Empathy is Not a Sin

I am late to this strange party.

There is a kerfuffle going around about empathy being a sin. Some theodudes think it is and most people know it isn’t. I am not going to get into it too much, but here are a couple of links to the empathy is sin crowd.

Reformed pastor and apoligist James White says empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” and is sin:

When you start with man as image-bearing creature of God, you can understand why sympathy is good, but empathy is sinful.

Do not surrender our mind to the sinful emotional responses of others.

Minnesota pastor Joe Rigney sat down with Doug Wilson to declare empathy a sin in this odd exchange.

Rigney: That’s right. And the, and I think that actually is the most relevant difference between them because, so empathy is the sort of thing that you’ve got someone drowning, or they’re in quicksand, and they’re sinking. And what empathy wants to do it jump into the quicksand with them, both feet, and-and it feels like that’s going to be more loving, because they’re going to feel like, I’m glad that you’re here with me in the quicksand. Problem is you’re both now sinking.
Wilson: Right.
Rigney: Right. Whereas, if you do, I’m going to keep one foot on the shore, and I’m actually gonna grab onto this big branch, and then I’ll step one foot in there with you and try to pull you out. That’s sympathy, and that’s-that’s actually helpful. But to the person who’s in there, it can feel like you’re judging me.
Wilson: So sympathy’s clearly hierarchical.
Rigney: Right. It implies that one person is the hurting, and one person is the helper.
Wilson: Right.
Rigney: And, and no, and that’s part of the problem is no one wants to feel like they’re the hurting. We want to equalize everything. And so, and so empathy demands, get in here with me, otherwise you don’t love me.
Wilson: But what do you lose— when you get in there with them, and you’re all in, they’re drowning, they’re in the quicksand, they’re in the trouble, and you identify with them completely.

Rigney went around a little with Karen Prior here.

What the theodudes seem upset about is that they seem to believe empathy puts the person who understands another’s feelings and experience on the same level as the person who is being understood. They want to be in authority.

Equality. What a concept.

Furthermore, they seem to think empathy means accepting everything anyone else does without moral evaluation. Or at least James White seems to think that. White goes out on the porch of his blog and yells at all of the empaths on his lawn, screaming:

We are not to weep with the bank robber who botches the job and ends up in the slammer. We are, plainly, to exercise control even in our sympathy. We are not to sympathize with sin, nor are we to sympathize with rebellion, or evil.

But the new cultural (and it has flown into the church as well) orthodoxy is: you shall empathize. You shall enter into the emotions of others AND YOU SHALL NOT MAKE JUDGMENTS ABOUT SAID EMOTIONS. By so doing YOU SHALL VALIDATE ALL HUMAN EXPERIENCES AS SUPREME. The greatest sin of all today is to say, “The emotions that person is experiencing are the result of sinful rebellion against God, and hence do not require my validation, support, or celebration.” HOW DARE YOU! That is the great rule I stepped upon, and must now pay the price.

I’d like to say I know how you feel, James, but I don’t.

Empathy is Not Sin

Empathy isn’t acceptance of things you don’t agree with. Empathy doesn’t require you to give up any position you might otherwise have. For instance, parents can empathize with their wayward children (“when I was your age…”) and still adminster correction and direction. When parents communicate their understanding with care, it helps build relationship even when restrictions need to be imposed.

Empathy is simply understanding the inner world of other people. It is all about being able to relate to them and understand what they are going through. It quite important in human functioning and when absent is associated with cruelty and antisocial behavior.

When Joe Rigney and Doug Wilson talk about someone jumping into quicksand with both feet, they are not describing empathy; they instead describe impulsivity. Sympathy or empathy might move a person to prosocial behavior, but strategy to conduct the behavior is another matter. A thoughtful person would perform the rescue safely; an impulsive person might just jump in. Both would be empathic, but only one would live to tell about it.

Understand this; empathy is good.


Here are some articles on empathy and related topics.

Empathy-related Responding: Associations with Prosocial Behavior, Aggression, and Intergroup Relations

Empathy in Narcissistic Personality Disorder: From Clinical and Empirical Perspectives

Why empathy has a beneficial impact on others in medicine: unifying theories

Prosocial motivation: Is it ever truly altruistic?