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The Beauty and Abuse of Empathy

How Virtue Becomes a Tyrant

Recently I found myself in the ER with my 6-year-old son. This is a more common occurrence than I would have preferred for my child, but his special needs mean that his health is a bit more fragile than normal.

He was getting checked out this time around because of a bad virus that laid him out with a fever, among other symptoms. They gave him IV fluids and ran some tests. My son, not unfamiliar with some of the pokes and uncomfortable prodding, still has quite a visceral response to some of it. And, as his mom, I find that I do too.

Of course, we handle it differently. He cries and tries to avoid it; my heart pounds and I try to get through it. But, in a very real sense, we are feeling the same thing. As his mom, I feel his anxiety and confusion as though it were inside of me.

My love for him compels me to speak up to make sure no unnecessary pain comes his way. I make sure the nurse has expertise with difficult veins. I make sure we have enough people in the room to provide help if needed. I know exactly what things will distract him for even a moment. And I know when all hope of distraction is gone and we must simply get it done.

What I’ve just described is a very intuitive, instinctive part of being a mother. It’s often referred to as empathy — that is, the vicarious experiencing of the feelings of another.

Gift of God to Women

Research shows that women in particular are more empathetic than men when seeing other people in pain. I think this reflects a wonderful design feature that God has given women that benefits not only any children we might have, but our entire communities.

A woman who is sensitive to the feelings of others, especially their pain, will be a sort of first responder. She is able to move toward the hurting. She can sound the alarm that someone is in need. And very practically for mothers, she can sense her infant’s need for food and sleep and attention. She can detect a downcast glance from her teenage daughter or son. She can tell if her husband is carrying some frustration from his workday. Doesn’t this make sense with God’s design for a woman? The one he called helper (Genesis 2:18)? What a gift God has given to women.

But as with all of God’s gifts that we wield in this sinful world, we can distort God-given empathy. Would you consider with me if it’s possible for empathy to become a tyrant? How can something so obviously needed to nurture children and care for the vulnerable go wrong?

We can distort or abuse empathy in at least three ways.

1. Isolated Empathy

We distort empathy when we isolate it and leave it to itself.

Let’s reimagine the situation with my son in the ER, only this time, rather than letting the empathy drive me toward doing what is best for my son regardless of the discomfort, let’s imagine that I let it rule me. What would happen?

Well, in feeling my son’s pain and identifying with his strong emotional response of wanting to avoid an IV, I would succumb to his desire. Rather than doing what my rational mind knows is best for him, I instead would value what he feels is best as the highest good. His immediate comfort becomes the goal, rather than his long-term health.

What went wrong? I untethered empathy from reality, from truth. And just like truth without the gentleness of love can do damage, so also empathy untethered from truth selfishly poses as love. This isolated empathy makes love into a noodle, a jellyfish, an irrational blob. It can feel someone’s pain and shed rivers of tears, but it has no desire to do the uncomfortable work of digging out of the pit or enduring the IV pokes.

2. Cowardly Empathy

We distort empathy when we pseudo-compassionately coddle sin.

Empathy acts as a self-serving coward when it tells us to coddle the sin in others that ought to grieve or anger us. Imagine you have a friend who is in a hard marriage. Her husband is usually inattentive, but in the rare case he isn’t, he is demeaning. After three years in the marriage, she rekindles a romance with a boyfriend she’d had in high school. He was easy enough to find on Facebook. He appreciates her. She is headed for divorce and happy at last.

Distorted empathy would tell the wife that her sin is understandable — that it makes sense. Blind empathy makes sin rational rather than offensive. But as much as we might be able to grasp sin’s sick logic, we must not — through fear and cowardice — make peace with it.

A godly friend will rightly acknowledge that her friend’s marriage is difficult and that her husband’s inattentiveness is a sin — she will be sad with her. But she won’t allow the real marital hardship to become an excuse for abandoning the covenant she made before God.

A loving friend does not stand empathetically by while her sister in Christ makes shipwreck of her faith (1 Timothy 1:19). She does not offer the false comfort of making excuses for sin. She acknowledges its deadly consequences. She does so graciously and patiently. But she does not withhold the bad news of sin, because without it, we cannot come to the good news of the cross of Christ and the forgiveness found there. Distorted empathy, while being perceived as loving, leaves the gospel unapplied.

Those who make a habit of feeling sorry for others caught in sin, in tearful solidarity and nothing else, are actually using others, not loving them. What they gain in doing so is the tasty inner treat of being seen as non-judgmental and compassionate — a safe space — when in reality their lack of courage to speak the truth has left the other exposed. The empathetic friend has posed herself as more compassionate than God, and in so doing she has become a glory thief.

3. Manipulative Empathy

We distort empathy when we let it turn inward and become a tyrant.

Distorted empathy does terrible damage when misused toward others, but it absolutely destroys the one who turns her empathy inward. It seeks to sympathize with its own sad state. This is called self-pity. Self-pity is a self-supplying organism — always hungry and always providing itself with more to consume. It makes a courtroom out of life, continually submitting unassailable evidence that says, You are in quite a sorry situation! and then rendering verdicts that this is, in fact, true.

Self-pity doesn’t have to distort reality to make its claim. In other words, usually there is hard evidence that your circumstances are pitiable. But the prosecutor and judge who run the courtroom of self-pity never deliver justice. The sentence enacted is always more of the same — an endless loop of wallowing, fixating, bemoaning, and feeling sorry for one’s self — an unbreakable cycle of cynical despair.

A “poor me” mindset is never content to be miserable unto itself. It must spread its misery to others, and it does so by pouting, silent treatments, guilt trips, and manipulation. “Oh, you’re going out with friends tonight? Well, I suppose I’ll just have to find something to do by myself. If only I could go out as often as you do, but not all of us have cash to spare — some of us work long hours just to get by. I suppose Emma will be there. She hasn’t called me in weeks. Nobody seems to care that I was sick last week.”

In other words, when we turn our empathy inward, we lure others to fix their eyes on our circumstances — wanting them to join us in our wallowing and nothing else. We want them to internalize our emotions, but refuse them the right to their own perspective that might differ from ours. We aren’t content with their genuine sympathy and become horribly offended if they were to offer a solution to our pain or problems. How dare they think they could help me? They have no idea what it’s like to suffer as I do! Empathy turned inward actually doesn’t want help. It wants to sit on the throne in place of God.

Empathy Redeemed

I believe the only way to immunize the church to the distortions of an isolated empathy bereft of truth is to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter 5:6–7). We must get a proper sense of ourselves before the throne of the sovereign God. You see, distorted empathy wants us to humble ourselves under the pitiful hand of ourselves. There is a sort of faux modesty that comes with putting others’ experiences over the truth of God’s word. There is a sort of pathetic abasement that comes with feeling sorry for ourselves.

But when we humble ourselves before God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the one who has the right to tell us what reality is, since he defines everything and speaks it all into existence — when we’re humble before that Almighty God, our empathy is not allowed to be the boss of us. God doesn’t want to obliterate our empathy! He designed it for a good purpose. But he wants it rightly ordered and on its knees before him.

When that right ordering has happened, when empathy has refused isolation, cowardice, and manipulation, when she has bound herself to truth, what a beautifying effect she can have on the church. When we submit empathy to God rather than submit to empathy itself, God transforms empathy. It actually becomes full-orbed love, rather than mere emotion sharing. And the full-orbed love of God is a work of his Holy Spirit. Don’t we want that?

Leaving the Easy Way

Lastly, as we kneel humbled before the Lord, we also must trust him with every ounce of our being (Proverbs 3:5). We must believe that when our natural empathy is telling us that Spirit-filled love is too hard for us or too uncomfortable for those around us, we can entrust ourselves and others to God without being ensnared by fear (Proverbs 29:25).

When my son is in pain at the hospital, or a friend is in a dicey situation, or I find myself in some unique trial, I often want the easy way out. Sometimes the cost of true love is high. It would be easier to just empathize and leave it at that. But time and time again, God has proven that he sees more, understands more, and cares more than I do for everyone involved.

God the Father showed us the definition of love when he sent his only Son to die for us. If all he had for his Son was empathy, he never would have done it. But he loved his Son and us, so he sent him to suffer cruelly, to die, to be raised, and to be lifted high at his right hand forever, reigning above all. We can trust the love of God. It never settles for a quick fix. It works the greatest possible good at the highest possible price for our eternal joy.