On the Importance of Empathy
The Monstrous Crew
Is Empathy a sin? Do those who possess it abandon all sound doctrine in favor of a counterfeit compassion? I’m Kate Robinson, and this is the Monstrous Regiment.
A few weeks ago, Desiring God released an article written by Joe Rigney and titled “The
Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts with Compassion”. This episode was not born as a response to that article, as empathy has been a topic of discussion among the Monsters for months, and we have always intended to address the alarming lack of it in the church. However as Mr. Rigney’s article has been shared with approval by people in my newsfeed, and as it pertains to the topic at hand, I intend to address it in part during this discussion. In fact, in some ways it is very helpful to the discussion, as it puts into plain words some of the problems we already wanted to address. Setting aside the cringey attempt at co-opting THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, the article has a number of serious problems, not the least of which is an incorrect definition of the words in question (ironic, considering the opening paragraph reference to the Infernal Philological Society), and a whole lot of implied but never defined baggage attached to them. There are several concepts communicated which the author and I agree on, some of which I’ll address in this podcast. When we get to that point, remember that this episode is about empathy itself, and about the church at large, not exclusively about the Rigney’s article.
So before we go on, let’s discuss what Empathy actually means, as well as a few other definitions.
Empathy, simply defined, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Another definition is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
also : the capacity for this”.
British abolitionist William Wilbeforce once said, “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large,” which I think is an apt description of empathy.
Empathy is to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of other humans — not just to understand from an intellectual standpoint that they have suffered, but to actually feel the reality of that suffering.
It’s important to note here that Empathy and Sympathy are not quite the same thing, although there is certainly some overlap.
Empathy involves understanding and the capacity to identify with the feelings of someone else, or being able to imagine feeling the way they feel. Sympathy, on the other hand, (at least according to the archaic definition), may refer to “feelings of loyalty” or “unity or harmony in action or effect,” meanings not shared by empathy, although the two words do overlap, and share definitions in the sense that both include the capacity to imagine, or share, the feelings of someone else. They can in some contexts be used interchangeably. The only reason for drawing a distinction between the two here is to try to understand what Mr. Rigney may have meant.
Sympathy is the older of the two terms. It entered English in the mid-1500s with a very broad meaning of “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.” This isn’t really the sense it’s used anymore, but this archaic definition of sympathy is the closest thing to what Rigney calls Empathy, as we’ll see shortly.
And finally, the definition of compassion is: sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
Compassion is not exactly the same thing as empathy, but they are very similar. Compassion may even be an extension of empathy, or the natural outflow of it. I would argue that one cannot practice compassion in a meaningful way without empathy. It may be possible to treat people with some form of compassionate behavior or kindness based on an intellectually acknowledged principle, but without the capacity to be feelingly alive to their sufferings, compassionate treatment will be limited at best, completely empty at worst. And make no mistake. The target of the compassionate behavior that is behavior only can tell the difference.
So, let’s take a look at Rigney’s definitions.
Quickly, let’s read a few quotes from the article. We won’t read the whole thing, but here’s how it starts. Keep in mind, Rigney is attempting to mimic C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, so this article purports to be a letter written by a demon to a younger demon.
“Really, Wormwood, I would have thought that a young and ambitious tempter would pay attention to the annual updates posted by the Infernal Philological Society. The fact that you had never heard the idea that empathy was a sin is enough to turn me into a centipede.”
NOTE: He does not say here that “some expressions of empathy can be sinful.” No. He says “Empathy is a sin.” There are no qualifications. He goes on:
“When humans are suffering, they tend to make two demands that are impossible to fulfill simultaneously. On the one hand, they want people to notice the depth of their pain and sorrow — how deep they are in the pit, how unique and tragic their circumstances. At the same time, they don’t want to be made to feel that they really need the assistance of others. In one breath, they say, “Help me! Can’t you see I’m suffering?” and in the next they say, “How dare you act as though I needed you and your help?”
This is bizarre to say the least. Rigney appears to be speaking, with barely veiled disdain, of one, extremely specific expression of pain as if it encompassed the broad range of human responses to suffering, which is as varied as human language. Do some people respond to suffering this way? Sure, I guess. And some plead for assistance from others, and some try to hide the fact that they’re suffering and try to appear strong, and some people feel ashamed of suffering, and the list goes on. A more important note is that in scripture, you never see Jesus using this sort of disdainful, dismissive language to speak about sufferers, or any scriptural command involving our treatment of the suffering that mentions they are “making demands”.
Rigney’s demon continues, “Now, sufferers have been placing such impossible demands on others from time immemorial. In response, our armies have fought for decades to twist the Enemy’s virtue of compassion into its counterfeit, empathy.”
So there you have it. Empathy is the counterfeit of compassion. He explains what he believes the difference to be.
“Since we introduced the term a century ago, we’ve steadily taught the humans to regard empathy as an improvement upon compassion or sympathy…. Compassion only suffers with another person; empathy suffers in them. It’s a total immersion into the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the afflicted. Under our influence, we’ve taught the humans to think, “Only a heartless and unfeeling beast could oppose such a total immersion, such a generous act of ‘love.’”
I have no idea where he got these definitions. He may have received them in a vision while staring into the depths of his hat for all I know. He fails to make a compelling case for a fundamental difference between compassion and empathy, simply asserts that there is one.
I would say that because Jesus Christ himself became human, pouring himself out to become like us in all things, and that we are told to follow in his footsteps, that could be one possible event from which one could extrapolate the “total immersion” definition, but given the context, it’s unlikely that’s where it came from. In fact, he does allude to the Incarnation shortly thereafter, when he says:
“Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance…. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.”
Did you hear that? Join those who are suffering in their misery. That’s empathy, folks! So he does acknowledge the incarnation, but again as an example of the virtue, compassion, which he claims is substantially different than, or even opposite to, empathy, though it’s still unclear how sympathetic concern for the sufferings of others and the capacity to share their feelings are opposed to one another. At this point, the definitions are pretty baffling. There’s nothing in the real meaning of empathy that suggests abandoning one’s principles, faith, or allegiance to Christ and the truth.
“However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth. Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.”
So here we are given, again, a very specific statement as if it were a universally recognized fact, with the one problem that it has nothing at all to do with the word in question. There is nothing in the definition of empathy that suggests subordinating the truth to someone else’s feelings.
I’m not going to read the whole thing to you, because I have much more to say on the topic, and most of these assertions are based on a presupposed definition that doesn’t exist. But I will say that some of the assumptions implicit in this and the rest of the article are alarming. Although he repeatedly states that we are to have compassion for and suffer with others, it’s always with the implicit or explicit caveat that this compassion is to be of the “tough love” variety, and that any feelings associated with suffering are inherently bad, or sinful. This does seem to be in line with a larger trend in Christian circles, especially some more orthodox circles. It seems that in our frantic rush to prevent the elevation of feelings over truth, we have thrown the Bible out with the bathwater, dismissing ALL feelings (except those of the powerful) as by definition standing in opposition to truth. But this isn’t an idea we find in scripture. God himself created us as feeling human beings and He himself has and expresses feelings. We covered this in our episode on emotions a few months back, but it’s germaine here as well, since empathy — the capacity to understand and share the feelings of other people — is being decried as an actual SIN. Think about that for a moment. We are being told that to understand how another human being who is suffering feels is a violation of the law of God, and an affront to the Almighty!
The article goes on to reiterate over and over that suffering people will insist you don’t love them if you don’t support their sin, which he is certain the sufferer will “naturally” demand, and that empathy does support sin, and true compassion does not. Are there situations in which a person might demand unmitigated support for all their actions, or insist that any challenge or hard truth is unloving? Of course. And the people who make these unreasonable demands may call what they are asking for by the name “empathy” but they are just as likely to call it compassion or love. Since it doesn’t fit the definition of any of those words, I see no reason to abandon or redefine any of them, and certainly not to pick one and pit it against the others. In Rigney’s science fiction world, compassion involves “unity” while empathy involves “fusion” and an elimination of individual persons, neither of which have anything to do with the definitions of the words themselves. Since Rigney’s definitions of words don’t exist in real life, and since the rest of the article continues to expound on the made up words instead of their real-life counterparts, I’m not going to spend much more time dealing with the article itself. It’s essentially as if he wrote an article declaring that “the difference between apples and oranges is that oranges are triangles” and spent the rest of the time explaining why triangles are difficult to digest, and then people started sharing it in their feeds with the headline “Why you should never eat oranges”. Triangles are very likely difficult to digest, but as they have nothing to do with oranges, there’s no point continuing to engage statements that are based on the unsupported presupposition that oranges are three-cornered geometric shapes.
What Empathy Actually Means
Since empathy in reality has nothing to do with the fusing of individuals, let’s talk about what it actually is and what it looks like in reality.
Empathy is one of the defining characteristics that separates the sociopath from the non-sociopath. A person who lacks empathy for others can justify nearly any behavior. A person who lacks empathy can never really bear someone else’s burdens. He can’t even understand what they are.
Edward Norton once described acting as an exercise in empathy, saying “You’re trying to get inside a certain emotional reality or motivational reality and try to figure out what that’s about so you can represent it.” I’m not really an Edward Norton fan, but he does provide a good example for illustrative purposes.
You might want to note at this point that Norton has not played exclusively good or sympathetic characters. Not all of his characters are ones the audience is supposed to agree with or approve of, or like, or that Norton himself agrees with or approves of (hopefully). In order to accurately portray them, he had to put himself in their shoes — become empathetic — without sympathy. For example, in American History X, Norton plays Derek Vinyard, a violent neo-nazi who ends up in prison for committing a brutal murder of two black men. Clearly, the audience is not meant to sympathize with this behavior.
As part of this story, we see that Derek’s father was murdered by a black drug dealer, after which a very young Derek was taken under the wing of an older, high-profile white supremacist who nurtured his budding racism until it became fullblown, deeply rooted, hatred. Derek commits a series of violent, racially motivated crimes before winding up in prison for the murder. As the story progresses, Derek becomes disillusioned with the white supremacist cause, recognizes the damage that his example has done to his family, begins to properly view all humans as fully human, and ultimately repents and leads others to repentance. In order to tell this story realistically, and represent what a real white supremacist might be like, Norton had to be able to empathize with a man who would be rightly considered a monster by most, understanding the things that might have happened to such a man and how they might feel. In order to appreciate and celebrate his repentance, the audience had to empathize as well. We had to understand what planted the seeds of bitter hatred in him, without ever agreeing with, excusing, justifying, or supporting any of his wicked behavior. It was this empathy that allowed us to see a wounded human doing evil things instead of an irredeemable monster, and to welcome his repentance and forgive his sins rather than resenting it or finding it impossible to swallow. But we were able to do this without the slightest hint of agreement with his racist views or violent crimes, and without disregarding his victims.
We don’t (hopefully) look at the character and say “Given the same circumstances, I’d do the same thing,” or “given the circumstances, what he did was justified.” But we can look at the little boy that would eventually become him, and feel his pain.
Empathy is actually essential to looking at lost people as lost people instead of seeing them as “the enemy.” It’s what enables us to see someone mistreating us, or engaging in evil behavior, and not dehumanize them in our own hearts, or see them as monsters. It’s also an essential component for knowing how to minister to someone who is in pain, or who has been victimized, and who is not lost or in sin. It’s what helps us understand how to treat people whose desires and preferences and experiences are different from our own.
It’s how we are able to see the world from perspectives other than our own. By listening to the experience of others, and understanding their feelings, we expand our worldviews and become competent to represent Christ to a world full of people who are different from us. Without it, we become incapable of believing the things that have happened to other people because they didn’t happen to us. It’s a lack of empathy that listens to a host of people in more vulnerable positions talk about systemic oppression that they’ve experienced, and shrugs it off, saying “that’s never happened to me, therefore it must not be real.”
So, as I said a moment ago, it’s not just an intellectual understanding that other people with other experiences and perspectives and feelings exist, but the ability to sort of get behind the curtain to where these things exist in more than just the abstract.
This ability is what creates believable villains in fiction, as Suzannah and I talked about on a previous episode. As John Truby tells us in THE ANATOMY OF A STORY, both the hero and the villain in a good story believe they are in the right. A villain who is simply and straightforwardly evil is cardboard, one-dimensional, and difficult to take seriously.
While we’re talking about definitions, there’s another one that it’s important to define. I touched on this already, but Rigney’s article repeatedly implies that anyone who is a victim or afflicted is sinning and is demanding approval for that sin. This possibly subconscious choice, and the fact that the reader is meant to take it for granted as an obvious reality, tells us quite a bit.
While it is certainly true that someone can be both a victim and a perpetrator, they are of course not synonyms, and it is also true that a person can be one or the other without being both. Rigney doesn’t seem to know this, as he repeatedly states that empathy with victims (his word) is equivalent to or leads to the support of sin.
The implication here is that victims of oppression, injustice, or abuse, are victims because of something they did and/or that they are engaged in sinful behavior as a result of their victimization. The repeated mantra is that to empathize with a victim is to somehow let them off the hook, and to capitulate to their sinful expectations. So once again, it’s important to understand definitions.
Victim: “one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent. one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions. one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment.”
To be a victim is NOT an attitude, a mindset, a choice that people make, or a mantle they wear. It’s an ethical term used to describe a person to whom something has happened at the hands of someone else. The definition of the word “victim” includes no automatic accompanying sin or bad behavior.
Obviously victims are fallible human beings like the rest of us, and they can be tempted to react to things, including their victimizers, with sinful responses. HOWEVER, that sinful response, should it occur, is NEVER able to wipe out another person’s (the oppressor’s) guilt, and it does not relieve us of our responsibility to address the injustice, and minister to the victim.
As Lundy Bancroft, author of “Why Does He Do That” said, “Abuse is not a product of bad relationship dynamics, and you cannot make things better by changing your own behavior or by attempting to manage your partner better. Abuse is a problem that lies entirely within the abuser.” This is basic Christianity. Sin can be wiped out by Jesus Christ and by Jesus Christ ALONE. It is not that victims can never sin; it is that an oppressor’s sin cannot be wiped out or mitigated by sin on the part of the victim. And yet time after time we act as though the mote in a victim’s eye expiates the log in their abuser’s eye.
So let’s look at what Scripture has to say about empathy. As a reminder, here we are talking about the real definition of empathy.
What the Bible has to say about empathy
Scripture is replete with examples of empathy and commands to empathize, but there are a couple that stand out.
The first is found in Romans 12, which tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” This is the definition of empathy. Note that it does not say “weep with those who weep, so long as you have judged that they have a right to weep first.” Notice there is no hint of an implication that to weep with those who weep is to sinfully enable them, or in fact any hint that the presence of weeping is an indicator of sin demanding to be enabled. Only a command that when someone else is weeping, we are to weep as well. When someone is in pain, we are to share their pain.
Hebrews 4 tells us that Jesus Christ himself sympathizes with our weaknesses, having been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. This scripture is using “sympathy” here in the sense that overlaps with empathy. He is able to understand where we are coming from. In fact, Christ’s entire earthly life and ministry was a practice in empathy.
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Scripture doesn’t tell us why he wept, but I feel fairly certain he was not grieving the loss of his dead friend, but sharing the pain of his living friends, Mary and Martha.
In the oft-quoted passage about sheep and goats, Jesus Christ tells us that whatever we did or did not do for “the least of these” — those who are sick, in prison, hungry, or destitute — we did not do for HIM. Christ identifies himself with the weak, the vulnerable… the victims of oppression.
In fact, the commands to love your neighbor as yourself, to treat others as you wish to be treated, and to forgive as you yourself wish to be forgiven, are essentially commands to practice empathy. Christ is telling us not only to dole out what we think others deserve from us, but to put ourselves in their place, and to grant them the kindness, the compassion, the forgiveness, that we would wish for if we were in their shoes.
Another important passage on empathy would be 2 Corinthians 1:4 and surrounding:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”
One of the reasons we suffer is SO THAT WE CAN HAVE EMPATHY FOR OTHERS.
Then there’s also the example of Jesus literally weeping over the impending destruction of Jerusalem, despite knowing full well that the hardened Pharisees and Sadducees who’d bear the brunt of it were pretty much all murderous, greedy, fornicating, pious bastards who enjoyed righteously slaughtering prophets and were about to murder him.
All of scripture breathes empathy, pointing us again and again and again to the plight of the orphan, the widow, and the poor. Notice that in none of the passages where we are commanded to care for the destitute and the suffering is there the slightest hint of the current Christian hysterical fear that to care for any of these people will let them off the hook. Unless we believe that the biblical orphans, widows, the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed never sinned, we must conclude that empathy with the oppressed and afflicted (whether they are in sin or not) is not only possible but required of those who love Christ.
Of course some of these examples are ones that Rigney would claim are examples of compassion, not empathy, but again, he’s failed to make a case for a fundamental difference between the two, or for the two being opposed to one another.
Why Christians might be opposed to empathy
So why would a Christian distrust empathy? I believe there are a few answers, and as with most issues, the people who believe and repeat some of the ideas we read in Rigney’s article exist at varying degrees of sincerity. In other words, there may be more or less callous reasons for opposing empathy.
It seems likely that tribalism plays a major role in this hesitance, just as it plays a role in the church culture’s response to issues like patriarchalism, racial injustice, and immigration. It may be a fear of sounding too much like “the other team” or a fear of being deceived by worldly ideas of compassion. Certainly a world that doesn’t understand the truth of the Gospel does promote a truncated compassion that in many cases resembles what people like Mr. Rigney are trying to combat. It may be that it feels genuinely bad for our “team” to enter into the feelings of some loud-and-proud God-hater; being GENUINELY grieved about unbelievers who mock and flout God’s law while loudly espousing causes such as abortion and sexual immorality in the name of human rights. Very likely there are many Christians who feel genuinely confused about whether it’s possible to empathize with someone without putting a stamp of approval on their sins.
One of many examples that comes to mind is that a former acquaintance of mine, one whose interactions with me and others were marked by a distinct lack of empathy for the entire time we were acquainted, objected to the use of the #metoo hash tag on the grounds that porn stars use it — as if being a porn star meant that it was impossible for that person to have experienced sexual harassment or assault, and as if it would be somehow wrong for Christians to empathize or identify in any with the harmful experiences of people who are still slaves to sin (and who are still being actively exploited). I know there were at least some sincere Christians who saw this person’s words and felt inclined to agree, at least in part because of the confusion and fear I’ve just described.
In many of these cases, the objection to empathy may be, at least in part, a genuine desire to be consistent with the word of God, coupled with a lack of understanding. I do think, though, that this is the sort of mindset Jesus constantly addressed, when he said things like, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus exhorts us constantly to bear in mind that it is the lost — those loud and proud God-haters — he came to save, and warns us again and again that he values compassion toward those people more highly than religious performance.
Then of course, there’s the reason the Pharisees wanted to know who, precisely, their neighbor was. Basically, loving ones neighbor as oneself, is difficult and requires much of us. There are many people who are willing to accept it as a command of Christ, but are compelled, perhaps not consciously, to affix a host of parameters to it, defining exactly who one’s neighbor is. It’s easy to picture ourselves ministering to the poor. It’s harder to sit with someone in pain when you don’t know what to say. It’s easy to donate to the poor. It’s harder when the poor has a specific face, and he was never taught how to make wise financial decisions, and she has PTSD as a result of abuse, and he needs patience. Much easier to write these people off as “resisting tough love”.
We can all loudly affirm that Christians ought to love and care for the weak, and stand up for victims of injustice, but in practice, it often turns out that every individual case that might require action from us fails to meet our personal criteria for true victimhood. Most of us, myself included, if we are honest, can think of someone we found a way to justify not loving, and not spending ourselves to help.
Yes, we are to care for widows, but she’s not a real widow, she’s only been abandoned by her husband, and that we can chalk up to her failure as a wife. Yes, we are told to care for orphans, but the children being murdered by abortion aren’t technically orphans. Their parents aren’t dead, they are only abandoning them to destruction. Yes, scripture is extremely clear on caring for the poor, but they ought to have come here legally. Yes, rape victims deserve justice, but is it really rape? What was she wearing? And he’s a respectable member of the community! Chances are she’s a lying tool of Satan. Yes, we would definitely help an abused wife, but was it real abuse? I didn’t see any bruises. And she can be pretty difficult too. Maybe she should be asking herself what role she played in the abuse. Yes, scripture says not to murder, but he shouldn’t have resisted arrest! And the list goes on. These are all things I have heard Christians say, and I have said or thought some of them myself.
We’ve also discussed in the past, the sense of security that comes with victim blaming. The view that a victim must have brought harm on himself in some way, makes us feel safe and insulated from harm. We can reassure ourselves that nothing will happen to us because we are so pious (and can congratulate ourselves that if we have escaped serious harm thus far, we have our own holiness to thank for it). From there, it’s a short leap to withdrawing compassion from victims of suffering (and feeling holy while we do it) because they brought it on themselves. Of course our real thoughts don’t take such a stark form, which is why we must be willing to examine ourselves in the light of God’s word and pray with the Psalmist, “create in me a clean heart, Oh God.”
But at its foundation, I think the problem is power religion. In a culture that views power as a virtue, and weakness, vulnerability, or victimization as a sign of sin or inferiority, empathy is a threat to power structures. It requires the powerful to put themselves in the shoes of the vulnerable. In fact, Rigney’s article states that “empathy is a power tool in the hands of the weak and suffering.” There is a disdain for the weak and suffering that is prevalent in Christian cultures today, which communicates again and again, that those who are weak and vulnerable, ought to stay that way, and those who are powerful have a divine right to be so.
Of course scripture paints an entirely opposite picture. We serve a God who frequently chose the weak and the powerless as vessels to display his power. Again and again and again we see him choose the shepherd boy instead of the handsome soldier, the younger brother instead of the firstborn, using the boy with the stones to slay the giant, choosing the lowest person from the lowest tribe to destroy the Midianite army, the barren woman to give birth to the prophets, honor and praise given to Samaritans and prostitutes for their faith, Jesus rebuking the disciples for preventing children from coming to him. He commended the widow who gave her last dime rather than the well off who gave more. On his way to the house of a respected ruler who needed his help, he once brought the entire procession to a halt, to devote his attention to the woman with the issue of blood. Again and again and again we see God treat the most powerless members of society — the poor, the sick, the destitute, the woman, the child, the leper, the sinner — as the recipients of his attention, compassion, and time. Scripture explicitly says that He chooses the foolish things to shame the wise. The Old Testament prescribed the same ceremony for anointing the priest and cleansing the leper. He illustrates the KINGDOM OF GOD with a woman (the societally weak) crying out to a judge (the societally powerful) for justice. God is constantly bringing the high low, and elevating the lowly.
And yet we are told in articles like the one we’ve been discussing that it is Satan, not God, who wishes to empower the weak, because the weak are obviously in sin, and if they are empowered, they’ll demand we all abandon the truth and embrace their sin. This is pure power religion, friends.
And what do these philosophies look like when put into practice?
I would posit that they look like thousands of evangelical Christians coldly dismissing the testimonies of vulnerable people who have been sexually abused, or even hurling accusations at them in defense of a favorite (preacher, politician, celebrity), loftily congratulating abused wives on the opportunity God has given them to suffer, or being able to look at a photo of a drowned toddler and shrug it off, haughtily announcing that her father shouldn’t have tried to escape oppression with her, or justifying the shooting a teenager in the back as he lays in a pool of his own blood, because the shooter got angry, or seeing a photo of a female celebrity who is so obviously desperately crying for help, and make memes mocking her and calling her names — seeing her not as a broken, exploited, hurting, lost, woman, but only as a representative of “the other side”. Or listening to any of the things I’ve just said, rolling your eyes, and chalking it all up to a leftist agenda, or virtue signalling, or cultural Marxism, as if the people I just described weren’t real, living human beings, whose hearts beat, who had hopes and preferences and fear and pain.
I do not think that the church is in danger of having too much empathy. Not by a long shot. In fact, I think our duty as the bride of Christ is to cultivate empathy in our own hearts, our households, our gatherings, and our communities, and that the need is urgent.
How do we do that?
This can only be done by sincere self-examination and humility.
We must be willing to set aside our fear of identifying with the other team, and ask the Lord to shine a light on our motives. We must recognize in ourselves any tendency to disdain those more vulnerable than ourselves, and those whose suffering we haven’t experienced. We must root out of our rhetoric and conversation language that dehumanizes the lost. We must become determined not to ignore or dismiss the plight of people whose experience is different than ours. We must be slow to speak and quick to listen — anxious to hear what even our opponents are saying and what they’ve been through.
We need to be able to listen to someone whose lifestyle is sinful, and recognize both their painful experiences and the treatment they may have received at the hands of other Christians. If we really and truly desire to communicate the Gospel to them, we need to learn what it means that God desires mercy rather than sacrifice.
And not just our opponents — we should be quick to listen to anyone, friend or foe, who speaks about experiences that we don’t share. Many of our friends and loved ones are suffering silently under well-meaning exhortations to just “have the joy of the Lord”. Many people whom we ought to weep with are both suffering and feeling guilty for their suffering, as if someone holier would not be experiencing pain, and this is partly because so many of us have not learned to practice true empathy.
And lastly — this one is a bit more difficult, at least for me. As I was writing this episode, one of my fellow Monsters pointed out to me that I didn’t seem to be expressing much empathy for the people whose ideas I’m criticizing in this episode. In fact, it’s very difficult for me to empathize specifically with other Christians who hold and promote what I believe to be harmful views. When I see people espousing views that perpetuate the exploitation or subjugation of the weak, I’m tempted to believe they are all callous, unkind, hard-hearted, jerks.
But that’s me (and I suspect some other listeners) being guilty of the same thing I’m criticizing. The truth, if I’m honest, is that nearly every view I currently combat is one I once held myself, which only the grace of God and the kindness of friends persuaded me to abandon. So it is just as vital for us to empathize with those who disagree with us as with the lost. There are all sorts of reasons that fellow Christians may hold wrong, and even harmful views — internalized oppression is real, and some of the ideas we monsters seek to destroy are so deeply entrenched in Christian culture that we can hardly blame those who’ve been raised in the church for believing and repeating them. So my encouragement to myself and to others would be to remember that whatever you do rightly understand, you do so by the grace of God and not by your own merit, to be again quick to listen and slow to speak, and slow to write off even difficult brothers and sisters.
Thank you for listening to the Monstrous Regiment.