Lord's Day Liturgy

Hard Feelings

You may not be familiar with some of the discussions, debates, and derogatory broadsides going on about empathy (here is one recent thread about it), but I am sure you’re dealing with the mindset. It used to be talked about in other ways, one of the more famous is “people don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.” Which, sure, is fine as far as it goes, until you get to the Emergency Room with the bone sticking out of your thigh. As for me, I’d rather not know if the doctor cares; knock me out and do what you know to do.

I first read about a distinction between sympathy (feeling with) and empathy (feeling the same as) in a book about leadership almost a decade ago. It matters how one defines the terms, and some people use empathy as a synonym with sympathy, but others in our culture have begun to magnify empathy, even weaponize it, and that’s bad. (Here is a good example of how bad it can be.)

There is zero equivocation on whether or not we as Christians are supposed to love others, including our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44)(. God’s Word also describes the bowels of compassion (σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ, Colossians 3:12), and God’s Spirit enables the right sort of kindness and gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23). The book of Proverbs talks about sweetness of speech increasing persuasiveness (Proverbs 16:21, see also Proverbs 27:9), and we come back to Paul’s exhortation, with the goal of building up the body in love, to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).

But to be clear, sin is not something that is fixed with empathy. It is not fixed with anything but Christ’s sacrifice. We have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, but the difference is that He was tempted like us but without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

The gospel is not affirmative therapy. A good parent doesn’t share in fussiness to get his five year old into contentment, a good pastor doesn’t share bitterness to get his sheep into patience, a good friend doesn’t share doubt to get her friend to live by faith. A good prophet doesn’t say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Of course there are sufferers who can, and should, be comforted (2 Corinthians 1:3-6; 13:11). We are exhorted to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). But we are also instructed to exhort one another that we would not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). Sin creates hard feelings, and again, hard feelings aren’t fixed by someone else sharing in them. The God-breathed Word doesn’t endorse whatever we’re feeling, it rebukes and corrects, it breaks us up, so that we would be complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17).