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.
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
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.