When I decided to pursue a dual graduate degree in divinity and mental health counseling in the mid-1990’s, a close colleague offered a warning: Watch out. Those kinds of programs emphasize feelings, and feelings only draw us away from truth and turn us inward.

A few months ago, Scot McKnight addressed a recent ‘resurgence’, you might say, of that old and worn sentiment. He was responding to an essay by Joe Rigney still posted at Desiring God entitled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts Through Compassion.” (That title, by the way…ouch.) It’s a piece written in the genre of CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (an endeavor better left to Lewis), and while there are moments of insight, it’s largely an exercise in pastoral malpractice, psychological misunderstanding, and etymological confusion. But as podcasts like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and books like Jesus and John Wayne are showing us, this brand keeps on keeping on, bad theology and psychology and all.

My seminary colleague warned me long ago. But I sinned. I grew in empathy. Day in and day out, I sat with people in pain, struggling with addiction and spiritual apathy, marital conflict and vocational unrest. My clients told me, a kid in his late 20’s, their stories of depression and doubt, shame and guilt. In the process, I was invited to face my own story, the ache of my parent’s divorce, the low-level anxiety that never left my body, the shame that kept me from risking more, the arrogance that marked my way of showing up on campus. I was asked to consider how others experienced me so that I might grow in self-knowledge, in deeper repentance and more healthy connection. My cold heart thawed, and I grew in love and compassion. My heart was moved (see McKnight’s piece on compassion as racham and splanchnizomai…it’s so good). I was growing up. And dare I say it – experience was my teacher. (PS: before you write me off for this, see James KA Smith’s new book.)

The 17th c. Presbyterian pastor John Flavel once wrote, “there are some men and women who have lived 40 or 50 years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.” I didn’t think I was in sin. After all, my companions on this journey were not just wise psychologists but trusted pastors like Flavel (Keeping the Heart) and Richard Baxter (The Reformed Pastor and On The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and The Benefits of Self-Acquaintance). At my beside were the pastoral Letters of the Westminster divine and author of Lex Rex Samuel Rutherford, letters which today might be described as sentimental, unmanly, perhaps even therapeutic.

Fear motivates much of what I see from folks who recycle modernistic dichotomies like “truth vs. feelings.” The Rigney piece recycles this to warn us that empathy leads to fusion – “fusion, the melting together of persons so that one personality is lost in the other. Empathy demands, ‘Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.'” If Rigney took the time to be a bit more curious, he might discover that psychologists are just as concerned about fusion as he is. In family systems theory, fusion is the absence of differentiation, that capacity to be connected to another and be oneself. I get why Rigney is worried…fusion is profoundly unhelpful, unhealthy, and relationally toxic. But to conflate fusion with empathy is a big problem. Rigney just doesn’t understand some basic psychological concepts. Differentiation makes empathy possible!

Indeed, empathy is a virtue as McKnight says, central to our pastoral work. It’s not lost me that an absence of empathy is core to the definition of narcissism. I’ve written a little something on this. Might it be that this kind of recycled truth vs. feelings theology enables narcissism? I thought that was the case 25 years ago when I was an emerging pastor, and I’ve watched it play out since. It’s remarkable that it keeps on keeping on, fueling anxious systems, disconnected and arrogant leaders, even pastoral malpractice and abuse.

I was a pastor for a long time. Now I teach and counsel pastors. Folks like me cultivate that “discourse with the heart,” as Flavel says, precisely so that our next generation of pastors won’t become fused on the one hand, or cut themselves off from connection on the other, precisely so that pastors will be so acquainted with their own hearts (“self-knowledge”) that they’ll be able to move toward others in healthy compassion and self-giving love. God moved toward us even in our first exile (“Where are you?”), and in Jesus and through the Spirit continues to move toward us in faithful, cruciform, compassionate hesed love. Indeed, God would go to hell and back for us. I’m so concerned about narcissistic leadership in the church precisely because it doesn’t look like Jesus at all.

Back when I began my training as a pastor and a therapist, I kept Philippians 3 close by: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” There is a mystery to this, of course. I don’t think Paul is inviting us to be fused, in the psychological sense. As John Stott once said, “You need to have a self to lose yourself.” But I do think pastoral work requires courage, indeed a “beautiful risk” (Olthuis) as we participate in the sufferings of a broken world. When we do, we may be disrupted, even confused, sometimes infuriated, almost always moved. St. Paul was. Differentiation as a way of envisioning emotional/spiritual health and maturity means being centered and moved at the same time. That’s possible. The question I ask pastors is: Are you willing to do the inner work to get there? As I do intensive work with pastors, many will say, “I waited far too long to engage this inner conversation.”

My seminary colleague who warned me – I lost touch with him years ago after his marriage and ministry dissolved. I sometimes wonder about him and pray with hope that he’s taken that courageous journey into the unknown terrain of his own heart, into the messy realities of his own story and scattered emotions…and discovered there the God who is no stranger to it all and whose mercies are never-ending.

10 thoughts on “Is empathy sinful?

  1. This is a very interesting reflection, Chuck. Thank you. My sense, from having known a lot of pastors over the years, is that many are good-hearted but not in touch with themselves emotionally. And the role does not encourage a lot of self-reflection or vulnerability. The idea of empathy can be scary and disruptive to them – so, yes, a lot of fear gets stirred up around it. Praying for that place in them, as in all of us, where fear is strong and God seems far away.

  2. I finished a Masters in 1967and ED. D in Counseling in 75 way before there were any radio ot TV shows on Counseling. I was accused in a book of being a “Psycho-Babbler” by a man I had never met who had never read my books. Many of the fearful are unlearned and make serious mistakes about what we believe and teach. It bothered me when I was young and insecure but prefer now to use their bombastic ways to teach moe people the truth, just as we are doing in response to the latest kerfuffle. I must admit that I smiled in satisfaction when a local critic showed up at my Counseling Center needing some assistance. We met him with empathy and compassion.

  3. Hey Chuck,
    Thanks for writing this piece. I’ve been following this conversation for a while and I feel a little lost. I feel like either I am misreading Rigney or you (and Mcknight) are misreading him. I’ve read his piece and I’ve watched the “Sin of Empathy” video more than one once and I never got the sense that he’s encouraging the suppression of feelings. In my reading of the article and my understanding of the video, Rigney is encouraging believers to step into the suffering of others to have as much compassion as possible while keeping the mental clarity to understand what is happening (ask factual questions in the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner) and while keeping the emotional fortitude to stay grounded as a way of pursuing health. Do you think I am misreading Rigney?

    1. As someone who is a few years into learning about emotion after a major life crisis, ie. hitting bottom, I value this article. But, I wish it was more understanding of the concern for what differentiates empathy with sympathy. For there are those people with emotional problems who demand empathy or is it agreement. Wisdom goes beneath the surface when they do not.

  4. Beautifully written, Chuck.I too had to face myself and the hatred I carried with me well into my 50s against the man who sexually abused me as a child. Empathy by itself is somwewhat detached – it says that I know how you feel, but it does not always go beyond. Empathy spurs forgiveness, of course. To me, compassion is empathy in action. Compassion compels me to act to alleviate suffering. I note that scripture never says Jesus felt empathy. It says he was moved to compassion and acted to heal. As for me, I found empathy for my abuser and learned to forgive. The animosity is gone. Jesus said to love our enemies, which I am working on. I am still a work in progress.

  5. This is so good, Chuck. I’ve been puzzled and deeply troubled by this “resurgence” of those warning that empathy is a sin. As you say, there are some legitimate concerns, but a gross misunderstanding of fusion and empathy. You are just the right person to address this, and I found this essay extremely helpful. Thank you!

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