Contrary to what controversial pastor Doug Wilson and his protégé Joe Rigney espouse, empathy is not a sin. It’s a virtue Jesus displayed. And failing to show empathy makes someone “come across as hardened, narcissistic, emotionally detached.”
So says Dr. Seth Scott, professor of counseling at Columbia International University (CIU), in a video released today on CIU’s YouTube channel. Also appearing in the video are Dr. Steve Johnson, CIU professor of counseling and president of the prestigious Albert Ellis Institute, and Dr. David Croteau, CIU professor of Greek and New Testament, who acts as moderator.
The video is a response to a Man Rampant podcast released in 2019, which recently became one of several flashpoints dividing members, staff, and elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church (BBC). In the podcast, Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney, president of BBC’s associated school Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS), argue that empathy is a sin. The podcast upset some members of BBC and prompted a motion that BBC separate its views from those of Rigney. The motion ultimately failed.
Wilson and Rigney say sympathy, defined as “to suffer with” someone, is synonymous with compassion and is commanded by Scripture. Empathy, on the other hand, means “to suffer in” someone, or “to enter into their pain.” They say this leads to “siding unquestioningly with aggrieved parties,” which is unbiblical.
Not true say Drs. Scott and Johnson.
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“The error in the assumption that (empathy is sin) is this assumption—that in feeling with someone else, you lose all sense of self, all sense of perspective or capacity to maintain even groundedness in your own sense of authority,” Scott said. “And it’s an oversimplification . . . We don’t shift wholly into just emotion and lose all sense of capacity for cognition.”
According to Johnson, pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are responses to someone’s pain that exist along a continuum. Pity, he said is experiencing distress because someone else is feeling distressed. Sympathy is experiencing similar distress, but with “more emotional distance” than someone who’s “sharing in the emotional response.” Empathy, he said, is not just understanding another person’s perspective, but also “their emotional response.” And compassion, according to Johnson, is suffering along with someone else.
Dr. Johnson also explains that when someone feels empathy, certain neurons are activated in the brain that enable a person to experience the same emotions someone else is feeling. This, he says, brings understanding and allows someone “to be objective” about how someone else is experiencing something.
He added that people who can’t empathize are disadvantaged because they aren’t able to understand another person’s feelings.
“For example, research shows that if your mirror neurons are lit up, and mine are too, then that really helps the relationship,” Johnson said. “But there are particular people—we call it psychopathy, like psychopaths—when they experience somebody . . . there’s doubt, right? . . . They’re only acting ‘as if.’ We’re going beyond acting ‘as if,’ because we’re participating in their experience.”
While Dr. Scott admitted that empathy is a modern term that didn’t exist in Bible times, he said Jesus clearly exhibited not only empathy, but compassion. Scott describes compassion as having an action component.
“Jesus frequently shifted along that continuum from sympathy, empathy, to compassion, in a regular response,” Scott says.
As an example, Scott mentions the story of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha who was dead for three days before Jesus raised him to life. But before doing so, Scripture says, “Jesus wept.”
“He’s joining with (Mary and Martha) in their sorrow, in the experience of this loss,” Scott says. “And the fact that he’s able to do this demonstrates that his mirror neurons are operating. He is human. But because of that, Mary and Martha understand that he loves them. And that’s the function of empathy. It’s this necessary relational component that says . . . ‘I love you and I care about you.’”
However, both Scott and Johnson acknowledge that it is possible for someone to lose all objectivity and “get lost” in someone else’s emotions, which is unhealthy. But they say the correct term for that is “enmeshment” or “codependence.”
They say viewing empathy as sin seriously hinders Christians from ministering to others as Christ did.
“The concern with this issue goes beyond just the fact that if you if you view empathy as a sin, then you don’t express empathy, and then you come across as hardened, narcissistic, emotionally detached,” Scott said. “But there’s also a theological implication in how we view what God has called us to do and be in relationship with others and representing his image to the world.”
Scott adds that in the incarnation, Jesus provides the perfect example of how to empathize with someone else, while also maintaining a proper perspective.
Christ became fully human, but never lost “sight, capacity, rationality, or perspective from what his father called him to do. In his mission in us, and as counselors . . . as followers of Christ, we’re called to that same thing—of walking with someone, entering into their situation, but bringing an aspect of God’s perspective to that. And those things aren’t necessarily in opposition to one another.”
Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney’s Man Rampant podcast video: