Is Empathy Still a Sin? The Joe Rigney / Hannah Anderson Conversation

Last week Alistair Roberts hosted Joe Rigney, the new president of Bethlehem College & Seminary and author of multiple books, alongside Hannah Anderson, author of multiple books.

They disagreed about empathy, and did so amicably. That part was refreshing.

But I confess, some parts of the conversation were befuddling to me.

Yes, empathy is definitely still a sin, according to Joe Rigney

Empathy is always sinful, according to Joe Rigney, because (1) it sets aside all judgment of rightness and wrongness (as Brené Brown recommends), and (2) the empathetic person gets down in the quicksand with the sufferer instead of staying safely on the shore and casting out a rope.

I agree we should stay stable while helping others. If in my work with extreme abuse survivors, I get pulled in or overwhelmed by the extreme nature of the evil perpetrated against them, I won’t be helpful to them or anyone else.

And I agree we should still be alert to “righteous judgment” when we’re helping the sufferer (even though we might wait for a more opportune time to express it). If a confused child trafficking survivor tells me she has positive memories of being with her father in a sexual way, then it’s right for me to speak firm truth to her about that matter.

But 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 two years later. Though I’d like to respond to much more of this conversation, I’ll keep my points limited.

Do feelings become gods in the evangelical church?

In the podcast conversation Joe said,

Given their negative harmful experiences in the church, people find solace in other communities, where empathy is elevated, so empathy becomes an unassailable, unalloyed virtue.

So then you say, “I want the care. I want Christlike compassion and care for sufferers.” But then the other side of that is we live in a moment where people’s . . .feelings and passions are elevated as god, right? So then empathy is used as a way of getting other people’s feelings to become god. . . .

Elsewhere in the interview, Joe said that he was writing and speaking for the typical Desiring God audience, Reformed conservative evangelical Christians.

This audience is in danger of making feelings into gods?

Not even once in all my experience working with people coming out of these very churches have I seen that. This is not a danger in the Reformed conservative evangelical churches.

Rather, the opposite is the danger. Many times I’ve had conversations with those who are completely numb and shut down because that was the way they handled their abuse, or who say “My feelings will lead me astray” or “I don’t trust my feelings.”

Joe, it seems that in the world to which you are taking your so-urgent message, the enemy you have chosen doesn’t exist.

I appreciate how Hannah Anderson challenged the very paradigm from which Rigney was speaking.

If the world is dividing these two things [sympathy and empathy]—and they shouldn’t be divided—we’re going to reject the paradigm that’s being delivered to us the way it’s been framed.

So you’re right that there’s this narrative in pop psychology that empathy is the better virtue. But you’re just flipping it and saying that sympathy is the better virtue. It seems like accepting a false paradigm and then operating within it.

And I would think that maybe our Christian imagination would give us a way to deconstruct what needs to be deconstructed to build an entirely different way to talk about these things.

The logical flaw of comparing apples and oranges

Joe said,

People strongly reacted to my criticism of empathy, and yet I’ve seen some of those same critics turn around and write very critically about evangelicals empathizing with Ravi Zacharias. And I want to say, exactly, I agree, but when you see someone, when the Ravi story breaks, when some pastors are trying to understand him, that was anathema at all levels. That shouldn’t be your first reaction at all, precisely for the reason that empathy is not a universal good.

Well, I don’t know how many people were both exposing Rigney’s empathy message and also exposing the very disturbing Gospel Coalition response to the RZ story, but one of them would be me.

But Rigney has drawn a false comparison where no true comparison exists.

We should have empathy/sympathy/compassion/care for those who are suffering.

But Ravi Zacharias never gave any indication he was suffering under the weight of his mammoth sin. None. Zilch. Even when he knew he was dying and would have to face the God he preached.

This alone, perhaps more than anything else, made the Gospel Coalition identification with him (I wouldn’t call it “empathy”) so disturbing.

In empathy, we identify with the person’s suffering. (While staying grounded in Jesus Christ and not being overwhelmed by it.)

But The Gospel Coalition identified with the sin. Joe and I agree that this is wrong.

These two issues are completely dissimilar, so I am puzzled as to why a scholar would seek to draw a comparison between them.

I must have been sinning

Joe said,

People have told me, “The way people are reacting [to your teaching about empathy], they’re proving your point.”

The only thing I could take from this is that people like me, who responded to his teachings by thinking empathy was good and he shouldn’t mock the sufferers, were sinning.

And I can picture many college students and seminarians being primed to refuse to truly listen with understanding to the confused cries of the abuse survivors I work with, using as their excuse that they don’t want to sin through empathy.

Joe wants to declare words but not “wrangle” about them

Joe said,

I don’t want to wrangle about words. I’m concerned about substance. I’ve criticized those dynamics under the word empathy, and sometimes I’ve done that when I wasn’t talking about empathy. I don’t want to wrangle about words.

If Joe hadn’t been teaching “empathy is a sin”—basing all this teaching on the meaning of one single word—I most likely never would have been aware of what he wrote nor would have responded to it two years ago.

So it is words that Joe is emphasizing, essentially saying, “We shouldn’t have empathy. We should have sympathy/compassion.”

I appreciated Hannah’s response:

At the same time you’re saying it doesn’t matter what words we use, there are parts of the argument that the entire foundation for the argument between sympathy and empathy is based on word choice. . . . To say words matter, really, really matter. But they don’t really matter when we’re just talking about the substance.

So it’s confusing, eh?

I would be thrilled to find pastors with genuine sympathy and compassion, who truly want to help the hurting, even if it costs them. But I believe that telling them to reject empathy will not help that matter, as they are simply going to mock people like me who speak against this teaching from the basis of helping survivors of extreme abuse.

I’ve known empathetic husbands

Through prayer ministry and informal counseling, I’ve worked with many childhood abuse and trafficking survivors. My goal is to help them know who Jesus really is and seek healing through Him from trauma wounds caused by sometimes nearly inconceivable diabolical abuse.

Our Lord Jesus comes to them and shows them His love and care and brings healing bit by bit.

A few of the women I’ve worked with have supportive husbands. That is, the husbands want to understand what their wives endured and help in any way they can. Their desire and capacity to truly understand varies, but they are good men who don’t want to just walk away.

We might say that these men have empathy. Maybe Joe would describe them has having compassion. At this point it doesn’t matter to me what word is used; what matters is that they care and want to help. They love their wives and are kind. They want to listen (to varying degrees, depending on their capacity). To whatever extent they’re able, they enter in to the pain, not to stay and be immobilized by it, but to try to wrap their minds and hearts around what their wives endured.

As Hannah emphasized over and over in the conversation, these men want to live with their wives with understanding.

Of the child trafficking survivor and domestic abuse survivor women I’ve worked with, a far, far greater number of them had husbands who did not want to help, but instead took advantage of them based on the brainwashing and/or trauma they had already endured.

This behavior was sanctioned and protected by their churches pastored by the Reformed evangelical conservatives that are Joe Rigney’s audience.

These women are not ones I’ve simply received an occasional email from. These are women I’ve spent scores and sometimes hundreds of hours with in person, listening to them and their children. The children . . . who more than anyone bear the fallout of a teaching that gives pastors such as these more ammunition than ever to harden their hearts.

Why is this the focus?

One of the overarching questions for me still is why, when exalting feelings as gods is such a non-issue in the Reformed evangelical churches, and when the victims and survivors of very serious abuse are all around us, why is “beware of empathy” the focus?

There has certainly not been a problem of “too much” empathy or “sinful” empathy from pastors for abuse survivors.

Rather, I have heard the opposite story again and again and again. Pastors end up standing with the abuser instead of the abused, and excommunicating the abused for lack of forgiveness or some such reason. I have written about this many times.

A plea

There is so much more to comment on, and Hannah did well responding to Joe’s statements. But I’ll close with this.

I would say, Joe, if you don’t want to argue the words but only the substance, as you said above, then drop the “empathy is a sin” language, which you yourself acknowledged is inflammatory and which I can bear witness is alienating the very people who most need to hear about the love of Jesus Christ.

Instead say something like “In your compassion/care/empathy/whatever you want to call it, be on guard for two dangers:

(1) Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the other person’s trauma. Stay grounded in Jesus Christ and keep good boundaries.

(2) Don’t set aside judgment, as Brené Brown tells you to do. After all,  though she may have some good ideas, they don’t always line up with Scripture.”

If you only want to argue substance, and you find that your words are alienating the people you say you want to help, then change your words.

And then go on to take up as your cause one of the very real crises in the Reformed conservative evangelical churches—perhaps the one in which young people are walking away from not only the church but from God Himself at alarming rates.

Do some hard listening to find out what’s really going on. You may find, as I have, that lying behind it is a lack of Christlike compassion in the church—perhaps even disguised as a fear of “sinful empathy.”

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Christine McKinney
Christine McKinney
5 months ago

“the words of Martin Luther, written during a plague ravaging the German people”
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus, perchance, inflict and pollute others and so cause their death by my negligence. If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me and I have done what He expected of me and so I am not responsible for  either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however, I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” 
  Luther’s Works: Volume 43, page 132

Christine McKinney
Christine McKinney
5 months ago

I think Martin Luther was empathetic!

Joe Meyers
Joe Meyers
5 months ago

In a church supposed evangelical the pastor kept like mocking people in the church who he said had pity parties telling them how bad they are and or stupid or sinning or that God is angry or not pleased with that! I heard this often as if a teaching almost and the pastor would express his disapproval by expression and since the attendees worshiped him seemingly this was not questioned or even discussed at all as far as i seen it. This is one matter that made me a Christian leave this church.

You had to be cautious in the community if you mentioned this or this pastor or doings because you can be branded as trouble.And people do not care if you are a good honest person either as they ignore your words or choose to and look to bring guilt on you or they show they are willing to do.

There are other things that were there too. Like just because the church had like well over 300 or 400 people it was not a great church as claimed but seemed like a hard core driven business that was trying to procure money to fund anything as money was important.The rich in the church were honored for being that but anybody poor was looked down on or you never saw them there / or there really are richer churches around that cater to such or secretly reject those who can only give 20.00 a week which used to be a lot at one time as many give 45.00 plus a week oddly.

Carmen Appleby
Carmen Appleby
5 months ago

Absolutely brilliant article!

Jesus wept when He was told Lazarus died. Even though Lazarus was to rise again. (To be fair, only God the father is all knowing, so we don’t know for sure Jesus knew that. Although maybe He did!)

empathy is not only natural but an appropriate response to sin

I have heard this type of teaching “don’t feel sorry for them, you will feed their self pity! They need to get over abuse in time and lots of empathy will keep them stuck!” Well as a survivor I needed that empathy as validation. Because the abuser kept telling me I was imagining it, that God was angry with me for ” feeling sorry for myself”

you are like a breath of fresh air, Rebecca! Keep up the fantastic blogs. Your words are healing to my soul

Catvand
Catvand
5 months ago

The realm of his experience must be very limited, if the most serious issue he finds worthy of discourse is the subtleties of difference between compassion & empathy. There is a Presbyterian youth pastor in this area who was thrilled with the series he was teaching his youth. Convinced it would be of life-long help to them. Something they for which they had dire need: the ability to choose a good hymn. My astonished thought was, “Sir, you are either extremely out of touch with the young ones for whom you care, or they are a highly unusual group.” How is it that “theologians” become so blind to the people around them? Jesus help!

Catvand
Catvand
5 months ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

“Complicated far beyond his understanding!” This!!! Yes. And often, far beyond the understanding of the victim. For so many years, I was at war with myself over this very idea of opposite/conflicting parts of me that I could not understand or reconcile- all due to abuse. I -and thousands of hours of religious-sounding but harmful sermons- heaped more pain upon myself by cutting off parts of myself/ labeling them as sinful/ etc. So very not helpful. Have you heard of Internal Family Systems? IFS? That & Immanuel Prayer is the only reason I am alive today. One by one, wading through all the conflicts. When I hear “theologians” spewing this sort of abuse out, it makes me nauseous.
Thank you for continuing to stand up & defend.

Sharon Roberts Radic
Sharon Roberts Radic
5 months ago

Well done, Rebecca. What you say is sound. Those who will listen to you and recognise good as good are the Church; those who love one another are the ones recognisable as disciples of Jesus.

I am long past recognising the institutional churches as The Church. Some disciples are found there, but the institutions are not The Church. They do not reflect the discipleship life Jesus spoke of, but an Old Covenant life that Constantine also wanted, to help maintain his power and control in his empire. It is not a picture of following Jesus the Messiah in freedom. Power and control in marriage reflects the power and control structures in institutional Church, where there is no ‘all one in Jesus, answerable directly to the King of kings’ but business structures and heirarchy.

Those that call good evil (empathy is a sin!?!) are at best not abiding with Jesus, and at worst…

Terra Edwards
Terra Edwards
5 months ago

Thank you Rebecca.

Kiley
Kiley
5 months ago

The Bible says,
Romans 12:15
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Ginger
Ginger
5 months ago

You pointed out the empathy that was shown to Ravi by TGC. These men have accepted positions as leaders. As such, it is their responsibility to put walls of accountability around themselves, realizing the enormous responsibility they bear. And then, when one of their own falls, deal with it with courage…don’t meedly-mouth around declaring how “it could have been me.” Good grief! What do you think the Apostle Paul would have said if he found out Peter had been raping, using and exploiting women. I’ll bet it wouldn’t be by hesitantly shaking his head saying how tempted they [men] all are. No. It would have probably been by denouncing his sin and calling out how he hurt those over whom he had charge. This is all so exhausting.

Amy Nazaire
Amy Nazaire
5 months ago

I may be taking this out of context, but Brene Brown actually is a church-going Christian.

Gordon
Gordon
3 months ago

I guess no one actually knows what empathy actually is.
Compassion the latin synonym for the greek sympathy. They literally both mean “suffering with”.

Empathy is nothing but experimental sympathy. It has turned into being used for a whinier, more simpering version of ‘sympathy’ when the word ‘sympathy’ became patronizing or shallow, according to those dissatisfied with the meaning of the word. But that usage is wrong and should not be embraced for any reason.

DesiringGod is once again slandering the faith, showing off their loopy and callous ’tism, perpetuating an old lie, and then feeling so happy with themselves for making the gospel as offensive as possible to the audience the gospel was never meant to offend. Jesus has always preferred the company of whores and tweakers over any of us.

A husband who was not abused cannot empathize with a wife who was. It is literally impossible. You can’t have empathy for what you have not remotely experienced.

When Sotomayor claimed to have empathy with the poor, she was lying, full stop. She helped destroy the meaning of the word fake her fake heart and all of the president’s slobbering worshippers in the media. She didn’t go through public schools, and she was never poor. She has no empathy to anyone save her own bubble.

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[…] Note: A follow-up article to this one is posted here. […]

Joseph Bell
Joseph Bell
30 days ago

I am no longer a believer. Part of how I got here is the amazing tone-deafness of Christian thought leaders as demonstrated by this ridiculous ’empathy’ dustup. Rigney et al have conflated a legitimate and nearly universal human experience with a political philosophy. For conservative believers, ‘woke-ism’ is an existential threat to the objective truths of divine revelation. And it’s true that ‘woke-ists’ like to invoke empathy as a substitute for objective truth, equally fallacious.

What is unfortunate is that the Desiring God folks cannot see they have actually bought the ‘woke’ definition of empathy. By conflating it with all they hate about the uber-subjectivists, they are accepting the political/philosophical baggage the ‘woke’ crew has added to the term. They are ceding the field to the Warriors of Woke, while simultaneously shooting themselves in the foot in terms of public relations.

But empathy minus all the political baggage just means you’re human, you can do more than sympathize, you can actually feel what another person feels. That basic human trait is the foundation of compassion. The absence of empathy is a marker for malignant narcissism and other extremely serious psychopathies.

So the inability of the Desiring God folks to parse this out casts a dark shadow over their emotional intelligence. How can they not know that the vast majority of the evil in the world is perpetrated in the name of a ‘higher cause’ that tramples down genuine suffering with unfeeling boots of steel? How might the Inquisition have turned out differently if only there had been more of empathy and less of ‘greater good’ self-righteousness? Could there have even been a holocaust if the grandiose dreams of a master race utopia had been set to a lower priority than mastering empathy?

But having been reformed and deeply Calvinistic myself at one point, I do bear some empathy toward these shrill judges of humanity. What is the model they admire most, but a deity who commanded mass slaughter of men women and children, who routinely displays an utterly heartless commitment to eradicating the ‘evil’ opposition, who stigmatizes natural human needs and desires as signs of depravity, in order to establish a beachhead for invasion of the human soul?

It was all too much for me. It was too much to see how that deity, taken honestly from the pages of the Bible, was truly lacking in empathy. Of course, the counterclaim is Jesus as the very epitome of empathy. And a true narcissist will always do that, claim to be the most empathetic person ever, hugely empathetic, while at the same time demanding worship on penalty of endless torture. For those of us recovering from that kind of abuse, it’s too much to handle. Like I said, that, and the lack of evidence any of it is real, is why I’m out. If you have no empathy, you’ve lost your humanity.