Umm . . . yes, he really did call it a sin, an “enticing sin,” in fact. That is, Joe Rigney, the Desiring God author, truly did say that empathy is bad and even a trick of the devil. And the majority of the commenters on the Facebook post of the article and the hundreds who shared it believed the same way, many of them feeling convicted of the sin of empathy.
It’s a Screwtape-styled article, so you’re supposed to read it inside out and opposite, sometimes but not all the time, which can make it challenging to figure out, but it’s here, so I welcome you to see for yourself.
“Compassion,” “sympathy,” “empathy”?
Here’s what the Desiring God author said, translated from “Screwtape-ese” to normal talk:
[God’s] virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to [God].
I think, actually, he’s talking there about “sympathy.”
Sympathy is being moved by someone else’s sorrow and pain in a way that shows at least some measure of understanding. That is, even though I’ve never lost a child, I can give my bereaved friend a sympathy card, and I can sit with her in her grief. Even though I don’t personally know this grief, I can in some dim way imagine how terrible it must be to lose a child.
It’s a painful thing to sit with another in her grief. But that’s what sympathy is about. It is “suffering with.”
But compassion is sympathy plus. That is, compassion is being moved by someone else’s sorrow and pain in a way that motivates action to help the sufferer. Sympathy plus inner motivation to help will result in compassion.
“And Jesus went forth and saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)
Compassion will sometimes be involved in helping to relieve the suffering (whether it be physical or emotional suffering), but sometimes compassion understands that the suffering can’t really be relieved, but must be walked through. Compassion will be willing to walk through it with the person.
As an important side note: An “inner motivation to help” that is devoid of the understanding that we call sympathy will result in the desire to “fix it.” That is, in the name of “helping” or “doing good,” the sufferer can be given platitudes meant to shut down grieving, ignoring the trauma.
This kind of “fix it” talk is devoid of either sympathy or compassion.
And we haven’t even gotten to empathy.
Or those horrible things he says about the Sufferers.
What’s really true about empathy
The fact that the word empathy was coined within the last hundred years is apparently one of the indications that the word is a tool of the devil. (I’d like to point out that the words complementarian and egalitarian were made up in the last 35 years, but I digress.)
So what was the reason the word empathy was coined? To show a special “feeling with” that goes beyond sympathy. Empathy is the “feeling in” that one person can feel for another who is in pain, because they know what it’s like to go through the same experience.
That is, I can sit with my grieving friend who lost her child in a traffic accident. I can grieve with her. But someone else who also lost her child in a traffic accident is going to be able to grieve with her, “feel with her in the pain,” in a far deeper and more meaningful way that I can. Empathy is the ability to stand in the other person’s shoes and see out of the other person’s eyes. Some people have this ability naturally in such great measure that even if they’ve never experienced a certain kind of pain, they can feel it vicariously when someone else is hurting.
Mary DeMuth’s Twitter description says, “I help #metoo #churchtoo survivors find empathy & healing. It’s my story too.”
See what she did there? She explained the source of her empathy.
“Jesus wept” with the grief of those who loved Lazarus. He grieved the death of His friend, even though He knew He was about to raise Him from the dead, because He felt the hurt of others. This is a beautiful Biblical example of empathy.
If a Desiring God author is going to write about empathy, he should understand what it means rather than making up a new definition for it.
What he claims empathy means
Empathy and compassion are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, empathy would naturally lead to compassion.
However, the author says that compassion seeks the sufferer’s good, but empathy is a tool of the devil.
Empathy is the counterfeit of compassion.
Empathy “shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly ‘loved.’”
Empathy says that “unless [comforters] subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.”
“Books, articles, and social media all trumpet the importance of checking one’s own beliefs, values, judgments, and reason at the door of empathy.”
[It is true] that “feelings are important,” but empathy will cause one to think that “feelings are ALL important.”
“Empathy goes beyond union to . . . fusion, the melting together of persons so that one personality is lost in the other. Empathy demands, ‘Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.’”
This is a caricature of those who care about the grief and suffering of others. It is a caricature of empathy. This is not what empathy is. For those who understand it, he has twisted it to be unrecognizable.
What he says about the Sufferers
This is without a doubt the most disturbing aspect of this article, the part that probably needs a caution for those who are suffering and those who care about the sufferers.
Why, why would a Desiring God author want to caricature Sufferers in such a heartless way?
[Sufferers] tend to make two demands that are impossible to fulfill simultaneously. On the one hand, they want people to notice the depth of their pain and sorrow—how deep they are in the pit, how unique and tragic their circumstances. At the same time, they don’t want to be made to feel that they really need the assistance of others. In one breath, they say, “Help me! Can’t you see I’m suffering?” and in the next they say, “How dare you act as though I needed you and your help?”
The sufferer doesn’t want to be alone and demands not to be pitied.
Now, sufferers have been placing such impossible demands on others from time immemorial.
A human in pain is practically primed to say, “You don’t love me if . . .” and then to place entirely unreasonable demands on others.
[The devil wants] sufferers to subtly but forcefully demand that their comforters not even FEEL hope or joy or faith themselves. Total immersion [in the pain] must be granted, or “You don’t love me.”
This article was so deeply troubling to me that I couldn’t even read it all in one sitting—I couldn’t stomach it.
Furthermore, in the 100+ comments and the 100+ Shares that I was able to see, not a single person gave any pushback to the abominable way Sufferers were described.
Is this description going to increase Christian compassion for those in the body of Christ who are suffering? Or is it going to cause Desiring God disciples to want to back away as far as they can from the Sufferers?
The response of a former Sufferer
Valerie Jacobsen, a woman who with her children suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, a woman who now speaks as an advocate for others, said in reference to this article:
It is a very rare thing for someone to resist or resent someone who isn’t there to interrogate or to make demands, who just brings a cup of cold water, makes some sandwiches, sits and listens. How is this, somehow, not spiritual enough?
I suspect immediately that Rigney is not a good listener, for it’s really not at all common for sufferers to say, “Help me! Can’t you see I’m suffering?” in one moment and “How dare you act as though I needed you and your help?” in the next. . . . Only sticking a knife in an open wound elicits the kind of response that Rigney, apparently routinely observes. . . . This is the health-wealthy bias that just can’t help [but look] upon the sufferings of the righteous with loathing and disgust.
I feel like, in that approach he is describing there is no real sense that this sufferer is one of God’s beloved children, who hopes in him, who is suffering in faith.
Have compassion . . .
Desiring God, can you get a glimpse, a taste, for the reason so many of those who are suffering are leaving the church, and Christianity, in droves? The influence of articles like this is not to be discounted, as hundreds of Christians are promoting articles like this.
Caricaturing some of the most vulnerable members of the Kingdom of God, blanketly representing them to be unstable, demanding, cantankerous, and impossible to please—how is this helping any of us to become more like Jesus Christ?
And when [Jesus] saw the multitude, he was moved with compassion on them because they fainted and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
He saw their suffering. He felt their suffering. And then, by his miracles and ultimately by His death and resurrection, he took action to relieve and remedy their suffering.
Empathy is just a word. But it describes an ability to deeply relate to the sufferings of others, an ability that can fuel the compassion that longs to do good for those who are suffering.
And this, contrary to what Desiring God has proclaimed, is a beautiful thing.
Note: A follow-up article to this one is posted here.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.
Thank you for tackling this article and breaking it down so clearly, Rebecca. This is such a disturbing and discouraging article by DG as this attitude has already been a struggle in so much of the church, and now has the endorsement of a respected ministry saying that it’s also the biblical and right response. Ugh. All the institutional church needed was more encouragement to reject connecting and empathizing with believers who are hurting and devastated by trauma and explains why they increasingly feel so unsafe to so many. This DG article is straight from the pit of hell and may God grant His children the ability to see that and respond wisely.
I pray that God’s people will be people of true compassion, which often includes simply listening when we don’t know what to say.
Part of the problem is that he is writing through the “Screwtape” persona, and the lines of satire are blurred. “First responder empathy” looks different than “longterm rehab for a chronic condition” empathy, and they are not interchangeable. Giving a wounded person what is helpful right at the time of leaving a cruel, crushing, vow-mocking situation may not be what is beneficial six or twenty-four months later.
It seems as if that author is confusing “empathy” with “encouraging someone to wallow in self pity.” But the Good Samaritan was not encouraging the beaten man to wallow in self pity: he saw his real needs and acted compassionately, whether he “felt empathy” or not. However, when Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb, though He knew the outcome, He was mourning with those who mourned, and not minimizing or dismissive of their pain and sadness in death. He could have shown compassion by raising Lazarus without the weeping, but He truly weeps with us in our times of crushing loss.
These are very good points. Thank you.
I read the article… I think the author is assuming that all victims want to suck those who comfort them into a self-serving abyss… This is really unfair! But, I knew a woman who was always playing the victim card… she was selfish and demanding of my time and sympathy. I finally had to draw some boundaries with her, and boy was she mad! Do you think that (with that type of sufferer) some of this article might make some sense? The thing is … I used to have a problem with being too empathetic… with those who exploited my soft heart. Open to anyone’s thoughts….
In my conversation with the DG author on Twitter, I mentioned that I had thought about including a paragraph about people who show symptoms of what is commonly called borderline personality disorder (which some authorities argue is actually an attachment disorder). With these people, yes, i agree, it’s important to draw clear boundaries.
If the author had said that SOME people who have suffered can be or become demanding and contradictory, I would have had no argument with him–I’ve known and interacted with those people myself. But he made statements that were meant to apply to all Sufferers, or nearly all. And this is not even close to true. Many of those who have suffered greatly or are currently suffering don’t even know how to ask for ANYthing, and they suffer in fearful silence. Their fear and their silence would only be confirmed by an article such as this.
Yes…. yes!!!!! Thank you for making this important distinction with the author… i hope many see that discussion !
yep! I totally agree! Thank you so much for making that distinction! So many make the mistake (me included, at times) of making broad generalizations that wound those to which the generalization doesn’t apply.
This is especially true of Christian forgiveness! I was really abused by someone close, who I trusted. I was so traumatized! I turned to a Church support group… the only advice I got (from two of the leaders who ganged up on me) was that, “You must forgive!” … but I my ability to forgive was not on their time-table! I felt so misunderstood, condemned, and guilty. I know this is a little off topic, but the principle is the same…. similar to the clip you posted of a pastor who said something like, “You should be able to sit down with the one who offended you over coffee and a piece of pie!” That all depends on what they did to you!!!
Yes, that would be this blog post here: https://heresthejoy.com/2019/04/that-forgiveness-talk-at-harvest-bible-chapel/
I’m glad this was addressed. There are people who will suck the life out of anyone who comes near them with empathy. The people with empathy can get very hurt and do need to draw boundaries. The point I want to add is that it doesn’t make EMPATHY the problem. The problem is with the person taking advantage of someone’s kindness. The biggest tragedy is if a person shuts down the ability to empathize because of getting taken advantage of.
Thank you for your perspective Rebecca….i personally read the article and saw through it as addressing ‘sufferers who would want to always play the victim card and suck everyone in to meet their needs’. I agree that if the author made these distinctions it would have been clearer and devoid of condemnation of the true sufferers plight. I would suggest however that you could have pointed your readers towards the ‘correct/right’ interpretation or draw these lines for the readers. As believers we all have to use our resources ‘perfect’ the saints…..some readers may have got it others might have not. Your post would have helped readers grasp the missing pieces in the original DG. Thank you, my humble opinion.
I agree with you Randolf Hackman :). This is the view I share
Yes, that is probably what the DG author was talking about more. Although, just a bit of warning: things like Borderline Personality Disorder can be a touchy subject to discuss if those who are discussing it don’t really know what is going on in the Borderline’s mind. People with this disorder have often suffered from rejection, abandonment, and abuse, and they never learned how to self-cope. They are already super sensitive people, so they often misinterpret people’s actions as being signs of rejection. And the chemical make-up of their brains is such that the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) is overactive, so any emotion they experience is greatly intensified. Often these people can’t help it when their emotions have taken over, like anger for example. And the more extreme the condition, the less control they have over it. They are often extremely embarrassed by their behaviors and develop deep social anxiety and depression because of this; many avoid cultivating any friendships at all for fear of rejection. Yes, many of their behaviors go against Godly ways, and I am not excusing it whatsoever. I believe everyone should be held accountable for their actions. But it’s just important to know the emotion behind the emotion, if that makes sense. Fear of rejection is so magnified in their minds that they get angry, angry at their own fear that it leaks out to being angry at the person who is supposedly rejecting them. I have read quite a bit of stuff written by Borderline people who are Christians, and they repeatedly mention guilt as a constant emotion in their condition. So what they are needing is a little more affirmation and love than what the average person needs. Yes, most definitely setting clear boundaries is a must, but setting those boundaries in a loving and understanding way, where the feelings of both people are understood and cared for in the process. There is ALOT of writing out there that talks about how to do this where it will help the Borderline person, without exhausting the person loving them.
I love this comment, Rachel. Thank you so much for the compassion you show to people many of whom, I believe, suffer from extreme attachment disorders from early childhood. Christians desperately need to understand in order to have appropriate compassion on people with bpd instead of simply labeling their bewildering behavior “sin.”
I agree. People with BPD / DID can come from extremely traumatic backgrounds in which they develop attachment disorders which negatively shaped their ability to communicate in normal fashion. I have a lot of guilt and confusion in this area of my walk but it is something I am learning about each day
Quote – “Aggressiveness is not assertiveness, it comes from a place of deep fear.
People like me are not being manipulative we are living abuse trauma at a high level.”
If a healthy dog is repeatedly kicked and abused it will eventually turn nasty and avoid any affection. This is what I think of when it comes to trauma..
I often think of that too. I picture a precious little puppy that has been starved and beaten. Of course it’s going to snap. Love to you, friend.
BPD and DID are very different disorders (yes, they have some symptoms in common, but are still very separate and distinct, and have different etiologies and important phenomenological differences). It’s inaccurate to make the generalisation that those with DID are “nasty” or “avoidant of affection” – some may be, but instances of “nastiness” or other anti-social type characteristics are not more common than in the general population. Please take care with comments, especially about diagnostic categories.
Important distinction. Thank you.
as a BPD survivor thank you for this. many churches stigmatise and says we Jezebels- no, we have lived thrpough severe complex trauma, similar to that a war veteran experiences. just presenting a different way. bless you and thank you for understanding
with all due respect, i have diagnosis of BPD, and yeah maybe i come across as demanding but i also identify with the fear of asking for help. i was abused sexualy mentally emotiuonally physically since infancy until well into adulthood. like msot peopel with BPD i am very sensitive and an article like this would have shredded me. in fact my abusive father, a fundamentalist christian in ministry constanlty made me feel guilt for suffering. and my suffering like most BPD sufferers is genuine.
dont get me wrong, i appreciate your blog, i relate so much to it but BPD is actually a defense mechanism against deep feelings of shame and fear of being invalidated, hurt or abandoned, most of us were abued or neglected. it is a form of CPTSD – my therpaist is top of his field in trauma and he says BPD is ja form of both attachment disorder and trauma survival. people see the demanfing self pity sid eof BPD- they often dont see the emotional flashbacks, the self hate, the shame and shyness (i actually am shy when not kicking off, have trouble making eye contact and my voice heard)). aggressiveness is not assertiveness, it comes from a palce of deep fear
people like me are not being manipulative we are living abuse trauma at a high level.
Yes, I agree that BPD seems to be a manifestation of an attachment disorder, and it makes sense to me why it happens. I’m so, so sorry for what you experienced at the hands of those who claimed to be following Jesus.
I didn’t mean to be implying that people with Borderline should be abandoned, only that those of us who work with them have to have clear boundaries in order to continue loving them in a healthy way.
This made me weep. Jesus sees and knows, sis.
The Author in essence denied that suffering is a part of human experience. He in essence denied that sometimes what we need most is to feel understood and not alone. He in essence denied that the feelings and emotions themselves may be the source of suffering. I agree that his article was tremendously lacking in insight and has done great harm to the church.
I agree with this :). As mentioned above in my personal post I think that is where the disagreement was.
I have known someone like this who was certainly unstable at times.
She would call me saying, “What am I going to do?” (And note that she was a GOOD 20 years older. This was not a peer-to-peer or what should have been a mentor situation.) However, NONE of my suggestions were helpful, and I finally decided to stop giving them.
However, while we can have compassion for those who have been shaped in that way, we can also recognize that it isn’t the majority. And even in drawing boundaries–or in some cases suspending contact (I mean rancorous, disruptive situations or worse…I never did this with her, so I’m not referring to those suffering specifically but just interactions throughout life)–we can still maintain compassion for them. Not having a “good riddance” attitude but an “I’m not the person to help them, but hopefully someone soon will arrive who is” attitude.
Another thing is, we can always draw lines without making judgments about the person. For example, I can decide, “This is not a good time for me to help this person financially” without judging how he came to be in that position.
I can decide, “I cannot emotionally handle this many phone calls of this nature” while still thinking the best of the caller’s need to talk on the phone (for instance: this doesn’t characterize her life, but these 6 months of it).
I know it’s a balance and hard to strike–especially when our own feelings are involved! But it can be done. (There are times that a judgment needs to be made, such as “Yes, I could let this person live in my basement for another year, but it seems to be clearly enabling at this point.” But it might or might not be helpful to share that.)
Helpful thoughts, Prudence. Thank you.
Prudence, I LOVE you balance of truth and grace here! I used to think that if I drew a boundary with someone, I was being selfish and mean. You have explained beautifully how to balance the needs of others with you own needs… and how to distinguish the “wants” or “demands” of others from their genuine needs.
Thank you, Jane. That is kind. I will confess that I have also BEEN the person with vast needs when I was depressed/ lacking direction in my life, so that gives me–a decade later–more compassion for others while at the same time seeing that something may not help them. (For example, one relative explained her over-availability/ being drained with “I think I’m the only friend she has,” and I responded that it’s not good to be that for someone [the exception, I suppose, being the infirm who don’t have much choice in making new friends. Then, joyfully be the 1, or 1 of 2, etc.!].)
Respect for others’ boundaries and the strength to draw my own have kind of grown at the same time. Thanks again!
When I read this about people being selfish and needy I was thinking about I book I am reading on attachment styles (‘Attached’) and it said people are only as needy as their unmet needs.
I have been thinking about that one a lot even though it sounds obvious. You may not be able to supply a person’s every need (Boundaries are important and you have needs too!) but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have them.
Very good point. I think all Christians would do well to have a better understanding of attachment disorders, which, when you study them, seem very self-evident.
Empathy, the total immersion into their feelings or suffering, is a tool, that should be used briefly while you are with them, so that they don’t feel alone, and so that you know what to say and how to pray. Just because it can be used doesn’t give us an excuse to not use it at all. The Bible says to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.”
Empathy, as defined by people who don’t have a weird agenda, is Christ-like, as scripture clearly teaches.
“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15 KJV)
Excellent rebuttal to such putrid garbage, Rebecca!
I have decided I need a lot less John Piper and his Desiring (to be) God website. I think the sexist glasses they wear ends up distorting all of Scripture in weird twisted ways.
Donald, I am just starting to research John Piper and his theology… the reason being that our Southern Baptist church (that I have ALWAYS felt very aligned with) has a new, young pastor who is a real Piper fan! (I had never even heard of Piper before.)
After doing a little research, it seems that Piper is always trying to elevate God… His sovereignty, His power… which seems right to me. But somehow in the process, Piper seems to devalue people (their worth, their dignity). So, I’m confused at this point.
For the almost 50 years that I have been a believer, my faith in a nutshell has always been, “Nobody has ever loved me like Jesus… because He loves me so much, I have enormousness value and worth, as does every other human being… and that’s why I’m hooked on Him!” Piper seems to blow holes in my theology. I think he’s wrong, but not sure why? Anyone?
This blog post might be helpful for that: “Should you love yourself? A response to Desiring God.” https://heresthejoy.com/2018/02/should-you-love-yourself-a-response-to-desiring-god/
Jane, I hate to say it, but it looks like you are in for a rough ride. If you want to know more about Calvinist takeovers, you might peruse The Wartburg Watch site, and comments there. Many have had experience with Calvinism, and covert Calvinist takeovers of an unsuspecting church. If you want to know more about the difference between Calvinist theology and non-Calvinist, I recommend Soteriology101.com. Many have experienced the challenge of being confronted with Calvinism while completely ignorant of its full history and teachings. I would recommend you inform and arm yourself, as it is a far cry from traditional, non-Calvinist theology, proposing a God who loves and set forth to save only a very limited few, while condemning all others to hell ‘for his glory’. Spent over a decade in the camp, and have discovered many, like me, who found the theology very unscriptural (they twist meanings a lot) and harmful to my soul’s health. Have been out for several years, and so happy to have back the loving, gracious, merciful God of my youth.
Piper isn’t a good representation of traditional or biblical “Calvinism” though.
yes, i feel the same way regarding John Piper. i wasn’t sure whether it was me that was wrong, so am glad am not alone….i also get my theology now from a revelation of God s love. i grew up in a legalistic hellfire and damnation theology on top of my dad being abusive and others abusing me also and i have to admit although i am not questioning Piper’#s personal walk with God, these kinds of theologians i struggle to engage with. i try and just can;t relate to it? i want to. i want to be a proper Christian who says and does the right things but i just can;t….i just can’t be what they wan tme to be
If these people twist the meanings of words, they can make good things seem evil. How appalling that hundreds of “Christians” will now confess their sin of empathy and harden their hearts (even more) against those who are suffering. If these people read a Bible, they would see verses such as things:
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it…. (1 Cor 12:24-26)
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep… (Romans 12:15)
“When my son was diagnosed with cancer at age 18, I had a friend who was awesome at walking through it with us. She had great “empathy” for us.” When my husband, son, and I could find a reason to find humor in a situation (because sometimes we laughed so we wouldn’t cry), she laughed with us. When we couldn’t laugh, she cried with us. When we were anxious about an appointment/surgery, she would say, “Oh, my goodness, I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep so I prayed for you all night long!” We live far away from each other, but she located a local restaurant on the Internet and bought us many gift certificates so we wouldn’t have to cook after long days at the Cancer Center. She sent us “care packages” and homemade cards. She didn’t lecture us on what to think or feel, she didn’t tell us what treatments to pursue (or that we would kill our son if we didn’t choose their preferred treatment), she didn’t tell us we were sinning if we didn’t have the “proper” attitude, she didn’t tell us to have more faith, she didn’t tell us to “rejoice in our suffering,” she was just THERE with us every step of the way. That is empathy/compassion in action. That is the love of Christ. It is breathtakingly beautiful. If such empathy is “sin,” I pray it is one I will be increasingly guilty of.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Cor 1:3-4
Excellent, and thank you, Teri.
How dare he? I agree with another commenter–Rigney’s article (attempts at humor notwithstanding) is straight from the pit of hell.
I didn’t read the article; but did read the excerpts above. This one stood out to me (a victim of abuse): “A human in pain is practically primed to say, “You don’t love me if . . .” and then to place entirely unreasonable demands on others.” The problem I have with this statement is that usually it is an abuser who says, “You don’t love me if….” So I feel like the author is confusing victims and abusers in his statements. It’s really unfortunate because those less understanding of these topics will take the author’s words as ‘gospel’ and continue to heap religious abuse on true victims.
I thought the very same thing — it is ABUSERS who say this. So true.
I might add that along with the existence of a few who may demand more than is reasonable due to personality disorders, etc., there is another group of people who may, temporarily have extremely great and demanding needs. This group of people have what is now commonly called PTSD. Thus, the very people who have been traumatized the most by authoritarian, patriarchal, spiritually abusive religious leaders are the ones this author would scorn or throw under the bus.
I was one of these persons. I know that for a period of many months I was extremely needy, having lost my entire support network upon leaving my spiritually abusive church. I felt guilty for leaning on several very dear friends to get me through those very dark days; but I had been so traumatized, and left so wounded, that I could not get myself out of that crisis alone.
For many, professional counseling is necessary. For others, a loving, patient friend or group may be able to provide the temporarily intense support such suffering victims require. It is tragic that the ones who have been hurt the most are now being set forth as ‘too needy’ to deal with. Because we can get past the damage done to us, with time and support. . As with any traumatically injured patient, intensive care is a short term necessity; it would be unthinkable to deny the deeply wounded the temporary round-the-clock attention they need to pull through and arrive at a better place, in which they can once again function as whole people.
This is an extremely important comment, and I hope many people see it. Thank you so much, TS00.
TSOO, are you referring to a church with Calvinistic leanings? … that you referred to above in your advice to me? I will check out those sites, and we are already checking out other churches… I was getting depressed, even weepy, listening to our pastor… who quotes Piper frequently. Thanks, Jane
Jane, I’m so sorry to hear of your church situation. Many have traveled that road before you. The more Piper you are listening to, the more depression you can expect to feel 🙁
After reading the actual article on Desiring God, my mind went, WHAT? What is he actually trying so hard to say here?
It is sloppy writing and thinking — not a good exegesis of Scripture. Confuse and you lose. In fact, I wonder if the author is burned out, and should step down from counseling for a sabbatical.
I’ve been a cancer care-giver over the course of the past 5 years, and I’ve seen and heard a lot of “stupid” from Christian folks on the topic of suffering. We’re all guilty of opening our mouths and saying the wrong things, true. Kind words, a LISTENING ear, prayers, and acts of service are some of the most deeply appreciated ways to show the compassion of Christ to your hurting friends. And the Psalms. Give them the Psalms. Every gamut of wretched, angry, sorrowfully broken human emotion is expressed there. You cannot go wrong when you’re suffering if you turn to the Psalms. Jesus will meet you there.
Haven’t finished reading, but wanted to say that what the writer says this:
“‘Empathy goes beyond union to . . . fusion, the melting together of persons so that one personality is lost in the other. Empathy demands, ‘Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.’”
What he is actually describing is what my abuser wants from me, but does not require of himself – It’s enmeshment, at best.
Yes, the description of a sufferer is actually of an abuser.
This is the fruit of Calvinism.
Cold and merciless
With a topping of self-righteousness.
I don’t think it’s a fruit of Calvinism but as a Reformed Baptist I admit you see a lot of it in Calvinistic churches. I think it’s more American Individualism, which is great for running a country maybe, but really has no place in the church.
Is this what happens when a sociopath or narcissist tries to define empathy?
You know, these are real words that have actual meaning. “Desiring God” can’t just choose to give it a new definition according to their own biases.
Empathy is extremely important. In early childhood it develops in response to being nurtured by a loving caretaker. Without it, I don’t think the personality or conscience can develop. This is one of the ways early abuse/neglect damage a personality. Without it you would have no compassion or sympathy, either.
I don’t know what troubles me more, the fact that this person used their platform to spread this miserable lie or the fact that so many swallowed it.
This was indeed a terrible article.
Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and if he had talked about that I would have been ok, but this blaming of sufferers and kind people for having empathy for this is twisted.
There is also this element of ‘feelings are bad and should never be listened to, unlike ‘logic’…I was just listening to a therapist talk about how if you’re in a relationship with someone who claims to hold logic over feelings? Run. That’s how I felt reading this article.
Yes, and I’ve written about that before too: https://heresthejoy.com/2018/05/reason-trumps-emotions-90-of-evangelicals-say-yes/
What an upsetting DG article. Confusing at best but at worst striking right at the heart of who God is. God through the person of Jesus Christ is a co-suffering God. He gave up all of heaven and entered our disordered mess of humanity to rescue, redeem & restore us back to Him (Phil 2). He is God with us. God who has never turned away from us (psalms 22, I think this one should be more popular than 23) He doesn’t brush aside the bruised & hurt, He takes the hand of those who don’t know the way Isaiah 42, When we’re in over our heads he’s there with us Isaiah 43, it was our pains He carried…..and I could go on & on right through scripture. He’s always been on a rescue mission we just better make sure we’re not the ones people need rescuing from. Christ in us the hope of glory, (His very life in us!) we are Christ’s representatives here on earth. When it gets dark, like really truly proper dark it’s hard to see God, you need someone who sees, someone to stand with you.
Judgement on the suffering of others provides a cop out to people unwilling to lift a finger to help. That’s why they love this stuff. A day is coming the timing is God’s. I think more and more lately about what what would happen if Christ turned up to the church today……and then I begin to think about the final restoration of all things when the broken images of Christ in us, in the least of these will be fully restored. When the first will be last, and the last first.
Well said! Piper actually oozes with lack of empathy so this should not surprise anyone.
This particular post was by a different author, but maybe it doesn’t make any difference.
I haven’t read the DG article so I don’t know anything aside from what has been said here, but it makes me think about a few things.
It’s very taboo in most Christian circles to help others when such is considered “enabling”.
Allow me to offer what I know. The whole, ‘don’t be an enabler’ came about in response to drug addicts and alcoholics. The non-provision of additional cash was done in hopes of preventing the raging drug addict/alcoholic from being able to purchase another hit, another bottle of whiskey. Cash was denied out of fear of the drug addict dying from his next hit. The alcoholic dying from the next bottle of liquor.
So many Christians have now taken that ‘don’t be an enabler’ mindset and applied it everywhere, with everything, to everyone (or nearly that). This is usually in combination with a strong ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ belief system, too.
I feel like this ’empathy is sin’ kind of teaching goes along with the ‘don’t require help’ ‘helping is enabling’ ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ kinds of worldviews.
Jesus healed all sorts of people. He did it without giving them a brow-beating lecture about how they came to be so needy in the first place, if they are going to now ‘straighten up and fly right’ and above all ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.’
It feels like it’s in the same vein as those who are wealthy, blessed with good genes, good health, and all sorts of other privileges, they then look down on and judge with disgust, the street beggars and wonder why the street beggars don’t stop being lazy and get a job already. Same goes for those who live in slums. Privileged people wonder why they don’t ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’ and get themselves out of the slums. And wrongly conclude ‘they must like living in filth’ since people continue to languish in slums. But money doesn’t grow on trees. There is rampant sexism, racism, classism, ableism, looks-ism, etc. that denies so many equal opportunities in life.
I’m rambling but I really hate it when the privileged start in on ’empathy is sin’ and ‘don’t enable’ and ‘the unfortunate/poor/traumatized/chronically ill/etc. are just manipulative, lazy handout seekers who need ‘tough love”
Such an excellent, helpful comment. Thank you.
Thanks, Rebecca. I also thought about the Bible verse where it says that we are to not add anything nor subtract anything from the Bible. And I don’t remember God’s Holy Word saying “empathy is sin” anywhere in the Bible. Why don’t I remember such? Because it’s man-made teaching. It’s not from the Bible.
I am afraid to misquote the Bible and yet this ‘Desiring God’ person is making up all new commandments and creating all new sins? No fear in doing so? And language matters. In and of itself, “Desiring God” primes the reader to consider this person’s words as being ‘desiring God’ and biblical and Christian. But they aren’t. I don’t detect any trembling. I haven’t read this person’s posts nor will I reward him/them with my web-traffic.
I too thought about this or that as being sin and then I read something on Pastor Powell’s blog, where he pointed out that the Ten Commandments laid out the Law and our sins are when we break those laws. There is no law in the Ten Commandments about empathy, therefore, in saying empathy is sin, this Desiring God guy is showing himself to be a counterfeit and his words are dangerous. He is not God and he should not be followed since he doesn’t even bother trembling with fear from the idea of putting words into God’s mouth, when he claims something is sin when it’s not, and such isn’t from the Bible. Makes me think of the blind leading the blind.
And also possibly ‘itchy ears’ eager to hear that it isn’t necessary for them to be empathetic toward the less fortunate. — The lucky and privileged never do like to acknowledge their privilege, nor their luck. Those who supposedly ‘made it’ a rags-to-riches story of success, they don’t acknowledge their privileges and luck. There are people all over the world that work 2-4 jobs, breaking their backs, slave labor conditions, but because of where they were born, caste systems, etc. they’ll live all their lives in the situation.
Even here in the U.S., much depends on who knows you, the color of your skin, if you are male, and also your looks. There are studies about discrimination about names, people’s facial structure, and obviously sex-based discrimination.
There are so many components that go into anyone’s ‘success’. And even with that, intelligence is a God-given gift. No baby ‘works hard’ and births their own superior intellect. It’s a talent, a gift, a lucky thing to have, that God gave. And nutrition, absence of trauma, non-stressed parents, etc. favor those born into privilege, which helps them further their advantages.
At any rate, I’m thoroughly disgusted at so many men who claim to be men of God (and I’m assuming this Desiring God site is run by a man) and they write all these ‘Christian living’ books and create all these man-made rules and then act as though such is from God. But it’s their man-made works and men’s traditions, etc.
Don’t add or subtract anything from God’s Holy Word. Everyone ought to stand in reverence and be too scared to pass off additional, man-made theories and traditions as being of God when they are not. Seems that such is adding to God’s Holy Word and is expressly banned.
I used to teach high needs high school students. Many had trauma and PTSD in addition to the normal self-absorption of adolescence. What I learned was that empathy was the key to positive action. If I could sit with their feelings, acknowledge them, feel at least part of them, if the students felt “seen” by me, then I could ask them to imagine one small step they could make to improve a situation. Then we could brainstorm ways to make that step happen. You can’t expect someone to bootstrap their way out of a situation that you won’t acknowledge is real in the first place.
Exactly, we really do need to fully immerse and feel the person’s suffering briefly, so that we can know best how to help. The writer essentially denied that unpleasant or painful emotions are a part of life, and denied the fact that most often empathy followed by prayer is the most best thing you can do!
Brava! for the pushback!
How can I say this?
There really is no nice way to call out a sick and twisted religion (desiring god) for what it is.
To use a metaphor, the people in slavery to it groan under the lash of its taskmasters.
And like Emma Lazarus’s huddled masses, they yearn to breathe free.
They just don’t know it yet.
Out of the mouth, from the heart. What a great revelation into the true heart of this ministry, and the man behind it. The mask comes off as the the hateful spewing against those closest to the heart of the Great Shepherd is revealed – the oppressed, enslaved, helpless, and reviled. What a way to turn the tables to make righteous his own great sin of lacking what makes humans so like the image of God – His compassionate heart.
“Leaving the church in droves…” I can’t even enter a church these days without weeping these days. In my first church as an adult, I left with a broken heart after 20 years of serving in numerous capacities. When my beloved nephew whom I brought to church after he was stabbed in a domestic dispute (yes, drugs were involved), we were ostracized. He also had a little boy who was three years old at the time and I had my hands full “showing compassion” for them and my church attendance became sporadic. Three months after the stabbing, my nephew committed suicide and I was shaken to my core. I missed five weeks of church. When I returned, I found that my positions had been filled by other members, and that my Pastor (of 20 years) father had died and no one had even notified me. This was a church where my abusive ex-husband had been made an elder and treasurer, by the way. I had had enough.
After I recovered a little, I decided to try attending a church in our neighborhood. It was a small Baptist church and we were received with open arms and began attending regularly. I got to sing solos and enjoyed the teachings and people. Fast forward a year later I separate from my ex and continue to attend. When I left I had only a part time job, and within seven months was laid off and was denied unemployment because I hadn’t worked enough weeks to be eligible for it. I had an apartment, bills, and NO income for three months. During those three months I continued to attend church faithfully. NOT ONCE was I invited to a fellow church member’s home for a meal, nor did I ever receive so much as one can or bag of food.
In fact, other friends outside the church offered me work dog sitting, painting and fed me many meals. One a Hindu and one an atheist, among others.
I have visited my daughter’s church on multiple occasions in the five years since my divorce, and never once has anyone, ever, approached me or spoken to me outside of the greeters at the door. And this after filling out three visitor cards (on the last one I wrote “I desperately need help and prayer”).
I love God and He is my hope and assurance, but the church, not so much.
Thank you Rebecca from the bottom of my heart for helping me, and I know countless others to feel “seen and heard.”
Oh, Debbie, I’m weeping reading this. It shakes me to the core, as have so many similar stories. What is the church supposed to be? And then, what is it in actuality? The two descriptions seem unutterably disparate. I can’t tell you how sorry I am for what you’ve experienced.
Thank you <3
As someone who has, for study, read about several religions such as, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Gnosticism etc (while standing firm in my in my faith as a Syrian Orthodox Christian), I can say this about the article in question:
This was the first religious text I’ve ever read that made my very soul vomit in disgust.
I’m the last person to wildly throw around the H-word, but John Piper from Desiring (to be) God is a full blown heretic.
But don’t take my word for it, read the Bible:
“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” —1 John 4:19-21
Without empathy, love is self-serving, selfish, false. John Piper, judging him by his words/fruits, is a lot like the Scribes. Callous and self-serving. If he is incapable of loving his brother, then he is incapable of loving God.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” — Matthew 7:21
“Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
And as another commenter wrote:
“Is this what happens when a sociopath or narcissist tries to define empathy?”
From my study understanding of psychology, yes it most likely is. His writing is so incoherent and delusional that it oozes narcissism. Which is a shame, because that means he is unlikely to repent… I hope he does though, for the sake of all the people he’s leading right into the hands of Satan.
I am surprised that no comment I see on here (could be wrong?) exists offering any sympathetic examination of Rigney’s article. For the benefit of echo chamber relief, here is one such comment. I am hopeful you will allow it to be publicly readable, in a spirit of open, gracious discussion.
I largely agree with Rigney’s point of view. A picture is painted here that Rigney would “interrogate or to make demands” of a “sufferer”, rather than just “[bringing in] a cup of cold water, [making] some sandwiches, [sitting] and [listening].” I disagree. He may in fact (as I would, and I hold to his view), do precisely what you are suggesting he would not.
What is in view here is the idea that a Christian should not give up their own feelings of “hope, joy, or faith,” to “empathize” with someone who is experiencing despair; those feelings of hope are good. At the same time, Godly conduct toward such a person suffering might warrant feeling some of their feelings of grief, but never by refusing to ever speak or entirely giving up any of our own emotions to the contrary.
When Rigney says that people who are suffering “make two demands” (being noticed and not being made to feel like a burden), that is because of the sin in us all. I agree that those are human tenancies. By suggesting these are our tendencies, Rigney is not compelling us to back away from those who are suffering. He is suggesting we engage them wisely, that we recognize (not necessarily call out) sin in them so that we can discern how to love and counsel them.
It is possible to recognize people who are suffering are susceptible to sin and to love them. In fact, it is the best way to love them.
I pray that God will give us all discernment in how to lovingly, honorably, truthfully, and Biblically relate to others in the midst of suffering.
Thank you for taking the time to provide your alternate perspective. You may have noticed in the “echo chamber” above that I had a conversation on Twitter with the author of the DG article in which I acknowledged that people who have what is commonly called borderline personality disorder (thought by many to be an attachment disorder related to early childhood) might do just those negative behaviors that the author describes. But he didn’t say “some” people in need engage in this bewildering activity of desiring and repelling help at the same time (and it is truly bewildering and difficult–I know first hand). He indicated that this is the way sufferers across the board can be expected to act.
And for the record, I also have strong feelings of compassion for people with personality disorders caused by attachment disorders in early childhood, because in many cases I know firsthand about their childhood trauma (for example, having been used for heinous child torture pornography by their fathers while their mothers acted complacent), but while we’re showing compassion to them, they do need super clear boundaries to be delineated.
But that is not what he said. Of the many sufferers I know (and maybe your experience with child trafficking survivors, child pornography survivors, and domestic abuse survivors has been different), only a small percentage of them respond in a way that could be labeled borderline personality disorder. If the DG author had written about that phenomenon alone, and had written about it in a way that showed compassion, there would have been no argument. But then, that would have been an entirely different article.
Wow, thank you sooooo much for this article! I stumbled upon the DesiringGod article you talked about about maybe 10 minutes ago in my search to find something that would comfort me in my suffering, and got off the internet for a while out of disgust. (I couldn’t even get through the beginning of that article) I wrote a starting of a poem lamenting and longing for someone to show me empathy. Then I gave up and came back on and found your response. Thank you for showing what true empathy is and how sufferers aren’t demanding at all. In fact, I believe most sufferers, including myself, try to hide away in their pain, silently bearing their burdens alone. I hide my feelings to avoid rejection. I learned from alot of rejection what can happen when I voice my hurts and struggles to people. And ironically, these confidants were/are Christians. Most of the empathy I have seen in people has been from non-Christians. Even people with various mental disorders have the ability to show empathy and have big hearts for those who are suffering. I wish there were more articles and written material out there about the empathy of God. In my suffering, I long for His affirmation and comfort and to know He is looking at me with tear-filled eyes and wrapping me in His arms when I cry my heart out to Him. Thank you for speaking out about this and not following the crowd. I hope more people read your article and are blessed by the truth within your words.
I’m so sorry for what you’ve endured at the hands of so-called Christians, Rachel, and pray that there will be Christians in your life who will want to show you His empathy and compassion.
That’s not a bad idea to write about the empathy of God. I’ll put it on my list.
This makes the decision to remove christians from society so much easier.
I didn’t know that deciding to remove Christians from society was a thing.
That’s a bad decision. If they don’t really know Jesus, “Christians” stuck in false beliefs need to be given the real gospel. If they know Jesus, they need to truly follow Him. But they should no sooner be removed from society than anyone of any other beliefs.
All I can say is THANK YOU
Ouch, that passage about sufferers’ “demands” is brutal. I can’t decide if the author was abused by a suffering person or if he’s projecting his own actions onto everyone else. Either way, it’s very cold. And not at all good for someone like me, who IS health-wealthy and, to be frank, scared of others’ pain.
My close friends lost their son suddenly 2 years ago. He grew up with my kids and was my daughter’s best friend. I had no choice but to walk through that pain with them. I’m grateful I could be there for them. And no thanks to nasty articles like this which mischaracterize my friends and give me no way to “be Christ” to them.
Sorry, I’m writing my own post here. Thank you for your response to a terrible, sinful perspective.
Yes, cold and uncaring and unwilling to be educated about trauma and suffering.
I’m very thankful you were there for your friends. That is what compassion and empathy are all about.
I couldn’t comprehend where this garbage comes from about empathy being sinful but I remembered stoic philosophy teaches one should have no passions as God has no passions.
Yes, I think that stoic philosophy must be playing a part here. It certainly isn’t the way the Hebrews lived.
“I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.
When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.”
If no one had come along side of me as you and others did Rebecca, and shown empathy, I would still be wandering in despair and depression.
If empathy is a sin, then why would God give people the gift of discernment to be able to see the deep hurt in others and to reach out to them. It has taken me years but I’m far enough in my healing journey from my abuse to be able to reach out to others. I’d never have gotten here without the empathy of others who listened to the Lord.
This is beautiful, Donna! Thank you!
Why don’t you listen to the video btwn Joe and Doug Wilson? It might shed more light for you
Thanks. That video hadn’t been made at the time this blog post was written.
[…] just as in my previous blog post about this topic, where the real issue lay not with where we agreed but with where we disagreed, so is the case here […]
I think this says it all: “[Sufferers] tend to make two demands that are impossible to fulfill simultaneously. On the one hand, they want people to notice the depth of their pain and sorrow—how deep they are in the pit, how unique and tragic their circumstances. At the same time, they don’t want to be made to feel that they really need the assistance of others. In one breath, they say, “Help me! Can’t you see I’m suffering?” and in the next they say, “How dare you act as though I needed you and your help?””
Are these demands really impossible to fulfill for normal people? I don’t think so. Think of the woman crossing the street with great difficulty. I think it would be completely normal for such a woman to want compassion for the trials she faces getting around, and yet want to take every advantage of her limited mobility by walking herself. Would we say that she should only get compassion should she be willing to be pushed around in a wheelchair? It makes no sense.
It is also the typical Reformed/Evangelical equivocation/cognitive dissonance. Piper himself says that the wife should suffer abuse for a night. In that, he is saying. DON’T ASK FOR HELP. SUFFER. Yet, his crony at the same time is saying that suffering is not valid unless you are asking for help. Cognitive dissonance. In the same way, Mr. “Seminary President” academic refuses to acknowledge that the base word of “Sympathy” is “same suffering” – it’s a word ROOTED in feelings saying that empathy _unlike sympathy_ “shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings” is academic dishonesty. He is making a distinction between the words that does not exist.
Very good thoughts. Thank you.
I have not read the original article from Desiring God, so I will begin there. However, Rebecca, I am troubled by the tone of the article as you have shared it. I write as one who has buried a child, a mother, and a wife. In two of these particular circumstances, I had people come along side, members of the tribe of lost children, and lost spouses, who showed compassion and care. They were filled with empathy, as they understood the particular pain bound up in such losses. I identify those who understand through personal experience, as people who possess empathy; they know the road. While knowing nothing about the author, I wonder how much of their thought is their take on cold theology, devoid of human emotion, which certain streams of theological thought tend to do. I do not say this to denigrate theology, as I am a writer and teacher who deals with theological issues, but theology was made for humans, not humans for theology. I wonder specifically whether this person has ever truly suffered, or by God’s mercy, has thus far been shielded from what many others endure. When my wife was ill, and after her death, another believer came along side to walk and grieve with me in ways no one could who had mere sympathy. He knew the road. His empathy has been a divine gift. I think, based upon your quotations from the DG article, that that author is totally missing the point. And, maybe missing grace to split a theological hair. In Hebrews Jesus is identified as the one who has entered into all aspects of human life and pain; still he is sinless, perfect. Yet, unbroken as we are not, he still invites us to the throne of grace in a time of need; he draws us in. He invites us in, sans a cold lecture of ‘theology’. I wonder if the author has read Psalm 88? I recommend a book by Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty.
Thank you so much, Brian. I ache for you in your losses as one who cannot fully know what you’ve experienced. I very much appreciate your thoughts, especially these pithy words, reminiscent of our Master: “Theology was made for humans, not humans for theology.”
Thanks for your review of this article. It just occurred to me, that along with all the other problems, this really is a silly false dichotomy, which I highly doubt he would apply across the board. For example, taking “honesty” as a sample virtue, if I go around rudely (but accurately) telling people how unattractive and overweight they are, I am not engaging in the “sin of honesty.” I may be being honest, but I am failing to balance honesty with, among other things, compassion (not to mention that I would almost certainly have sinful motivations, assuming I wasn’t neurodivergent). I would likely be sinning, but the sin would be the sin of unkindness, not honesty.
Likewise if (hypothetically speaking) I am spending all my time waiting for my small children to obey me and not doing anything about their dawdling lazy tendencies, I am not engaging in the “sin of patience.” I may be being patient but I am also being irresponsible – the solution is not to be less patient per se but to act in a way which is truly in my children’s best interests. I would need to repent of irresponsibility, or perhaps laziness, but not my patience. To give into the sinful demands of others as he describes, might be weakness, people-pleasing, or lovelessness, but it is not the “sin of empathy.”
And yes I know the word empathy is not used in most Bible translations but “weep with those who weep” is pretty hard not to read as a command, not just to verbally acknowledge, but to actually enter into the negative emotions of others.
Excellent, excellent observations! Thank you so much!
Hi, I have read both the DG and this post :). Thank you for your sharing! May I suggest that the point of disagreement is in the differences of the definition of “empathy”.
The author defined empathy as the following:
Personally, I think the author is trying to guard us against a dangerous, unbiblical type of “empathy. The type of empathy that makes me the source of strength, not God. The type of empathy that “loses completely” in someone else’s feelings and excuses sin and rebellion. The type of empathy that places “all” the focus on feelings and not on truth.
In truth though, I believe the empathy you’re advocating is not like that. That is why I say I see you and the author on the same page, with only a different understanding of the term/ definition of empathy. On this, I agree with the author of the DG article, that we should guard against this kind of empathy.
The point of disagreement I think: is that you believe not all sufferers should be caricatured like that. And I would agree. I believe it would be more helpful if the author, did not relate to “sufferers” as a whole and generalised everyone suffering as one who opined for an unconditional understanding and affirmation for their sin. Personally, on this point, I agree with your view. Because, not everyone who suffers suffers like that. David did not, Paul did not.
In conclusion, I believe as we love the Lord more, he will give us more grace to find a balance, to know how to address different types of sufferers in a Christ loving, Bible honoring way.
I thank you for this blog, I see the love and grace of God guiding this. Even allowing for loving disagreements in the Lord yet complete respect for our brethren. May Jesus be glorified and may He really help us to know and do His will always.
Thank you, Christalone. If Rigney had said that empathy can lead to sin, that would have been a completely different matter and I would never have written a rebuttal. But he did not. He said that empathy is a sin.
An emotion in and of itself is neither righteous nor unrighteous. But Rigney made it clear that he believes that empathy is a sinful emotion. I would argue that the disagreement he and I have is a fundamental one.
Thanks for the prompt reply :). I would like to still stand by my point though: the “empathy” he speaks against is not true empathy- but one that is not reliant on Christ, completely lost in someone else’s feelings etc. In that he condemns this “empathy” as a sin, I agree with it.
However, true empathy, as a true biblical value (weeping with those who weep etc) still stands as a true Biblical command. To love, to bear our brother’s burdens, all are clear. The question is how.
I think Rigney addresses the how, by showing us some pitfalls of what “false empathy” can bring in his article and they are very real. By telling us in empathy we should hold to a tree (probably referring to God and His word) and pull our brother out of the swamp (where they are). We cannot be blind leading the blind, or jumply “blindly” into the swamp, so to speak. It is unfortunate that he condemns all of empathy though, through his sweeping condemnation.
I think if he used the term “false empathy” it would have been much better for many readers. For every virtue there is a counterfeit 🙂
Do continue this conversation if you feel you want to, I feel I am being sharpened by it and I have alot more to learn :). As always, I want to say I do not have all the answers, and I may be wrong.
But the Lord Jesus be glorified 🙂
Im too lazy to reply to someone else, but just wanna say to my fellow brethren its ok to disagree, but may we do so in love. I see some people condemning DG here, calvinists, John Piper as a heretic etc. For the record, I am a calvinist, worshipping in an arminian church. Yes, I was saved in an arminian church, for the Word was preached there too. Arminians like Wesley, I recognise that while we may differences theologically, these are secondary and he is a brother. What matters if we are truly known by the Lord. So please, let us not condemn those whom the Lord has bought with His blood. Thank you
I am exvangelical and not a believer anymore. Before I lost my faith I tried to find groups of christians who actually followed Jesus. Because I deeply agree with most of his direct teachings. I watch the church of today cause so much harm and damage and its a relief to see someone immediately rebut this horrific view point who is a believer too. It stuns me that anyone can take this attitude towards suffering. Yikes.
Thank you for writing, Savvy. From my blog you might guess that it’s heartbreaking to me that you’ve lost your faith in the Lord, but I can understand why, when so much teaching that purports to be Christian has gone off the rails so horribly. I agree that much damage is being done by many who call themselves Christians, as well as others who are doing indirect damage by being passive.
“It stuns me that anyone can take this attitude towards suffering.” I agree with you wholeheartedly. To think that teaching empathy as a sin is a Christian teacher’s claim to fame! And these are they who claim to follow the Great Shepherd who tenderly cares for His sheep. It appears . . . diabolical. And I don’t use that term lightly.
Savvy, I’ve written about you (not you specifically, but you generically), because I’ve written about how people are turning from the faith because of these hard-hearted ones who call themselves Christians but don’t follow Jesus in His kindness and compassion for the wounded and oppressed. And because I’ve prayed for those who have left the faith as a result of the wrong teachings and actions of those who claim to be Christians, that means I’ve prayed for you too.
God bless you.
Empathy is the inherent quality that allos us to feel sympathy
I am not a Christian myself – and I know this is from a couple years ago – but this article was a wonderful read. I was very disturbed by the article being critiqued here; I feel it was all too emblematic of a certain loud sector of believers who put praise of God before his teachings, when the Christians in my life have shown me that the faith is instead much more importantly about the connection and kindness to others that Jesus displayed. It’s very encouraging to see Christians like yourself who are willing to call out articles like this and critique them; and show instead exactly what’s important in life.
All the best, Josie
Thank you, Josie. I would love for you to know Jesus as He really is, rather than as some have presented Him to be. All the best to you.
YES! Thank you for clarifying the misinterpretation of the word empathy. I just read the Desiring God article and felt physically sick to my stomach. Your article gave me hope.
I’m thankful for that. A chapter addressing empathy is also going into my upcoming book “Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind: Book 3 Your Words Your Emotions.”
When Is your new book coming out?
It came out yesterday (with a chapter about empathy), and you can see it here: https://amzn.to/3bBMXQw
I’ll be sending out an email to all my subscribers later this week when the ebook version will be available as a free download for a short time.
You can follow here for more timely updates: https://www.facebook.com/Rebecca-DavisUntwisting-Scriptures-106852598281521
As someone whose son passed away–I will tell you that people often perceive my tears as wanting attention or wanting to get them to act. When in fact my tears are just there. When you cry in public–people compare themselves to you. If they would never let themselves be seen crying in public–They make up stories about why you would. -I often avoid public gatherings where the Word will be preached–because sometimes the topics of Suffering, What heaven is like, and Christs care–make me weep -Which then leads back to some believing that I am not recovering at a fast enough rate or that I must cry like that all the time. I have thankfully been a Christian for many years and have seen how little care I gave to people suffering–i just didn’t know any better until my son passed away. Putting boundaries on someone who is actually demanding your attention is understandable–but any other assumption about someones behavior or progress during their trial–is simply not what my Jesus would do. And lastly I see alot of Christians who reach out to others–without having Asked Jesus if this is even their job. They then aren’t equipped to deal with someone who is going through what I am–and they get frustrated at the person–When they never should have volunteered to support the person if they were going to get angry.
So tragic, and I’m so very sorry for the loss of your son, Nicole. God bless you.
Sad that there’s so little Jesus in American Christianity. Perhaps that’s why so many are walking away. It’s entirely lacking in fruit of the spirit.
One big fact that all empaths should always keep in mind: narcissistic and evil people are unable to understand the good but also the evil they practice. They are dead inside and I believe God let them in their crazy mind to believe the lie and to not discern the truth
Good point. Thank you!
[…] the exception of my main evergreen post (“Why Did David Lift His Eyes to the Hills,” which always outranks all my other posts by far), this year’s most popular post was one I wrote […]
[…] “Desire to Sin,” saying ““It’s a bummer if someone’s dealing with church hurt and you hand him a stack of apologetics books to read. Those same books will be useless if, beneath the surface, he really just wants to justify his sin.” It would be almost unbelievable to me to think that a stack of apologetics books would be useful for someone dealing with betrayal by the church. (But of course, we dare not be empathetic, lest we encourage him or her in sin, right?) […]
This article is just what I’m looking for. Thanks for speaking up, Rebecca!
I’m thankful it’s helpful.
Actually, there is a Law in the Commandments which concerns empathy, there’s two, actually. The First commandment and the second commandment.
1) You shall have no other gods
2) You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Understanding the meaning of these commandments helps one understand how empathy, when misapplied or abused, breaks them, and not only them, but all others.
The first commandment means that we should fear, love and trust God above all things. When we place anything ahead of God and trust it to provide for us, it becomes our god. And whenever we’re breaking any other commandment, we are also breaking this one. We wouldn’t steal if we believe God provides for us. We would lie if we believe God protects our reputations. We wouldn’t commit adultery if we believe God takes care of our bodily needs. I could go on.
The second commandment means that we should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Thus, when we misuse the Scripture, misinterpret the Scripture, teach our own opinions about the Scripture rather than teaching what it plainly and objectively says, when we use God’s name to make promises — especially those we cannot or will not keep — when we use His name to curse and hurt others, we are abusing His holy name.
Now here is where empathy can become sinful very quickly, and it’s in two ways:
First, when we compromise God’s Word for the sake of trying to help someone. An example of this might be showing permissiveness toward a person who harbors a false belief, but being permissive because of past struggles or loss. For example, I know of a person who outright rejects Baptismal Regeneration and infant baptism because he had a cousin who, years ago, died in an accident and was not baptized. Should I compromise God’s clear Word and teaching just to show empathy and thus allow the person to remain in his false belief? Or here’s another one. I know of a person who recently lost his wife. He hasn’t been active in my or any church in over 25 years. He has not been taught the Christian faith in accordance with my church’s doctrine. Say he comes to church the Sunday after his wife passes away and walks up to the Holy Communion rail. For the sake of empathy, should I commune him, even though I have seen him only a couple of times, he’s never been through adult catechism, and has not joined the church?
This alone is sinful because it is putting empathy before God, as if empathy is more important than God and His Word. But it also breaks the second commandment because it results in the person receiving this unrighteous empathy remaining unrepentant and in his sin. We abuse God and His Word for the sake of emotions. This is very postmodern…but it isn’t Christian.
Thus, though there isn’t a commandment which specifically says, “thou shalt show empathy,” it is pretty clear that anything, empathy included, which puts something before God or which abuses His holy name, is sin, and we should NEVER want another person to be enslaved to sin — even for the sake of empathy. Yes, empathy can be sinful, and often of the worst kind…because the person doing thinks it’s out of love. Jesus exhibited empathy when appropriate (adulterous woman, for example) but he also showed indifference and even hostility when appropriate (interactions with Peter and Judas, for example, not to mention the clearing of the Temple, the Pharisees, and even the crowds when they were pleading for food and he refused to give it because of their hard hearts and foolish understanding). Yeah, it resulted in many followers leaving Him, but you know what? Truth and faithfulness to God and His Word is more important than feelings and trying to therapize a person to Jesus.