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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