James White recently claimed, "sympathy is good, empathy is sinful." Is cultivating or practicing empathy a sin? Is it wrong to try to understand the pain of others?
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The short answer is no, empathy is not a sin. It’s a virtue, and one Christian’s should cultivate. However, like any good trait, it can be mis-used and abused when used without discernment or boundaries. “Empathy” is a fairly modern term in English (introduced in about 1909 A.D.) Its core definition is the action of trying to understand or perceive of the feelings of another. We all practice this naturally to some degree when reading novels or watching television shows, as we ‘read between the lines’ to pick up what characters are feeling. Empathy actually starts in the realm of thoughts or cognition (“What would I feel if I were in their shoes?” “What do I think they could be feeling?”) and moves towards emotion. Accordingly, it can range from emotionally distant to emotionally involved. [Merriam Webster has an excellent article comparing/contrasting the sympathy and empathy, as the terms are frequently mixed-up or even swapped.] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/sympathy-empathy-difference There are some pitfalls at the extreme ends of empathy, though these are not matters of “too much empathy” but more distortions brought in by the lack of empathy itself or the lack of emotional regulation regarding it: “The avoidantly attached individual isn’t comfortable in intimate settings, and has trouble recognizing his or her own emotions, as well as those of others. The anxiously attached adult may lack the ability to moderate emotions and may end up being swept up in someone else’s emotions. That isn’t empathy.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201701/6-things-you-need-know-about-empathy Unfortunately, some modern Christian Pastors and other prominent thought leaders have mis-defined empathy as that latter state – being mixed up into someone else’s emotions – and declared empathy “sinful” based on their re-definition of it! Yet empathy itself, those mis-understandings aside, is a gift from God that He has given to help us relate with others in our world. It is part of the broader concept of compassion. Babies experience empathy when they notice their mothers are sad and try to comfort them. Children start actively developing empathy, as it is both a natural and learned skill, when they begin paying attention to how others might perceive them or feel about them, and may change their behavior accordingly. The Good Samaritan showed empathy, unlike the Priest and Levite, when he took pity on the robbed and beaten man, prompting him to take action to care for him (Luke 10:17-21.) Jesus had empathy for the hapless crowds who were like “sheep without a shepherd,” (Matt 9:36.) God is shown as empathetic towards humanity in many places, such as Psalm 56:8 where He keeps track of our sorrows and ‘collects’ and ‘records’ our tears. Scripture also warns against the lack of empathy, such as in I John 3:7: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brothers in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Those who insist on the strange “Empathy is sin” narrative should take note: showing empathy to others in other circumstances than our own, and being moved by this to help them, is one of the ways we display God’s love in us. If we “harden ourselves” against the pain of others, we are not living in God’s love. There is certainly a place in the church for discussion on the pitfalls of unregulated emotions, mistaking emotions as facts, overly trusting one’s own perceptions, misapplying empathy and trying to fix the pain on worldy terms vs. Pointing to God, the true healer, and other problems. But none of those are issues inherent in empathy itself – rather they are brought in by lack of boundaries, lack of wisdom, the lack of emotional understanding or regulation, mistaking the support of a trendy social cause as empathy, or ignoring the very real problem of sin in the world that brings much of the pain people face.
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