So the whole notion of empathy allegedly as the root cause of all our cultural issues has really been getting pounded on lately. Paul Bloom wrote a book called “Against Empathy.” Desiring God has published a series of articles titled, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” I’m not going to link to those nor to any of the many sermons and podcasts discussing this newly discovered alleged sin of, “empathy,” but I assure you they have all caused me to throw up in my mouth a little bit.
I’ve written quite extensively about empathy. Here is one blog post that is relevant, “The Fallacy of Empathy.” Here is another, The Impossibility of Empathy. Citizen Tom has just written a blog post called, “The Discovery of Empathy.” So you see, this is a matter that has involved a great deal of research and discussion, debate, across the miles, across the blogosphere, for several years. Iron sharpens iron.
So, I strongly disagree with the idea that empathy is sin or that empathy is the root cause of the problems within our culture. However, I can empathize (oops) with some of the reasoning and thinking behind such notions. We have been just inundated with caring, so, so much caring, as a form of manipulation and control, for a long time now. We are all now suffering from the “caring fatigue” or finding ourselves just sliding down into the full blown, “caring rebellion.” I don’t care anymore. I now have no desire to “get woke.” I actually just want to go to sleep.
Empathy is not the problem. I know this because I am an empath. I used to believe that too, “you know what’s wrong with me, I just care too much. I have too much empathy. I am vulnerable and easily manipulated because I care.” So I’ll just stop caring and protect myself. Guys often tend to be much more inclined to try this trick, to respond this way, but I stumbled upon the notion anyway.
Here’s what I discovered, it isn’t empathy that makes us weak and vulnerable to exploitation, to manipulation, it is shame. The accusation may be, “you don’t care, you have no empathy,” but the trigger, the button that is pushed is, you should be ashamed of yourself. You just want to kill grandma, you deplorable hater, you.
Where there is no toxic shame, there is no button to push and manipulate. Empathy is not the problem. The world needs a whole lot more empathy! Empathy simply means you can listen and identify with the feelings or experiences being discussed. It doesn’t make those feelings or experiences moral or right and it doesn’t make you more virtuous and noble. It’s simply a really good tool to use in relationships and communication. Sociopaths and serial killers can have great empathy. That’s how they charm and entice people, so empathy in and of itself is not necessarily a virtue. A lack of empathy however, will completely shut down all communication and make relationships nearly impossible.
This is a really, really important distinction in our faith, which is why all those sermons, articles, and podcasts made me feel a bit nauseous. Empathy is not the problem, shame is. Shame in faith has the easiest cure, the best fix. You simply ask the Lord if it’s true and if it’s something you should repent of. If so, you repent, you change your mind, you flip a u-turn, and you let Jesus change your heart. If shame has simply been dumped on you by other people playing a game of hot potato and trying to pass it off, then you set that down at the foot of the cross, too. It’s not yours to carry. Jesus went to the cross, “despising the shame” on our behalf. If He says it’s not ours to carry, than we set it down.
Regardless the solution, the cure, the fix, for shame in faith is repentance, not sacking the entire notion of empathy so we don’t have to feel anymore. I have actually done that a few times in my life and it is a response, a symptom of psychological and emotional abuse. Yep, when you are feeling pressured, shamed, manipulated, and forced into caring or feeling a certain way about something, to the point of being ready to ditch empathy itself, to shut down your feelings, you are being abused.
Absolutely, I am saying our current culture wars and what is going on in society right now is some the most intense emotional and psychological abuse I’ve seen in along time. If I were married to some guy telling me I couldn’t leave the house, I couldn’t work, couldn’t go to church, I had to wear a mask all the time, and I better think the way he does, care about the things he does, vote the way he says, and constantly repent of being such a deplorable, despicable, horrible, hater, I’d get the heck out of there and divorce him.
That is flat out abuse. We haven’t even gotten to the violence yet.
We can’t divorce the world around us, we can’t flee this relationship, so what happens is we often get a false diagnosis going on, a deception, and we conclude, the problem must be the besetting sin of empathy. I just need to care less, so I will be less vulnerable.
The cure however, what makes us strong and impervious to manipulation and bullying is not to stop feeling and lose our empathy. The cure is to get so right with the Lord through repentance, that you become absolutely shameless.
The flip side of shame is pride. Humility isn’t shameful, it makes you shameless, powerful, strong, rooted in Someone much greater than yourself.