Engaging Kevin DeYoung on empathy

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I want to give a bit of space to engaging with this article by Kevin De Young. It’s sparked some controversy and quite emotional responses on social media. To understand why, a bit of context is needed.  De Young’s article doesn’t come out of completely nowhere. Rather, a debate had already been sparked by comments by several other prominent pastors and theologians in the United States who had argued that empathy is not a Christian/Biblical emotion because it risked inviting us to identify with and endorse sin.

DeYoung does not respond to the debate directly and does not talk specifically about the word empathy. I have however personally responded to those arguments previously.  What DeYoung does do at the start of his article is say this:

“Oftentimes the first thing we must do with sufferers is simply come alongside them, acknowledge their pain, express our condolences, and assure them of our love and prayers. Many of us can testify firsthand that when we look back at seasons of intense grief, we don’t remember the exact words people shared, but we do remember the people who showed up and sat with us in our tears. I love what Romans 12:15 teaches about Christian compassion and pastoral care. The verse is a needed reminder for any of us who may be tempted to treat suffering with indifference or to approach hurting saints as broken people in need of a quick fix.”

Whilst he doesn’t explicitly rebuke or refute those who have spoken against empathy, it is clear in my mind at this point that he has identified himself on the pro-empathy side of the debate. He has recognised the importance of sitting with people and simply feeling with them, the pain, sadness and distress that they have experienced. 

However, where DeYoung has stirred up a reaction is by then going on to argue that.

“Surely, the second half of Romans 12:15 does not mean that the only response to grieving people is to grieve with them. Diving into facts, pursuing objectivity, listening to all sides—these are not invalidated by Romans 12:15. ‘Weep with those who weep’ does not dictate that the reasons for our weeping can never be mistaken. In short, the verse must mean something like ‘weep with those who have good, biblical reason to be weeping.’”

Whilst DeYoung insists that this interpretation is not to neuter the force of the verse, I’ve picked up that a few people feel very strongly that he has. The impression given is that rather being willing to simply sit with someone and say nothing, but rather squeeze their hand, given them a hug and allow the tears to fill in their own eyes too, DeYoung would rather that we begin by investigating the truth of their claims. 

That certainly is a risk, although I would suggest that his paragraph at the start which I quoted above counters that concern. DeYoung’s description of those who simply showed up and sat with us in our tears seems to rule out the presumption that every expression of emotion must be fully investigated before we show empathy.

Furthermore, I would submit that in most cases, the immediate reasons are obvious.  When you see someone in tears and they are part of your church family (as the New Testament instructions on one-another care seem to expect), then you are likely to be already aware of the cause of their pain whether it is bereavement, physical suffering or persecution. 

There will be times when we don’t know all, or indeed any of the reasons. In those situations, my personal experience is that starting with empathy is also pastorally wise. It may be that having sat with someone and acknowledged their pain that they are more willing to open up to you about what has been causing it. Indeed, we do not need to know the cause or even agree with the person’s perspective to show that level of care.  I can recognise and express sadness at someone’s pain without endorsing behaviours that has caused its self-infliction.

The other issue I’ve seen raised about the article is that DeYoung talks in generalities and fails to give specific examples to show why his concern about misuse of the verse matters. Indeed, some have even suggested that he has created a strawman.

I think there are two legitimate responses to this objection. The first is to simply offer one over-arching and all permeating example of how the issue Kevin DeYoung has identified has become a significant issue. It’s called social media.  Much of social media functions on me seeking out support and emotional agreement with my position. Think about the practice of sub-tweeting. A person tweets a comment complaining about a particular issue and immediately others begin to retweet and like it. They reply to express their support for the person concerned and their anger at those who have provoked this reaction. Yet, there is little care to check the veracity of the claim.

Next time you are about to join the thirty other people who have liked someone’s tweet complaining about someone else, it might be handy to check above and below the tweet too in order to see what they might be responding to and how they have been responded to. There’s a good chance that somewhere within  the thread, you’ll find the person who has been attacked giving a clear and convincing rebuttal of the claim.

Secondly, I think that the other part of DeYoung’s reasonable response might be to point out that if he were to start to delve into specific and detailed examples then the risk is that he might be seen as beginning to step over the line in terms of risking the privacy and confidentiality of others.  Those in pastoral ministry will be able to identify many examples of how failing to observe KDY’s nuancing of Romans 12:15 has in fact been harmful within the church family. However, we are simply not in a position to give the specifics.

What I can say on this is three things though. The first is that sadly I have far too often seen emotions weaponised.  By showing emotion, by crying, by expressing deep hurt, the person draws a little crowd of support around them.  Sometimes the hurt they are expressing arises out of having been challenged, one to one or in the preaching of God’s Word. They’ve found what is said hurtful and offensive but that’s exactly because it has hit close to the mark and got under the skin. The danger here is two-fold. First, in rushing to pour balm into their wounds, their comforters may in fact be preventing them from hearing the challenge needed. You might compare it to a family rushing to prevent the surgeon from inserting his scalpel because they don’t want him to hurt their relative.  Yet his actions are necessary to save life.

The other risk is that the one who has had to deliver the difficult message is then regarded in a negative light. They are the one who has caused offense. They have been unloving. Yet, in my experience throughout life, it has been those who have loved and cared about me the most who have been willing to have those difficult conversations. 

This leads into another point which does in fact come up within the article. Weeping doesn’t always arise in a vacuum and our decision to identify with the one weeping is not always a neutral stance.  When I choose to identify with the emotional reaction of one party, I’m making a statement about the reaction of another. The reason that I shouldn’t rejoice with the Taliban is not only because their motives are wrong but also because by choosing to rejoice with them, I’m making an explicit decision not to weep with those who are suffering under the Taliban regime.  I cannot mourn with Afghan brothers and sisters and at the same time rejoice with their abusers.

This is how weeping becomes weaponised.  It is used as a means to build up support in order to in fact malign and to bully others.  Sadly this does happen in churches.  The best example of this is  the way in which victims of predatory abuse have witnessed their abusers stand on the platform at church to tell their story, and then the congregation has identified and shared in the abuser’s emotional response whilst neglecting the ongoing hurt felt by those who suffered at their hands.

Thirdly, my experience is that often those who most need this kind of empathy, who need someone to tell them that they believe them, who desperately need others to weep with them often don’t receive this kind of love and care. Why is that? Well often, they are not the ones who are visibly seen to suffer and weep. They are the ones who put on a brave face, then go home and collapse in tears on the floor after shutting the door. They’ve learnt that their tears are not welcome, that they risk being a nuisance, that others must be suffering more than them. So they grit their teeth, hold back the tears and plunge into the life of the church, seeking to support others whist they too need support.

Christian empathy is about more than just responding to those who are obviously weeping. It’s about seeking out and giving our time to those who are hurting.