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Stop Empathizing With People

by Josh Stilwell | Published September 26, 2021

There’s been a lot of hubbub on the Internet (isn’t there always?) over the words sympathy and empathy and which is better than the other. For the lindquists among us, sympathy is hurting “with” someone and empathy is hurting “in” someone. At first glance, the choice for the Christian is very clear. Empathy seems so much more intense and intimate and loving. Most believers, if asked to rate a package marked “Sympathy” and a package marked “Empathy” would very quickly name the second package as superior. Their motive is likely very noble. After all, we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And I want empathy (more on that in a moment). 

But what if I told you that when you empathize with people there’s a good chance you’re sinning? And what if I further told you that when you require others to empathize with you there’s a good chance you’re committing a very serious sin? Now that I’ve got your attention, please keep the stones in your hand until you’ve read the entire article. 

My Issue With Empathy 

Empathy not only demands that we feel what others feel, but that we validate those feelings. This kind of empathy is trumpeted very loudly today. We’re cautioned against giving answers. We should just listen, and perhaps nod our head supportively. Don’t correct. Don’t rebuke. Don’t admonish. Just feel their pain with them.

I want to be clear that I can appreciate some of where this is coming from. For many, it springs from an honest attempt to show the love of Christ. I confess that it’s my natural tendency to seek and give empathy. You might say that I empathize with the empathizers.

But here’s the problem: there’s this thing called truth. And it exists outside of what I feel or think. Not all feelings should be validated. Many of our feelings are based on lies and inordinate affections. And there’s no way to validate those feelings without also validating the lies and sinful loves. 

Allow me to use an illustration that is not original with me. Imagine a man drowning in quicksand. Two men pass by and see the poor chap in his misery. Let’s call them Sympathy Sam and Empathy Ed. Sympathy Sam sees the man’s distress and reaches one hand into the quicksand with the goal of helping. He suffers with the drowning man. But Sam also keeps one hand firmly grasping the land outside the quicksand. He’s still an outside observer. This is the only way he’s able to help the man in distress.

Empathy Ed, on the other hand, doesn’t want to appear superior to the drowning man. He doesn’t want to stand above him on solid ground. So he jumps right into the quicksand with him. He suffers “in” the man. He gives the man a big hug and together they both go to their death. Tell me, which man loved his neighbor? 

The goal of sympathy is to actually help those in distress. But this requires the sympathetic man to keep one foot planted on absolute truth. In other words, half of him must remain outside of the situation while the other half carries the load of the hurting. More on this in a little bit. Empathy on the other hand, has no interest in actually helping anyone. The goal is simply to identify with the hurting person. But identifying with some doesn’t actually help them. It may do them irreparable harm. A person reaping the consequences of sin doesn’t need someone to validate what they’re feeling. They need someone to love them enough to help them. 

If you have a hang up with this, I would like to point out that absolute empathy is impossible. Perhaps you hate everything I’ve said so far. You think it’s wrong and perhaps immoral. But in order to make those judgments, you have to stand outside of my quicksand. In other words, the only way to condemn non-empathizers is to not empathize with them. To become a non-empathizer. Empathy as an ideal is self-defeating. 

The folly of absolute empathy can perhaps be best illustrated by applying it to issues where there is a conflict between two people.  

The Conflict Conundrum 

Christian counsellors (I’m using that term very loosely to describe any believer who loves his neighbor enough to want to help them grow) are often tripped up by this idea of empathy. Our society has so thoroughly catechized us in this doctrine that we sometimes really believe it’s wrong to speak truth into people’s lives. We feel almost guilty pointing a hurting person to God’s Word. But it’s often the most loving thing to do.

Imagine that on Tuesday a hurting person shows up at your door sobbing. They tell a heart wrenching story of how a fellow Christian behaved very cruelly to them. You give them a hug and begin listening with a loving heart. Then the name of the offender slips out. Your heart stops. On Monday, another hurting person had shown up at your door sobbing. They had told you a heart wrenching story of how a fellow Christian was running around spreading lies about them. You suddenly realize that both hurting parties are describing the same incident and making contradictory assertions about it. What are you to do? How do you show the love of Christ to both parties?

The strict empathizer is put in the impossible position of validating two sets of contradictory feelings. He has to be in two quicksand pits at the same time! There’s no way to do this without being two faced. This is worse than unhelpful. One of those people is being genuinely abusive. There’s no way to validate both parties without aiding the abuser and contributing to the abuse. The empathetic attempt at love has made you an enabler of hateful abuse.  

At the end of the article I will discuss what a truly Christlike response to those kinds of situations might be. But let me give you the basics. The sympathetic Christian wants both parties to grow in Christ. In order to do this, they must have a loyalty that is superior to their loyalty to either party. A loyalty to truth. Both claims are possible. Sometimes Christians are cruel. Sometimes Christians spread falsehoods. The sympathetic counsellor will weep with those who weep, but they will also investigate the situation and determine what actually happened. Only then can they effectively counsel both parties, by rebuking sin and healing hurt. 

What too often happens in conflict situations is that the first person to claim victim status is the winner. Many of us have bought the Marxist assumption that the oppressed are automatically angelic and the oppressors are purely demonic. Human nature is not that simple. Those who demand that we treat situations that way are asking us to perform brain surgery with a battle ax.

Most people who act on these assumptions are sincere people who don’t realize all the ramifications of their thinking. But mixed in with these sincere empathizers are what I call Victim-Bullies. They have figured out how to hack the systems. They’ve weaponized their victim status to victimize other people. Because the Marxist narrative says that victims are good simply because they are victims, it means that whoever is christened with the honorific “Victim” gets to play by a separate set of rules. They are allowed to mistreat those labeled “Oppressors”. They are not required to treat them with the same level of decency that would normally be required in civilized company.

On a grand scale, the Victim-Bullies are one of the greatest sources of human suffering in history. Some researchers believe that all genocides occure because the group committing genocide has become convinced that they have been victimized by the group they commit genocide against. In their minds, the genocide became a means of resisting oppression and securing justice. On a personal level, I’ve seen people justify rude and downright cruel behavior because they were “victimized”.

But victimhood does not give us the right to treat people however we want. Even victims are obligated to obey the First and Great Commandment and the Second which is like unto it. In the throws of hurts, this seems unreasonable. It’s not unreasonable. But it is impossible. That’s why there is grace. Jesus gives us the ultimate example of the victim who still loved. While being tortured to death, He showed practical concern for His mother, the dying thief, and those murdering Him. Beyond that, there is a great cloud of witnesses, ranging from Polycarp to Jim Eliot, of Christians who responded correctly to mistreatment. 

In a society of Victim-Bullies, the call to empathy becomes a demand to join the lynch mob. Many tenderhearted, well meaning Christians end up contributing to oppression by being “understanding” to those who are using their pain to inflict pain on others. Those who love their neighbor must be careful not to hand out pitchforks. 

Empathy As Idolatry

But most of us aren’t Victim-Bullies. Not really. We just want people to understand what we’re feeling. We want a little care and concern. Is that so bad? It doesn’t have to be so bad. But it could be evil. 

In this section, I speak from more personal experience than I care to admit. I don’t know how many times I’ve said in the middle of a disagreement, “Ok, that’s a valid point, but I just want you to understand.” That statement could be benign. Or it could be diabolical.

If I simply mean that I would like you to take the time to listen to my argument and thoroughly understand it before you immediately assume it’s wrong, then that’s simply fair play. If instead what I mean is, “You need to embrace what I’m thinking and feeling. Don’t talk to me about truth.” then that sentiment is sinful. 

When we demand, without qualification, that others empathize with our emotions regardless of whether or not they correlate with reality, we act as though we create reality. In this way, empathy becomes a Trojan horse that sneaks the invading armies of relativism into Christian thinking and practice. What I feel is true because I feel it. And you are obligated to accept my truth. Because I say it’s true. The demand for this kind of empathy is a declaration of sovereign lordship.

There’s only one small problem. I don’t create reality. There is a Sovereign Lord who identifies Himself as “the Truth”. And I’m not Him. My feelings don’t deserve to be validated just because I feel them. My perception is not necessarily reality.

When I require others to give me this kind of empathy, I am, like the man of lawlessness, declaring to the whole world that I am God. What’s more, I’m demanding that other people give me what only God is due. I’m asserting that my word should be treated as law. That my affections be held above question. That what I say is true be acknowledged as true. I’m demanding to be treated like the Most High. 

And this is why we react so defensively when someone fails to give us empathy. Our favorite idol has been blasphemed. Our throne has been shaken. Someone is daring to insinuate that I might not actually be lord of my own life. That maybe there is a truth that exists outside of myself that I am obligated to obey. 

I ask you to join me in taking a deep look inward. Is it possible that your desire for empathy is actually a manifestation of idolatry? When it comes right down to it, which do I care more about – my feelings or God’s precious truth? Which do I really hold in higher regard? Why is it that you are reflexively offended when others fail to give you empathy? Could it reveal the idol of your heart?  

Compassion: The Christian Alternative To Empathy  

So what should I do with all this? This is where I want to tie all this together and hopefully provide some clarity. I want to get incredibly practical.

What is the alternative to postmodern empathy? Let’s start with what’s not. I am not (read that word again) saying that when people come to us for help we should behave like Job’s friends, self-righteous answer-men who analyze their brother’s trials with all the care and nuance of a charging rhinoceros. I’m not saying that the ideal Christian counsellor is an unfeeling, coldhearted ogre. All I’m really saying is that we should be like Jesus.

Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (KJV) Perhaps you’re thinking, “That kinda sounds like empathy to me.” Except that the word translated “touched” is the Greek equivalent of the word for sympathy (check out the NKJV, ESV, NASB, ect.). This concept has been known for centuries as compassion (sidenote: the word empathy is very new, originating in the Twentieth Century). So Jesus was sympathetic, not merely empathetic. And that’s good news for us.

The sympathetic person (like Jesus) lives in two worlds. One arm is wrapped around the suffering soul, feeling their pain, sharing their suffering, bearing the burden. The other arm is grabbing hold tightly to the solid rock of absolute truth. Only this combination – one arm in, one arm out – is able to actually rescue the sufferer from their affliction. 

This is what our Lord did for us. He became one of us, in all points tempted yet without sin. But He did not become incarnate so that He could commiserate with our suffering. He came to seek and to save that which was lost. He came to actually do something about our misery. If Jesus had been merely empathetic we’d all be in hell. 

This is how Jesus lived His life. He wept at Lazarus’ tomb. But then He commanded Lazarus to come forth. He felt the pain of Mary and Martha, but then He took action to relieve their pain. We of course cannot raise the dead. Sometimes all we can do is weep. But there must be a willingness and desire to actually meet needs when we have the opportunity.

Let this mind also be in us. We do need to come alongside people and weep with those who weep. But once the tears are shed, we also need to help rescue people from their miserable condition. We need an arm in both worlds.

Another practical example is found in 1 Peter 5. There the apostle Peter addresses the elders of the Asian churches. He begins by noting that he is “also an elder” (v. 1). In other words, he’s saying, “I get it.” It’s always nice to hear that someone gets it. But it’s important to note what Peter says after that. He doesn’t hold a pity party about the struggles of being an elder. He doesn’t base his arguments on anecdotes from his pastor experience. What follows is authoritative apostolic teaching based on absolute, objective truth. He tells the elders how and how not to lead (vs. 2-3). He reminds them that Jesus will hold them accountable (v. 4). All these things would have been true if Peter had never been an elder a day in his life. In other words, he hit the elders with a truth bomb. 

We too are called to identify with people as much as we can. We should be as empathetic as we can be. But there’s a limit. And that limit’s name is, “Truth”. We can never compromise truth in the name of empathy. Let us bear one another’s burdens, but also restore them through the word of truth.

A word of caution. People don’t like truly compassionate people. Compassion is inherently hierarchical. There’s a hurting person and a helping person. We like to level the playing field by dumping everyone into the quicksand. We live in a very strange culture where the most loving person is the one who does the least to actually help others. We’re actually offended that someone would have the audacity to try to help.

Jesus is proof that this is not a new problem. He was murdered by the people He was trying to help. The most loving, compassionate Person to ever live was so offensive it cost Him His life. Maybe that’s the real reason empathy has become so popular. No one was ever crucified for being empathetic. 

As we go about our Christian lives, let’s endeavour to show true compassion. Let’s really make ourselves vulnerable to the needs and hurts of others. But may God also give us grace to reach a hand down and pull our loved ones out of the mire and onto the solid rock of biblical truth.

Alright, you can stone me now. But please be empathetic about it.    

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