is empathy sinful?

When I decided to pursue a dual graduate degree in divinity and mental health counseling in the mid-1990’s, a close colleague offered a warning: Watch out. Those kinds of programs emphasize feelings, and feelings only draw us away from truth and turn us inward.

A few months ago, Scot McKnight addressed a recent ‘resurgence’, you might say, of that old and worn sentiment. He was responding to an essay by Joe Rigney still posted at Desiring God entitled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts Through Compassion.” (That title, by the way…ouch.) It’s a piece written in the genre of CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (an endeavor better left to Lewis), and while there are moments of insight, it’s largely an exercise in pastoral malpractice, psychological misunderstanding, and etymological confusion. But as podcasts like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and books like Jesus and John Wayne are showing us, this brand keeps on keeping on, bad theology and psychology and all.

My seminary colleague warned me long ago. But I sinned. I grew in empathy. Day in and day out, I sat with people in pain, struggling with addiction and spiritual apathy, marital conflict and vocational unrest. My clients told me, a kid in his late 20’s, their stories of depression and doubt, shame and guilt. In the process, I was invited to face my own story, the ache of my parent’s divorce, the low-level anxiety that never left my body, the shame that kept me from risking more, the arrogance that marked my way of showing up on campus. I was asked to consider how others experienced me so that I might grow in self-knowledge, in deeper repentance and more healthy connection. My cold heart thawed, and I grew in love and compassion. My heart was moved (see McKnight’s piece on compassion as racham and splanchnizomai…it’s so good). I was growing up. And dare I say it – experience was my teacher. (PS: before you write me off for this, see James KA Smith’s new book.)

The 17th c. Presbyterian pastor John Flavel once wrote, “there are some men and women who have lived 40 or 50 years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.” I didn’t think I was in sin. After all, my companions on this journey were not just wise psychologists but trusted pastors like Flavel (Keeping the Heart) and Richard Baxter (The Reformed Pastor and On The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and The Benefits of Self-Acquaintance). At my beside were the pastoral Letters of the Westminster divine and author of Lex Rex Samuel Rutherford, letters which today might be described as sentimental, unmanly, perhaps even therapeutic.

Fear motivates much of what I see from folks who recycle modernistic dichotomies like “truth vs. feelings.” The Rigney piece recycles this to warn us that empathy leads to fusion – “fusion, the melting together of persons so that one personality is lost in the other. Empathy demands, ‘Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.'” If Rigney took the time to be a bit more curious, he might discover that psychologists are just as concerned about fusion as he is. In family systems theory, fusion is the absence of differentiation, that capacity to be connected to another and be oneself. I get why Rigney is worried…fusion is profoundly unhelpful, unhealthy, and relationally toxic. But to conflate fusion with empathy is a big problem. Rigney just doesn’t understand some basic psychological concepts. Differentiation makes empathy possible!

Indeed, empathy is a virtue as McKnight says, central to our pastoral work. It’s not lost me that an absence of empathy is core to the definition of narcissism. I’ve written a little something on this. Might it be that this kind of recycled truth vs. feelings theology enables narcissism? I thought that was the case 25 years ago when I was an emerging pastor, and I’ve watched it play out since. It’s remarkable that it keeps on keeping on, fueling anxious systems, disconnected and arrogant leaders, even pastoral malpractice and abuse.

I was a pastor for a long time. Now I teach and counsel pastors. Folks like me cultivate that “discourse with the heart,” as Flavel says, precisely so that our next generation of pastors won’t become fused on the one hand, or cut themselves off from connection on the other, precisely so that pastors will be so acquainted with their own hearts (“self-knowledge”) that they’ll be able to move toward others in healthy compassion and self-giving love. God moved toward us even in our first exile (“Where are you?”), and in Jesus and through the Spirit continues to move toward us in faithful, cruciform, compassionate hesed love. Indeed, God would go to hell and back for us. I’m so concerned about narcissistic leadership in the church precisely because it doesn’t look like Jesus at all.

Back when I began my training as a pastor and a therapist, I kept Philippians 3 close by: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” There is a mystery to this, of course. I don’t think Paul is inviting us to be fused, in the psychological sense. As John Stott once said, “You need to have a self to lose yourself.” But I do think pastoral work requires courage, indeed a “beautiful risk” (Olthuis) as we participate in the sufferings of a broken world. When we do, we may be disrupted, even confused, sometimes infuriated, almost always moved. St. Paul was. Differentiation as a way of envisioning emotional/spiritual health and maturity means being centered and moved at the same time. That’s possible. The question I ask pastors is: Are you willing to do the inner work to get there? As I do intensive work with pastors, many will say, “I waited far too long to engage this inner conversation.”

My seminary colleague who warned me – I lost touch with him years ago after his marriage and ministry dissolved. I sometimes wonder about him and pray with hope that he’s taken that courageous journey into the unknown terrain of his own heart, into the messy realities of his own story and scattered emotions…and discovered there the God who is no stranger to it all and whose mercies are never-ending.


Chuck DeGroat is a licensed therapist, a spiritual director, author of five books, and retreat leader/speaker. He specializes in issues of abuse and trauma, pastoral (and leadership) health, and navigating issues of doubt and dark nights on the faith journey. He is also a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. He pastored in Orlando and San Francisco before transitioning to training and forming pastors. He also trains clergy in issues of abuse and trauma, conducts pastor and planter assessments, facilitates church consultations and investigations of abuse among pastors and within congregations. He has been married to Sara for 29 years and is the father of two amazing daughters. He serves as Professor of Counseling and Christian Spirituality and Executive Director of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program at Western Theological Seminary  in Holland, Michigan. He is also a faculty member for the Soul Care Institute.

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