Empathy is not a sin

Okay, so it’s one of those weird days on the internet again.  I’m trying to make sense of this guy’s tweet.

So, what does it matter Dave you ask? Some person is mouthing off on social media. It’s okay, their pastor will give them some Biblical counsel on Sunday when they pick up on it. But no, this guy is “the pastor” and not just the pastor of a church but a blogger, speaker and broadcaster with a large following.  He’s the kind of guy that the person who isn’t making it to church but is telling you “it’s okay because I listen to such and such a pastor’s podcasts” is listening to. So what they say matters

Now let’s back up a bit:  Sympathy is about

“feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”

You can sympathise with me because you pity my desperate situation as a Bradford City supporter having to watch our team languish in the bottom of league 2. You don’t need to follow football yourself even.  On a more serious level, you can have sympathy for the family who are going without food. You can pity them as you tuck into your three course meal in the comfort of your own home. 

Empathy is about

 “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

Now, notice that there are two parts of that.  The first is the ability to sense, to detect, to be alert to someone else’s feelings. It’s what we sometimes refer to as “emotional intelligence.”  It’s the quality that in preachers, teachers we refer to as the ability to read the room. 

It is possible to have sympathy without being able to read someone else’s emotions or to read the room. If I have sympathy then when you tell me that so-and-so is upset then I say “oh that is very sad.”  At that point I may well feel sad too.

Empathy includes not only the ability to recognise someone else’s emotion but to have a sense for what that feels like for them.  A long term supporter of Burnley, Brighton or Sheffield United should be able to empathise with me because they’ve been there, supporting their team down at the bottom even though they now enjoy Premier League Football. A Manchester City supporter may not have the actual memories of that but they may have the ability to empathise, to put themselves in my shoes and see life from my perspective imagining what it must be like to endure year on year of failure and disappointment.

In our more serious example, this means not simply feeling pity for the family with no food but being able to put ourselves in their shoes and to have a sense of what life is like for them. Of course, empathy on its own is not enough.  If I sit at home imagining being hungry or even go and sit with them at their house in order to share in their hunger at meal time, then that’s not much use at all.  I’m about as useful as the guy in James’ letter who says to the hungry “be blessed.” My empathy is meant to move me into action.

Now, this is important because in 1 Corinthians 12:26 Paul writes

26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.

There is an expectation that as one body we will share in our experiences and emotions together.  Notice that it is not just about sharing in sadness but sharing in joy as well. I should be able to empathise with those Leicester City fans enjoying the giddy excitement of being former underdogs now experiencing life as one of the big teams.  If I cannot weep with those who are weeping and rejoice with those who are rejoicing then I am not able to discern the body and that to say the least is problematic.

So, what could the tweeter be getting at. I can only make sense of his point for two reasons. First of all, if by empathy, we picture the type of virtue signalling I mentioned earlier where people try to imagine the situation of others or even want to experience it but do nothing about it, then we have something that falls short of what the Bible requires of us.  So, we want people to go beyond the world’s understanding of empathy and offer something better.

There is also the point where sometimes secular training talks about taking a person’s perspective without judgement.  See this short video clip for example:

And of course in the context of sin there is judgement, we discern sin as wrong, we point to God’s judgement. BUT we should always realise that what they mean is judgementalism where I place myself in the seat of judgement to condemn. Yet, that’ is exactly what I should not be doing.

Yet, sympathy seems to fall further short still. So the only other possibility I can think of is that the author is speaking specifically about sympathising with people who get into mess through sin and whose emotional response to the consequences of sin is therefore wrong. If they are sad but not repentant then their emotions are useless and there is no benefit to us trying to get into their heads and imagine feeling those emotions.

However, that is quite a faulty assumption isn’t it. It is flawed on two counts. First of all, unbelievers experience deep sadness at grievous things, they mourn death, they get angry and injustice and they take joy in good things too.  Secondly, it is not only non-Christians who experience emotions. Believers experience emotions too, joy, sadness, heartache, grief, delight etc.  Unless, we assume that emotions themselves are a bad thing out of a twisted misunderstanding of the doctrine of God’s impassibility, then I struggle to see how we could not be seeking to empathise.

If we start writing off emotions because we’ve misunderstood them, then we risk denouncing as sin aspects of what it means to be made in God’s image and then we will be calling what is good evil and what is evil good.

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