Hattie’s Hangout: The Dangers of an Empathetic Society
Sympathy and empathy are different, and Christians must distinguish the two.
After seeing a rise in the use of the word empathy, I wondered if many even knew what the virtue actually means.
Many people use sympathy and empathy interchangeably, but in a world full of striving empathizers, the biblical truth of sympathy is swallowed up by a modern belief that suffering “in” one’s pain is the best avenue to provide comfort.
People use the modern word “empathy” to feel good about the way they help people in pain, but does responding in empathy even help at all? First used in the English language in the early 20th century, the disillusionment of acting out in empathy instead of sympathy continues to drive our society to think man’s feeling are more important than God’s truth.
Empathy is a reactive virtue that lunges people into feeling the same feeling the sufferer beholds, leaving little room for a sober-minded and carefully thought out plan of action to help those in need.
Sympathy works toward the good of the person in need of compassion while empathy only reacts to a momentary feeling that will never bring great comfort to the one in pain.
The Bible commands us to strive to sympathy, not empathy.
The goal of sympathy is to suffer “with” the one in pain, deriving from the Greek word sumpatheo and its Latin synonym of compassion.
The danger of empathy: behind the good intentions of empathy lay a myriad of harmful dynamics and further suffering for both the sufferer and the comforter. If Christians strive to comfort people in a Christ-loving way, they must look to the Scripturally rooted virtue of sympathy and not the man-made action of empathy.
Empathy means you must experience what the other is going through in order to properly help them or provide them with comfort. This means jumping into the pit and standing beside them in their pain, but now both sufferer and comforter find themselves stuck in the pit together. Where is the comfort in that?
The empathetic action to understand the man’s pain of being in the pit by throwing yourself into the pit throws away the opportunity for productive help. In contrast, “sympathy lays hold of something sturdy outside of the pit in order to provide an anchor” before reaching out your hand to help the sufferer in the pit, according to Joe Rigney, a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary.
The Bible stands as our moral framework, guiding us on how to live compassionate lives on how to sympathize with people in pain and provide them the key to solving their pain through the name of Jesus.
As Christians, our compassionate posture to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) must stand on the truth of the Bible and not let experience-based epistemology guide our steps to comforting people.
Experience-based epistemology rejects reason, logic and objective truth. A society built on experience will never be able to sustain itself.
The man-made idea of empathy has slowly crept into the church’s language. If it is not called out, these dynamics will lead toward a greater gap between man’s understandings of feelings and a biblical knowledge to respond in love and compassion.
Hattie Troutman is the Editor-in-Chief. Follow her on Twitter at @hattrout.