Recently I ran across some articles talking about “the sin of empathy,” which note that a number of evangelical personalities are now calling empathy a sin and advocating that sympathy is the only Scripturally-appropriate way to deal with other people’s difficulties.
After my initial incredulous response, I realized that perhaps this was exactly representative of something that I’ve been concerned about for a year or so, since the George Floyd incident and observing the various American church responses to it… and more than that, it’s related to my own testimony of empathy – or more importantly, my former extreme lack of empathy.
(You can also listen to this blog entry as a podcast on my Crucible of Thought podcast, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Anchor.fm)
A Gripping Podcast
The empathy/sin issue took on some greater clarity for me when I listened to a recent episode of “The Holy Post” podcast (titled “Buckets of Evangelicals”) (1), which contained an interview with David French. He’s a constitutional attorney and graduate of Harvard Law School, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, a senior editor for The Dispatch, a columnist for Time, the author of “Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore” and other books. And he’s an evangelical Christian.
David and Skye Jethani (the podcast host) spoke at some length about reactions to their discussion of this “sin of empathy” trend (about 34 minutes into the interview). David noted the wide split in opinions in response to a previous video, talking about empathy for COVID victims who had refused vaccination. In his comments, David and Skye noted that empathy is often confined to “one’s own tribe,” and is somewhat selective. David also noted that many who believe that empathy is sinful consider it to be excusing the actions that caused the consequences which are mourned by someone. They consider empathy to be diametrically opposed to justice. It’s an attack on truth.
However, as David says, true empathy does not excuse any sin or weakness that put someone into their painful situation. And empathy is in no way opposed to justice; instead, it is opposed to cruelty. It’s not selective. It’s not limited to those like us. It’s not even limited to those who are obeying the Lord.
In perhaps the most compelling comment that Skye made, “It’s like the church has an autoimmune disease, and the very thing we need in this moment, the very thing that should give us power and credibility as the people of Christ IS our empathy, and here there are sections at least of the evangelical church who are eating that empathy up and saying ‘No, we have to destroy it….’ How do we fight an autoimmune disease in the church when it’s telling us the very thing we need to survive in this moment is what’s killing us?“
As David French says, truth can’t solve everything. Sometimes you just need to sit with someone as they suffer – even if it’s natural consequences. And he notes that truth isn’t included in the list of fruit of the Spirit.
I really resonated with that last thought. I think the Lord understood us pretty well; we don’t need to be told to pursue truth, because too many people are pretty good at weaponizing it already. But we did need to be reminded to be empathetic, and that we needed The Helper to bring empathy to us.
So that was what they discussed in the podcast. I really can’t say it as well as they did, so I encourage you to go listen to that episode for an even better communication of those ideas. (I’ve included a link in my blog post.)
But I want to go a bit beyond those thoughts, with a story of my own. Actually, it’s more a testimony than just a story.
Two and a half years ago, I made a handful of personal mistakes in short succession, which deeply hurt and offended two people I love very dearly. (I won’t share all the details here, but if you know me personally, I’ll be happy to share the full story with you over lunch.) So I was appropriately confronted by my pastor, and as part of my process of restoration, I spent six months meeting with a wonderful Christian counselor. What I discovered, in a nutshell, was that I had spent my entire adult life with a rather broken empathetic ability. I simply had little ability to predict or understand how my personal actions would affect others around me.
Over the course of the counseling, the Lord healed dozens of decades-old wounds in my heart and soul, areas where I had built walls around my emotions and refused to let myself be impacted by what happened to me. I hadn’t even been able to notice what was impacting those around me, whether it was something I did to them, or something that happened to them from some other source.
I came out of this time of deep inner healing and a suddenly flowering empathy – straight into the middle of our national response to George Floyd’s death.
What shocked me was that I found myself able, for the first time ever, to understand the national outcry of Black people, from a deep emotional level. It had nothing to do with an intellectual assent of their pain, or an agreement with their agenda or calls for change. Instead, I actually felt their pain. And yet my mind and my personal emotional habits and all my past intellectual training told me to reject that pain as invalid and harmful. But in hearing the stories of my Black friends, the cries for change and relief suddenly rang true to my new awareness, and deeply and permanently affected my own heart and mind.
This rocked my world.
I became aware of how people were being affected by our nation’s power structures and laws and our social choices – not just financially or politically affected, but emotionally and spiritually affected. I realized what certain parts of our church culture were doing to them. As I heard dozens of their personal stories for the first time, I was forced to confront my own political history, and my carefully-curated positions of standing for truth and the rule of law above all other concerns.
What was most convicting to me was this: at the very core of my own choices was a studied rejection of any consideration for how people were being personally affected by the policies I had pursued and for which I steadfastly voted.
So for the last 18 months or so, I’ve been thinking very hard about what the Lord did in my own heart and mind. I have literally zero doubt that what He did was healing and restoration, and that He intentionally positioned me to be able to hear the cry for justice, not intellectually, but through His eyes of observing the pain of His children’s oppression.
How sweet those moments this past year, when the Lord opened my eyes time after time to see His children through His eyes and with His heart. And how sweet to finally see my own childhood through His eyes. I saw those suffering today, and even those in my past who had brutally bullied me as a child, with new awareness. I even found myself weeping on behalf of my tormentors, as He showed me what they were going through at the time, and how their attacks on me were all that they were capable of doing to survive. He literally showed me how my pain was a small payment of His grace to them. I found myself so grateful for His allowing them to survive their own challenges and oppression. I realized that I had been, as it were, an offering of a therapeutic outlet for their fear and grief and rage.
And in those moments of new insight, I fully and with much weeping accepted that small momentary price of torment on their behalf. I even accepted – more than that, I even rejoiced – in the years of being emotionally broken that resulted – because of the testimony that the Lord was building in me for today. I am convinced beyond doubt that what He allowed me to suffer prepared me to be who He is calling me to be, today and tomorrow.
This may sound deeply strange to you, that I could rejoice in my past pain and suffering, and even in being asked to suffer on another’s behalf. Yet “joy” in this context is not pleasure, but instead, as C.S. Lewis said in his book “Surprised by Joy,” “there lies in our hearts a longing that is also a delight, a longing that nothing in this world can satisfy and a delight that nothing in this world can match.” There is a deep longing in me to fulfill the Lord’s purposes in those around me, and to be useful for His purposes. So to find that my pain was able act as a salve in their painful circumstances, and also to ultimately refine me for my Holy purpose, gives me delight instead of sorrow.
So About Empathy and Sin…
So in light of my own experience, I find this sudden drive to call empathy “sinful” to be very personally offensive. I spent a year being directly transformed by the Lord in exactly the area of empathy, and discovering the utter truth that empathy is exactly at the heart of the Lord’s call for justice in every part of the Bible.
And it offends me that someone would call what the Lord graciously rebuilt in me to be sinful.
And frankly, I find the entire premise to be deeply mis-representative of the Lord Himself.
We know from both the prophetic and historic Scriptures about Jesus that He was deeply empathetic. He wept with and for those mourning Lazarus, even when He knew that He would raise him up moments later (John 11:35). Paul wrote “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15) – or as translated by the King James, “cannot be touched with the feeling of our weaknesses.”
In numerous stories, Jesus was moved by compassion – being defined as empathy that is moved to action. Jesus saw the widow whose son had just died, and “He felt compassion for her” (Luke 7:13). “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
Even in the Old Testament (2), “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9). “He will again have compassion on us” (Micah 7:19). The Lord Himself said “I have had a change of heart; my compassion is stirred!” (Hosea 11:8). “He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water” (Isaiah 49:10). “For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13). God describes Himself as El Rakhum, The Compassionate One (Deuteronomy 4:31).
Many who claim empathy is bad but sympathy is good (because of the specific Greek word in Hebrews 4:15) would do well to consider the various definitions in a 2015 article in Psychology Today, titled “Empathy versus Sympathy” (3). Go look it up.
Let me close with an appeal.
Paul wrote “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) – yet without any instructions about what constitutes acceptable reasons to weep. Can it possibly be only circumstances where we approve of their reasons to weep? I see no such limit in that Scripture.
I used to believe that justice and the rule of law were supreme, even above grace and sympathy and empathy and compassion. After all, God was the Lord of the Universe, the very original rule giver. But I was always somewhat frightened of inviting the Lord to show me His heart for the hurting and the oppressed. More than just that, I was unwilling to ask whether my judgements of whether they deserve that oppression were truly Just and Right.
In retrospect, as a New Testament believer, I find that I was applying Old Testament judgement to those I did not consider worthy. I was being their accuser and judge. That was not my right.
So my appeal to you is this: invite Him to let you see the hurting ones with His eyes – not just those in your tribe, but also those who are utterly alien to you. Don’t make the mistake I made for decades, of blinding yourself to their pain. And don’t let your wounds cause you to miss His purposes in allowing those wounds.
Other good resources:
A couple of the original articles arguing that empathy can be sinful:
A response to this charge:
A good thesis paper about Jesus and empathy: