the difference between sympathy and empathy was the difference between objective truth and subjective felt “truth.”
Empathy as the Headwaters of Cruelty, Pastor Douglas Wilson
In an article this week addressing the pro-Hamas and pro-Gaza riots, Pastor Doug takes a moment for a sermon against untethered empathy. While I could high five his points on the riots and the conflict at hand, I find the human core more important.
Doug references a video that he did with Joe Rigney about empathy. I watched that video a couple months ago and it made a major impact on me and my understanding of current events. More coming on that some other time.
When you see someone drowning in the river, the virtue of sympathy requires that you help him. In the metaphor, you help by keeping one foot on the bank and you extend a hand, or throw a rope.
So what is the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is a Christian value. God shows us sympathy, standing on the rock and reaching a hand out to us to pull us from the muck and mire. In a class that I was in earlier this week, the instructor accidently said that God was empathetic. Obviously many believe these words to be synonyms. They are not. I kindly corrected the instructor and pointed out that for God to show empathy, God would have to negate His other divine attributes.
[T]he empathetic one needs to take a header into the river, identifying completely and entirely with the drowning person. The empathetic one offers no judgments, no assessments, no evaluations. The empathy is by definition untethered. Unless you sink to the bottom with him, it is obvious to everyone that you don’t really care.
Agree with me on everything, disagree on nothing. Do not tell me that I am wrong. Do not tell me that I have sinned. Do not tell me that I walked all the way out here and am now drowning despite Your pleas that I stop, Your clear warnings of what would happen if I didn’t, Your clear signs along the bank with graphic iconography. I am drowning because I was born this way. I am drowning because You made me this way.
Now join me in the water and agree with me. Anything less is abject hatred.
This sounds familiar to literally anyone paying attention to the world. It also should sound familiar to any parent, as this is how children act. And your job as a parent is to stand on the riverbank and pull them out, dry them off, and teach them a lesson. That is what God does for us.
Unfortunately, the modern world isn’t taking that lesson well and is throwing a tantrum to make their parents look bad.
It follows that if such a person is your client, then they are in the in group, and they are in that in group all the way. Anyone who is playing the role of their adversary—or perhaps we should say persecutor—has to be treated with relentless savagery. This is because that adversary is challenging the victim’s sacrosanct right to be affirmed in absolutely everything. To criticize the victim is to throw a dead cat at the high altar. To be the recipient of empathy in this system is to be utterly and completely beyond criticism. And because we live in a world where trade-offs necessarily happen, this means that anyone who gets in the way of what that recipient of empathy demands is dead meat.
One of many reasons why I don’t like therapy. Watch the video with Joe Rigney and you’ll understand a bit better, but the gist is that the relationship doesn’t encourage the therapist to criticize the client or in any way understand and take the side of their persecutor.
Suppose the empathy-claimant is a twelve-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather. As long as she is affirmed absolutely by an empathetic counselor, she can do whatever she wants to anyone else, including the baby. […] And an empathetic judge can send the stepfather to the penitentiary for twenty-five years, which turns out to have been unfortunate, because he actually didn’t rape anybody. Empathy toward one is necessary cruelty toward another. But empathy, like Gallio, cares for none of these things (Acts 18:17).
Liars can use this system to get empathy for the supposed actions of others and therapists don’t ask enough clarifying questions to understand those that supposedly persecute their clients. Further, they show empathy by joining their lying clients in the muck and mire, they join the rage against their abusive persecutors.
They fuel it and reward it.
This is a system that has allowed narcissists to get fed energy from people by lying about others. This reward creates a cycle where the lies have to get worse and worse. They are a victim, they are being persecuted, they are being attacked, their family is abusive, etc. And you cannot get in the way of their lies, you cannot question their lies, because it is their “truth” and questioning it is victim blaming, or some other made up sin.
Further, all their actions against their persecutor is justified as they are a victim. Don’t ask them if what they are saying is true, don’t stay silent, you must affirm, cheer them on, and celebrate their actions.
This is the complete opposite of a Christian ethic. When my daughter claims that a boy hit her, my natural instinct is to destroy him. That is my natural instinct. But sanctification has brought me to the point that I have to ask her to explain. Turns out, it wasn’t a malicious hit, it was an accident and he felt super bad, apologized, and I don’t need to hang him by his boxers on the flag pole as an example of what not to do to my daughter. Vikings gotta viking, but righteous men of Christ have to live by mercy, grace, and love.
That stepfather in prison is there because empathy absolutely refused to let anyone raise the question of his possible innocence. There is no way to raise the question of his innocence without simultaneously raising the prospect that the stepdaughter was lying, and how would that make her feel? So even to raise the question of possible innocence was to be guilty of the crime yourself.
This is the conundrum that empathy has made for you. If you choose to show empathy for someone that claims abuse, you cannot raise the question that their abuser is potentially innocent. By raising that question, you are— by the nature of the question— raising the question of whether the accuser is lying. That will abuse the abused, thus making you an abuser too.
There is an alternative.
You can have sympathy for the person that is claiming abuse, you can reach a hand out and help them out of the water, talk with them and understand their perspective. Instead of fueling the rage, instead they need to get better. They are in fact getting bitter if they stay in the water, staying in the rage. Empathy will never make them better, only bitter. And for the narcissist, it encourages this behavior and they very well may be the abuser.
Empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. One could rightly argue that empathy is sinful as it can require you to lie or have untethered anger against someone in an ungodly way. Yet, in the modern age, we are told our only option is empathy and “this means that anyone who gets in the way of what that recipient of empathy demands is dead meat.”
So to finish with one last quote:
In short, we cannot say that we haven’t been warned.
Empathy as the Headwaters of Cruelty, Pastor Douglas Wilson