”

Attunement is the interactive process between a parent and young child.

Sadly, many parents or caregivers are not attuned to their children and the shame voices begin to grow within the child.

 Shame Thinking

Shame thinking originates from deep roots in our childhood, family, culture, or religion.

As children we tend to blame ourselves for things that
happen around us, because we are limited in our capacity to think about others being responsible. In a five-year old’s mind if something bad happened, then she or he must have deserved it, therefore the universe makes sense. It is not until around age 12 that we gain the cognitive capacity to see how others’ actions and behaviors are more
complex with varying degrees of culpability.

Therefore, it’s easy to see how children can take on shame without a parent being aware that it has happened! Children are naturally egocentric.

In addition, unhealthy religious institutions often resort to shaming in order to keep their flock obedient to creeds, doctrines, leadership, etc. It can be a slow, insidious process, but effective, nevertheless.

We are all susceptible to shame. It began in the Garden of Eden.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

Brene Brown, PhD

Photo by Tabitha Turner

Toxic Shame Hides

Nothing silences us more effectively than shame.

Brene Brown, PhD

Toxic shame is painful to experience. In fact, the feeling is so distressing that we often find ways to avoid it. Unfortunately, shame is more destructive and powerful when it hides. Being aware of our defense mechanisms and bringing shame out into the open is the first step toward healing.

Here are some things to watch for:

  • Being defensive 
    • We can avoid taking responsibility for our behavior when we can transfer blame to another. If we equate responsibility with blame, then we run from it.
  • Perfectionism
    • Shame drives perfectionism. If we’re perfect, no one can criticize or shame us. However, the energy to attain the impossible goal of being perfect is exhausting. Furthermore, attempting to be someone we’re not disconnects us from the person God created us to be, flaws included.
    • Researcher Dr. Brene Brown said, Perfectionism is self-destructive and addictive
  • Apologizing
    • People who are overly apologetic and compliant are often prompted by deeply rooted shame. There is an assumption that others are right and they are wrong. In hopes of preventing criticism, a shaming attack, or conflict, we’re quick to apologize.
    • On the other hand, a deep, unconscious shame can have the opposite effect. This person can be so ruled by hidden shame that she can’t allow herself to be exposed to the possibility of ever being wrong. Admitting a mistake or being wrong is unthinkable. Human vulnerability is considered weak and shameful.
  • Procrastination
    • Shame often drives procrastination. Underlying the consideration of projects, especially new ventures, is the possibility that they might not turn out as we planned. Consequently, we might be criticized or be shamed. If we don’t attempt it, we won’t  fail. We won’t face the shame of failure.
    • We may live a safer life, albeit a smaller life.

Healing For Shame

When we are shamed repeatedly, we are taught to think that our feelings are wrong and our experiences are delusive. Whether this happens as a child or as an adult, the result is the same: if there is no one compassionate and perceptive enough to acknowledge the validity of our stories on a repeat basis, then we, too, are challenged to see them as true. We learn to distrust ourselves; we learn to deny our own truth, even to ourselves. Transforming this mindset requires a witness with a willingness to look and listen in a most powerful way—by seeing, feeling and believing.

Shame causes us to hide.Photo by Ivan Aleksic

It’s important to recognize when someone is shaming you. For example, the following statements are shaming:

  • You’re stupid!
  • You’re so fat!
  • What an idiot; I can’t believe you said that!
  • You’ll never be as good as _____.

If or when you hear things like this, don’t accept them as the truth about yourself. In fact, challenge shaming behavior.

In addition, be aware if you are the one who shames you the most! Open your ears to hear shaming words and discover who they are coming from.

Don’t be a shamer, yourself.

It’s good to understand the origin of the toxic shame. Are you with someone who often shames you? Do you perpetuate it by staying?

Learn to have compassion for yourself. This will take time. It will likely require a therapist if the shame is deeply rooted, but the freedom gained is like a huge weight lifted from you.

Work toward accepting that you are human and have flaws.

Forgive yourself for past mistakes.

Jesus Experienced Shame

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 
2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV
The Bible declares that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2, they were naked and not ashamed. Pivotally, they chose to eat from the Tree of Life, the single thing God instructed them not to eat. They chose their own unsound wisdom over God’s proven, loving wisdom.
Immediately, they attempted to hide from God. Adam and Eve felt shame for the first time.
On the cross, Jesus experienced the humiliation of our shame. The very weight of shame that was introduced in the Garden by Adam and Eve was laid on Him.
And He despised it.
But Jesus suffered it so it would not be necessary for us to live under the bondage of shame any longer.
Dr. Brown’s research on shame is brilliant. I recommend her books and her Tedtalk*.
on shame. John Bradshaw wrote a seminal work on shame in 2005, Healing the Shame that Binds You, (https://amzn.to/3yJlkPT). I recommend that, as well.
Pure Joy, by Ben White
However, my personal experience has taught me one thing.
Jesus alone can completely free us from the chains of shame. God gives us a new identity. His mercy and grace bring joy.
Photo by Eye for Ebony
Chain Breaker, by Zack Williams
Brene Brown “Listening to Shame”
Brene Brown “The Power of Vulnerability”