On “The Enticing Sin of Empathy”

"Ask yourself: Is too much empathy really the problem you see in your church?  In your pastor?  In your life?  We should all examine where we are and seek to accentuate what is right while repenting of what is wrong." - Ken Brown

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Aaron Blumer's picture


Rigney's piece--channeling of C.S. Lewis notwithstanding--doesn't define empathy properly. Although there is a way to twist any good thing into an evil, Rigney seems to conflate empathy itself with ways of twisting to bad purposes. But the difference matters, because all people usually mean be empathy is the ability to care about another's suffering as a result of imagining oneself in their situation.

In more theological terms it's the ability to relate to fellow beings made in God's image as though they are fellow beings made in God's image.

But in ordinary linguistic terms, he doesn't appear to have the right idea either.

Cambridge dictionary...(since we're being Lewisian)

the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation


n. the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, perspective, and emotions of another person.

Stanford Ecyclopedia of Philosophy

The concept of empathy is used to refer to a wide range of psychological capacities that are thought of as being central for constituting humans as social creatures allowing us to know what other people are thinking and feeling, to emotionally engage with them, to share their thoughts and feelings, and to care for their well–being. 

I doubt that it's possible to have compassion in the biblical sense without having empathy first.

This is a distortion of the idea... (this is in the voice of Screwtape, for context)

In response, our armies have fought for decades to twist the Enemy’s virtue of compassion into its counterfeit, empathy. Since we introduced the term a century ago, we’ve steadily taught the humans to regard empathy as an improvement upon compassion or sympathy.

Compassion only suffers with another person; empathy suffers in them. It’s a total immersion into the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the afflicted. 

In short, the fact that our culture has overemphasized (in some ways, but definitely not others!) empathy and twisted it and misapplied it doesn't speak at all against empathy itself.

To borrow a cliche: guns don't kill people; people kill people.

So also, empathy doesn't harm people; people harm people.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.