I’m all about being on time. I’m never late to the party — if we’re talking about literal parties — but if we’re talking about the metaphorical pop culture and other “cool and relevant things” parties, I’m way late for those. I recently stumbled upon an interesting article from a few years ago that is probably old news to the Christian world by now, but I’ll drop my thoughts here for anyone else who was past fashionably late to the controversy and cares to hear my take.
In 2019, theology professor Joe Rigney wrote a pair of letters for Desiring God, the second of which was entitled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion”. The writings are a spin-off from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, his own inverse angle on the dangers of biblical virtues misused by human hands. His sequel was well-written and thought-provoking. However, many, including myself, were left confused by his presentation of empathy and sought clarification on its proper place in the Christian life. God is not like us, and yes, we will undoubtedly distort many of the gifts and graces that he has granted. Rigney nails that part. However, I believe his article enters questionable territory when he labels empathy as both the counterfeit and demonic distortion of compassion.
To understand the origin and aim of his critique, some preliminary definitions may be helpful. Since many salient terms within this conversation have become hazy, we should, at a base level, establish that neither compassion, sympathy, nor empathy is inherently sinful. This post will focus primarily on the categorizations and biblical applications of empathy.
Broadly, sympathy entails feeling sorry for someone, while empathy entails getting down in the emotional muck with them. To employ more academic terms, The Encyclopedia of Social Psychology defines empathy as “understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation”. The empathizer holds the weight of the other’s circumstances, perceiving where their reverberations fall on the emotional continuum without actually experiencing them. It is a shared emotional experience activated by the outsider’s own volitional effort to discern the other’s state and adopt a parallel emotion, whether positive or negative.
Speaking from a cognitive standpoint, empathy refers to the ability to mentally take the perspective of another. It requires the capacity for theory of mind, or the accurate attribution of a mental state to another person, which is a critical prerequisite to socialization. Young children who can grasp that others’ perspectives differ from theirs fare much better when playing with other children, and there is arguably a similar relational yield for adults who demonstrate flexibility in their thinking, as this allows them to tune in with others. When we empathize, we’re attempting to intellectually grasp another’s situation by “putting ourselves in their shoes.” We assess the evidence — their body language, words, and tone — and draw a subsequent conclusion: “She must be feeling x because y happened. That would be so hard to bear.” This action has been labeled cognitive empathy. Without cognitive empathy, it will be difficult to also exert emotional empathy.
This second label — articulated by mainstream psychology as emotional or affective empathy — closes the gap between the self and the other in that where a sympathizer feels sorry about what the other is experiencing, an empathizer seeks to feel it with them. The reality should set in deeply enough that we recognize that the sufferer is still there when we go home. When I return to the rhythms of my day-to-day life, the child in foster care is still being tossed from home to home; The patient with a terminal illness is still bed-bound; The friend is still plagued by crippling anxiety and depression. Upon bumping into another person’s struggle, I can either dither at its periphery or prayerfully remain in it with them. One doesn’t have to be a “chain crier” or outward emoter to step into someone’s pain, and I would argue that the kind of empathy that flows from the heart of Christ is simply willing to go there with them (Philippians 2:1-11). It is not forgetful but remembers with mind and heart.
In Rigney’s letter, he propounds that the danger of empathy culminates when the comforter approaches the pit and “jumps in with both feet” rather than entering with one foot and keeping the other on solid ground. The empathizer may then become enmeshed with the sufferer, positioned to stumble in the same way (in the case that the suffering results from or exacerbates sin).
While I disagree with his claim that empathy is a point-blank sin, I can understand the heed to “not surrender your mind to the sinful emotional responses of others”. The risk of spiritual infiltration is certainly real, yet no one is excused from accountability because of their hardship. In fact, the famous “bear one another’s burdens” line from Galatians 6 is housed in a text emphasizing the Christian responsibility to gently correct other believers who are in sin:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. – Galatians 6:1-5
Yet, perhaps over-correcting for fear of adopting postmodern values, Rigney seems to miss that rightly understood empathy does not lead the comforter to enable sin or to engage in joint sin. Neither does it cause the mutual sufferers to succumb to relativism. To empathize does not mean to lose truth, and thus, these extremes fail to represent true empathy; There is a way to stay without letting someone stay in the pit. Be diligent in prayer, proclaim the truth through a gospel lens, and follow up regularly to serve the hurting individual in Christ-like love (Romans 12:15). Point them to the great Comforter.
If we look to God rather than culture for our moral standards, let us consult his Word to ascertain the shape he would have our empathy take.
For the Lord will not cast off forever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. – Lamentations 3:31-33
The foundation on which we begin is that God himself is the supreme display of compassion and empathy. They flow naturally from his heart. We serve a God who did not just talk the talk; what good would it have done for his Son to come to earth only to talk about how much he loves us? He didn’t look down on our hopelessly sinful state and mail a sympathy-laden greeting card; he took on flesh and was tempted as we are, yet never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). We can have confidence before his throne because he was willing to feel what we feel.
In the life of Christ, we see compassion lived out from both head and heart. He healed the sick, gave to the poor, and even turned tables in righteous disapproval toward injustice. He ultimately went to the extreme while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8) — not after we “got our acts together” — to demonstrate just how much he loves us. His undeserved death was tangible evidence of the love of God, and we love others because of the undeserved love shown to us in Jesus Christ. If we truly grasp the magnitude of what God has done, we will want to strive toward that same kind of love.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. – 1 John 3:16-18
Empathy matters immensely right now. In this cultural moment, we can talk right past each other. We often do so from behind the safety of our phone screens, saying, “I don’t understand how anyone could believe something like that” without actually seeking to understand their viewpoint or decision and how they arrived there. What if, before forcing our convictions on others, we humbly considered the circumstances that might have molded their convictions, or lack of?
Better yet, what if we spent less time arguing futilely about the technicalities of our Christian stances and did something to apply them in relationship with other image-bearers?
For those who submit to God’s word, the biblical values we talk about must be congruent with the way we live from day to day. Anyone can demonstrate keyboard courage, but true empathy puts on shoes. It is legitimized by our compassionate actions. It doesn’t just feel for another but is also willing to work upstream to make change rather than complain about large-scale problems (which are ultimately the result of the downstream effects of human brokenness). Protestants are sometimes so afraid to promote good works for fear of flirting with a works-based salvation that they end up ignoring the call to Spirit-supplied work altogether. Yes, we are justified by faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), but let us not forget that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).
Put yourself in the way of people who are walking through difficult situations, and seek to learn more about them. Listen to understand. Give of your time, resources, and gifts to actually sit with the people you talk about loving and look into their eyes. All this can be done because we embrace the truth, not because we have abandoned it. Keep showing up and serving, regardless of whether they jumped into the pit or were thrown in. After all, none of us deserve to be pulled out of our respective trenches, but Christ came all the way down to earth to do so.
Human empathy is flawed. If we manufacture even an ounce, it is only by God’s grace. If we are involved at all in carrying someone through trials, we are merely the vessels through which God initiates restoration. He is the catalyst for healing, not us. Because of our cosmic tendency toward sin, we will always be at risk of falsely attributing mental states to others, so we must lean on the Lord for discernment as we seek to understand one another. We need the Spirit’s strength so as to move wisely and not burn out. In the pursuit of Christ-like empathy, pray to love and hate what God does, and pray that the hurting person in your life would do the same. Laugh or mourn with them according to the convictions that prayer stirs.
Empathy walks. Abide in Christ and walk in love.
 Hodges, S. D., Myers, M., Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Empathy: Encyclopedia of social psychology.  Astington, J., & Jenkins, J. (1995) Theory of mind development and social understanding. Cognition and Emotion, 9, 151 – 165.
 Astington, J., & Jenkins, J. (1995) Theory of mind development and social understanding. Cognition and Emotion, 9, 151 – 165.