empathy vs sympathy

Is empathy a sin (as framed by the video)?


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retroGRAD3

Puritan Board Freshman

What is everyone's take on this? In the video, the pastor makes the argument that empathy is a sin and that Christians should be sympathic instead. He also quotes some scripture in support.
 

Charles Johnson

Puritan Board Freshman
Personally I think empathy is a silly word, since in practice it just means sympathy and was coined by a 20th century Psychologist who wanted to imitate a German word for sympathy in art appreciation. If "sympathy" was good enough for English speakers until 1908 it's good enough for me. But maybe my dislike has more to do with a general distaste for Psychology. Here's the entry from the etymological dictionary:

empathy (n.)​

1908, modeled on German Einfühlung (from ein "in" + Fühlung "feeling"), which was coined 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-1881) as a translation of Greek empatheia "passion, state of emotion," from assimilated form of en "in" (see en- (2)) + pathos "feeling" (from PIE root *kwent(h)- "to suffer"). A term from a theory of art appreciation that maintains appreciation depends on the viewer's ability to project his personality into the viewed object.
Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness, but I feel or act them in the mind's muscles. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung; there is nothing curious or idiosyncratic about it; but it is a fact that must be mentioned. [Edward Bradford Titchener, "Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes," 1909]
... there is no doubt that the facts are new and that they justify their name: the art work is a thing of "empathy" (Titchener, Ward), of "fellow feeling" (Mitchell), of "inner sympathy" (Groos), of "sympathetic projection" (Urban), of "semblance of personality" (Baldwin), all terms suggested by different writers as renderings of the German Einfühlung. ["The American Yearbook," 1911]
 

W.C. Dean

Puritan Board Sophomore
I think the idea of joining in with another's suffering is wrong. Christians should be able to be gentle and kind toward someone, but being able to stand outside their suffering and judge the situation according to Scripture, and other participants.

Example: If someone told you they were wronged by someone else, I believe it would be sinful to "suffer with them". We should be charitable with them, but assess the whole situation from an outside perspective. If someone fell into a body of water and was drowning, you would keep yourself anchored to something and help them out, not jump in so you can drown with them.
 

retroGRAD3

Puritan Board Freshman
I think the idea of joining in with another's suffering is wrong. Christians should be able to be gentle and kind toward someone, but being able to stand outside their suffering and judge the situation according to Scripture, and other participants.

Example: If someone told you they were wronged by someone else, I believe it would be sinful to "suffer with them". We should be charitable with them, but assess the whole situation from an outside perspective. If someone fell into a body of water and was drowning, you would keep yourself anchored to something and help them out, not jump so you can drown with them.
This is essentially the same argument the video makes. I agree with you.
 

Susan777

Puritan Board Sophomore

What is everyone's take on this? In the video, the pastor makes the argument that empathy is a sin and that Christians should be sympathic instead. He also quotes some scripture in support.
I guess I see a greater correspondence between empathy and compassion than these fellows. They seem to be drawing a sharper distinction than is warranted. To me, empathy, sympathy and compassion are all aspects of Spirit-wrought fruit in the believer and to tease them out so forcefully and dogmatically seems like a tempest in a teapot.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
This is a classic example of clickbait. Headline: "X (something you always thought was good) is EVIL"; article/video: if we define X in this particular way (unique to me) then it is evil."

Let's look at some contemporary usage (actual examples from Merriam-Webster):

For instance, people who are highly egoistic and presumably lacking in empathy keep their own welfare paramount in making moral decisions like how or whether to help the poor.
— Daniel Goleman, The New York Times, 28 Mar. 1989
(My translation: "some self-centered people who have a hard time imagining what it is like to be poor are focused on their own interests in discussions about helping the poor." Now we may argue about whether the point being made is an accurate critique of why people don't help the poor, but is anyone going to argue that such a lack of imagination (= empathy) of what it might feel like to be poor is a good thing?

"The man thought all this talk was fine, but he was more concerned with just getting water. And, if I was going to be successful on this mission, I had to remember what his priorities were. The quality you need most in United Nations peacekeeping is empathy."
— Geordie Elms, quoted in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 1992
(Similarly here. Is it sinful for Mr Elms to try to put himself in the position of the people he was trying help, thus understanding that daily survival might be their biggest goal, not peace and reconciliation? I hardly think so).

Here's the Merriam-Webster definition of empathy:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Is it always sinful to be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of another without them having to fully communicate those feelings explicitly? Hardly. Could it be sometimes? Maybe.

Much less exciting (but more accurate) headline for the video: "Some forms of empathy are virtues, others are sinful" But who would click that video?
 

BRK

Puritan Board Freshman
I watched the video and cannot say I agree with the methods or conclusions. For one, Merriam-Webster, in distinguishing sympathy and empathy, actually defines the words such that sympathy is closer to the meaning of empathy as presented in the video.

"The difference in meaning is usually explained with some variation of the following: sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them."

Secondly, I think this is straining at a definition that cannot be consistently applied across all circumstances, thus rendering all efforts to emphasize as sinful. In medicine, for example, empathy is framed as the process of coming along side a person in need with efforts to understand their feelings or circumstances without actually having experienced them. We cannot truly say "I know what you're going through", because we have not gone through their exact experience, but we can say something like "I understand that you're feeling afraid". Sympathy is actually closer to the first meaning than is empathy.

Anyway, I do not think that empathy, or sympathy for that matter, is always a sin and I would not wish to bind the conscience of a believer on the matter.
 

retroGRAD3

Puritan Board Freshman
I watched the video and cannot say I agree with the methods or conclusions. For one, Merriam-Webster, in distinguishing sympathy and empathy, actually defines the words such that sympathy is closer to the meaning of empathy as presented in the video.

"The difference in meaning is usually explained with some variation of the following: sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them."

Secondly, I think this is straining at a definition that cannot be consistently applied across all circumstances, thus rendering all efforts to emphasize as sinful. In medicine, for example, empathy is framed as the process of coming along side a person in need with efforts to understand their feelings or circumstances without actually having experienced them. We cannot truly say "I know what you're going through", because we have not gone through their exact experience, but we can say something like "I understand that you're feeling afraid". Sympathy is actually closer to the first meaning than is empathy.

Anyway, I do not think that empathy, or sympathy for that matter, is always a sin and I would not wish to bind the conscience of a believer on the matter.
Based on some of the feedback, I would have to agree that it is not possible to give a definite answer either way all of the time.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
Well, it is seldom very helpful to make a rule based on a single way to define a word, since almost all words have a range of meaning. It's even less helpful if the definition you are using is particularly narrow or uncommon.

That said, I feel it is safe to say that most people use empathy to mean not merely caring about those who are hurting but in a sense also feeling the hurt yourself, alongside of them. By that definition, I have a hard time accepting the idea that empathy is sinful.

Does not Christ feel the persecution of his people, alongside of them, so strongly that he phrases things so as to suggest that to alleviate their suffering is to alleviate his? "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

Did not Paul feel the pains of the churches, alongside of them, so strongly that he attributed their trials to himself? "There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak?" (2 Corinthians 11:28-29).

Did not Daniel feel the coming hardships of God's people, alongside of them, so strongly that his own body became sick? "And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days" (Daniel 8:37).

These examples may not fit the definition of empathy as some would describe it, but they come close enough to the definition most people use that I would not want to disparage empathy without a detailed explanation—and would probably prefer to use different wording altogether.
 

Jo_Was

Puritan Board Freshman
Some helpful comments already here. I think another helpful thing is to remember that empathy is not just applied to a single emotion or negative experience; it's also a pretty foundational aspect, I would argue, of what naturally comes with the Christian pilgrimage in life. Empathy does not ask that you "jump in" to the situation with someone as if you are also going to go into the same situation, but that you experientially acknowledge that you have been of that ilk also. Does not Original Sin and our understanding of the misery of mankind serve as the ultimate empathetic witness as we call sinners to repentance because we ourselves have been given a gracious deliverance from our misery? Also, empathy and sympathy do not just apply to times of sadness or grieving, though we often think of it in that sense. How can we rejoice in full assurance and as one body with other believers without empathy in also having and knowing a full experience of that same grace? I'm not so sure we can so easily eliminate the idea of experiential living as part of the Christian witness. I think Puritan and Scottish experientialist preaching often drives an empathetic approach to the Christian pilgrimage. Obviously some strains of experiential emphasis can be much if not balanced, but I don't know that it's so easy to separate this term empathy (as others have already noted) from sympathy or divorce from the Christian life wholesale.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
I think 99% of folks with podcasts and vblogs ought to close up shop and stop broadcasting.

Instead of parsing words for hours, they ought to go out and feed the poor.
 
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