The headline is a thought I keep having in light of the ongoing empathy wars. Currently, many theologically minded social media denizens are debating whether or not empathy toward others is a sin. If you have missed it, catch up here, here, and here.
I am triggered to write again about empathy by this Gospel Coalition article by Kevin DeYoung and a video conversation involving two Columbia International University professors. Let me briefly describe each influence.
Weep But Within Limits
For his part, DeYoung acknowledges that Christians should “comfort the sad” but he wants to make sure we don’t take it too far. He says, “But our sympathy is not untethered to all other considerations.” DeYoung is very worried that weeping with those who weep could be a license to weep about some naughtiness.
I think I understand what DeYoung is worried about, but I can’t help but ask: Do Christians have a reputation for caring too much about people we disagree with? If anything, the stereotype of Christians is loud angry judgment. Do we need articles pulling us back from the edge of loving and caring too much or do we need something else? I mean we are debating whether or not the very human trait of empathy is a sin. Why are Christians finding it so hard to just be human?
Empathy is Human
And empathy is human, after all, as professors Steve Johnson and Seth Scott of Columbia International University remind us in this video. They tell us that empathy is based in our neurology (via mirror neurons) and a very human response to the plight of others. When normal humans see suffering in others, their brains activate similar feelings. We can share another person’s perspective, but that doesn’t mean that we lose our objectivity or ability to reason.
Having said that, Johnson and Scott correctly note that it is possible to lose perspective. Within counseling and psychology, this is termed codependence or enmeshment, not empathy. These words are more descriptive of what actually happens.
Humans without empathy are at great risk for narcissism and a limited emotional life. Johnson points out that psychopaths are deficient in their ability to feel what others feel. Below is the video which I recommend.
Empathy is built in to most of us and leads to lots of good in the world. So go ahead, weep with those who weep. You don’t have to evaluate everything first. Maybe you don’t agree with the one you are weeping with, and you can tell them that in due time; but first they will know you are a redeemed human who cares. That could make all the difference.