What do you have in common with a Levite? Maybe more than you think!
Among the tribes of Israel the Levites held a unique place. Literally born into their roles, they served in the tabernacle in high-profile positions that took time and training to master. Frequently they stood up front and out there for all worshipers to see. Yet they worked hard to maintain the tabernacle—not a lot of glory in cleaning up after animal sacrifices.
As Christian men, we also form a tribe set apart. Our goals now ring clear: Put God first and serve him wholeheartedly.
No matter what position you hold at work, home or church, you represent God. In every part of life he invites you to serve him. Every day brings new opportunities to excel for the Lord. You can honor him with your attitude, effort and enthusiasm.
If you choose to.
Sure, you might want God to give you a more glamorous or exciting task to tackle. It’s normal to feel that way, but it’s a waste of time. Instead, change your perspective and take a God’s-eye view. Your service counts no matter what work God gives you to do for him.
God cares about you and loves you. Even if someone else makes more money, works in a more high-profile career or serves in a more prominent role than you do, he’s no closer to the Lord than you—nor more preferred. God loves you no matter what you do, as long as you put your heart into your work and honor him in the process.
Many men trap themselves into believing that their only value comes from their jobs. Their career gives them power and purpose. What they do defines who they are.
Why not be like the Levites and embrace your calling? Seeing your whole life as a sacrifice for the Lord not only allows you to provide for yourself and your family but also brings purpose to any task to which you put your hand, heart or shoulder. And others can see God’s mark in all that you do.
To Take Away
With What aspects of your daily work do you struggle the most?
If you were to rank all of the tasks you accomplish in a day, what would you find to be the most important work you do?
Pray for the wisdom to approach your daily tasks with joy, doing them as unto the Lord.
ABSTRACT: Empathy has become a more recognized and applauded virtue in recent decades — so much so that many now count it superior to sympathy. Whereas sympathy maintains distance between comforter and sufferer, it is claimed, empathy draws comforters more deeply into a sufferer’s pain. A close look at the emotional and relational dynamics fostered by empathy, however, reveals some potential dangers — not only to comforters and sufferers, but also to leaders, churches, and whole societies. Sympathy may call for more emotional space in a relationship, but that space may be what we need to most effectively bring true comfort to the hurting.
If you look up Hebrews 4:15 in a number of different English translations, you will find that most of them use the word sympathize to describe our Great High Priest’s posture toward our weaknesses. For example, the ESV reads, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” The NASB, NKJV, CSB, and NET all follow suit in their translations.
We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin.
The Greek word underneath the English word in question is sympathizo. Instead of using the English cognate sympathize, however, the NIV uses a different word — empathize — to translate the Greek. At one level, this is a very small change, the substitution of one prefix for another. Sympathy (and its Latin equivalent compassion) literally means “suffer with” (sym + pathos in Greek; com + passio in Latin). Empathy, on the other hand, means “suffer in.”
The NIV’s translation decision reflects a broader cultural shift away from sympathy and toward empathy. Is the change from with to in significant? In a number of articles over the last year, I’ve suggested that it is — even going so far as to speak of “the sin of empathy.”1 Some readers have been surprised by such language, and understandably so. Isn’t empathy a virtue? And if so, how could there be a “sin of empathy”?
The present essay is an attempt to clarify both the value and danger of empathy, as well as its relationship to sympathy in the modern world.
Empathy as a term is very recent.2 It was introduced into English in the early twentieth century in the field of aesthetics. It originally meant “feeling in,” and referred to the ability to project one’s own imagined feelings into the world (a definition that is almost the opposite of its contemporary meaning). In 1955, Reader’s Digest defined the term as “the ability to appreciate the other person’s feelings without yourself becoming so emotionally involved that your judgment is affected.”
Literally, to empathize is “to feel in.” A recent article in the Journal of Social Psychology notes the difficulty of evaluating the success of empathy as a concept in social and personal psychology.3 Put simply, the term has no agreed-upon definition, making analysis and assessment nearly impossible. In the article, the authors note a number of possible definitions:
knowing another’s thoughts and feelings;
imagining another’s thoughts and feelings;
adopting the posture of another;
actually feeling as another does;
imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place;
feeling distress at another’s suffering;
feeling for another’s suffering, sometimes called pity or compassion;
projecting oneself into another’s situation.
In other words, sometimes empathy is defined as an intentional cognitive act. It’s the ability to see things from others’ point of view, to really understand what and how they think. An empathetic person is able to “put themselves in another’s shoes.” This cognitive understanding of empathy is sometimes called “perspective taking.”
On the other hand, sometimes empathy refers to an affective or emotional act. It’s not merely knowing what someone feels, but actually feeling what they feel (often called “emotion sharing”). If they are happy, I’m happy. If they are sad, I’m sad.
Or again, empathy may refer not to sharing the same emotion as another person, but instead to the warm feelings we have for those in distress (under this definition, empathy is sometimes equated with compassion or sympathy). Sometimes this “feeling in” is voluntary; we choose to immerse ourselves in the emotions of another person. At other times, it is involuntary; empathetic people are highly sensitive to the emotions of others and can be overcome by them, whether they want to be or not.
At times, empathy is used as a synonym for sympathy and compassion. In many contemporary discussions, however, empathy is set over against sympathy as a superior form of comfort and help.
For example, Brené Brown insists that sympathy drives disconnection.4 Sympathy stands aloof from suffering. It attempts to find silver linings in the afflictions of others. Empathy, on the other hand, fuels connection. It joins people in their darkness, and it refuses to make any judgments. (Interestingly, Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people,” not “feeling in people.”)
For Brown, sympathy and compassion highlight an asymmetry in the relationship — there is a sufferer and a comforter, someone in the pit and someone attempting to help him. Empathy, on the other hand, attempts to minimize that sense of asymmetry both by withholding judgment and by resisting the urge to respond to the despairing words of sufferers. Instead, we simply sit in the dark with them, and listen.
Based on the various definitions above, it’s clear that we can find much to praise in the concept of empathy. It’s good to try to understand others, to see things from their point of view, to recognize their felt reality. It’s good to feel the same emotions as other people — to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). It’s good to feel warm and compassionate emotions for those in distress (and hopefully be moved to help them in concrete ways).
Nevertheless, the devil loves to hide real sins in innocent phrases, and especially inside of virtues. As with modern ideas of tolerance, for example, empathy is the sort of concept that can hide a myriad of harmful and sinful dynamics.5 Dictionary definitions are one thing; the emotional and relational realities that can easily fly underneath the banner of empathy are the real issue.6 What’s more, I think the substitution of empathy for sympathy as a paramount virtue is “of more than philological importance,” to use a phrase from C.S. Lewis.7 So, let’s begin our critical evaluation there, with the shift from sympathy to empathy.
As I noted above, sympathy is an English word borrowed directly from the Greek word sympathizo. Like its Latin cognate compassion, it means “to suffer with” or “to feel with” (Greek = sym + pathos; Latin = com + passio). So as a first clue to the significance of the shift, let’s ask, “What’s the difference between saying that we should suffer with others and saying that we should suffer in them?”
Both words concern our orientation to hurting and suffering people, but they represent this orientation differently. Sympathy willingly joins with sufferers in their pain. Empathy makes their suffering our own in a more universal and totalizing way. This, in fact, is why some commend empathy as a more loving response to the pain of others. To suffer or feel with someone seems to maintain a certain kind of emotional separation or boundary between the comforter and the afflicted; we’re with them, but we’re not in them. We maintain our own personal integrity and boundaries; I remain I and you remain you.
For some authors, the perceived emotional distance of sympathy is the problem that empathy overcomes. Empathy encourages a more full and complete fusion of my emotions and the emotions of the afflicted. For many, empathy’s virtue (and its superiority over sympathy) lies precisely in this fuller immersion in the pain and feelings of another, in so entering into their experience that we fully feel what they feel. As Brené Brown has argued, sympathy preserves a kind of asymmetry between comforter and afflicted, whereas empathy attempts to minimize this asymmetry by withholding judgment and evaluation.
The Danger of Apathy
Now at this point, it’s important to note that the emotional boundaries implied in sympathy could become a problem. Instead of sympathy, we could have apathy — no sharing of suffering or pain or emotion, no weeping with those who weep.
From our emotional distance, we might seek to love the hurting mainly through altering their theology in the moment of their pain. We might wield biblical truths as correction rather than as comfort. We might offer this ham-fisted correction when what is needed most is a simple and heartfelt acknowledgement that the pain is real and deep. Or perhaps what is needed most is no words at all, just presence and tears. We might find the distress and pain of others so disconcerting that we seek to short-circuit it by shutting it down, by forcing the sufferer out of the pit against their will. This is a real danger.8
Reacting or Responding?
But the emotional boundaries and separation implied in sympathy and compassion might serve another purpose. They might allow the comforter to maintain the kind of stability and self-differentiation necessary to actually provide the comfort and help that the sufferer needs. For example, Alastair Roberts has distinguished empathy from compassion in this way: empathy is often fundamentally or primarily oriented to the feelings of sufferers; compassion (or sympathy) is fundamentally or primarily oriented to their good.9
Because empathy (under certain definitions) is an emotive connection closely tied to the immediate feelings of the hurting, it can tend to be more reactive. Our empathy leads us to attempt to quickly alleviate what seems to be the most visible cause of the suffering (and thus sometimes we can mistake a symptom for the root). Sympathy, on the other hand, because it is fundamentally concerned with the overall good of the person who is suffering, is more responsive (rather than reactive) and is thus able to take sober-minded and carefully considered action to address others’ pain.
But in order to have this stable, responsive posture, sympathy must have the necessary emotional space to consider the picture as a whole and not get lost in the immediate acuteness of the suffering. In this sense, the “separation” involved in sympathy and compassion is rooted not in apathy, but in a deep desire for the good of the afflicted. What’s more, sympathy is humble, since it recognizes that the hot emotion of the present moment may not be the whole story. In fact, the hot emotion may blur our vision of what is most needful.
So then, if empathy entails a suspension of judgment, and if empathy involves a more comprehensive sharing of emotion, then the danger of empathy is immersion in the pain and suffering of another. If a sufferer is sinking in quicksand, an empathetic helper may attempt to jump in with both feet. A sympathetic helper, on the other hand, will step into the quicksand with one foot while keeping the other firmly planted on the shore (there’s the emotional boundary). Sympathy lays hold of something sturdy outside of the pit in order to provide an anchor, so that we can better help the one in the quicksand. Even Brené Brown, in commending empathy, identifies precisely this danger.
If struggle is being down in a hole, empathy is not jumping into the hole with someone who is struggling and taking on their emotions, or owning their struggle as yours to fix. If their issues become yours, now you have two people stuck in a hole. Not helpful. Boundaries are important here. We have to know where we end and others begin if we really want to show up with empathy.10
This danger is particularly acute for those who are naturally empathetic, those who are highly sensitive to the emotions of others, and therefore easily swallowed by their grief and distress. For them, boundaries are particularly important, both for their own good and for the good of those they are seeking to help.
Empathy and Leadership
But the dangers of empathy extend beyond the individuals in question. Empathy can also pose significant challenges to social groups, whether families, churches, organizations, or even whole societies.
In his book A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and family counselor, warns of the dangers of elevating empathy as the premier virtue for leaders. According to Friedman, while it’s essential for leaders to feel for others, care for others, identify with others, be responsive to others, and share the pain of others, in the modern context, empathy is often “a disguise for anxiety . . . and a power tool in the hands of the sensitive.”11
According to Friedman, why is empathy so prominent in the modern world? Because of “the herding/togetherness force characteristic of an anxious society,” one which allows the least mature, most invasive, and most reactive members of a community to hijack the agenda by demanding that the rest of the members adapt to them and their sensitivities.12 For Friedman, the issue is not whether we should care for those who are hurting; he is, after all, a marriage and family therapist. The issue is whether the sensitivities and concerns of the most reactive and least mature members should be allowed to set the agenda for a family, a church, or an organization. (Alastair Roberts summarizes Friedman’s work well.13)
Where empathy is regarded as a (or the) cardinal virtue (especially for leaders), the danger of sabotage and hijacking is particularly strong. As Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, “The passion of Pity [or what I’m calling empathy], the Pity we merely suffer, [is] the ache that leads men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth.”14 Under the influence of empathy, we may open ourselves up to what John Piper calls “emotional blackmail.”
Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, “If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.” There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question. This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.15
When these dynamics are present, empathy often leads to cowardice, to an unwillingness to say (even in a general way) anything that might cause distress to others (and particularly to those who have been hurt). Out of a good and sincere desire to protect victims of trauma and abuse, certain topics and truths are ruled out of bounds. They must not be said (or they must be uttered only with layers upon layers of qualifications and nuance that evacuate them of any force) because of the possibility that they might cause further distress to those who have been hurt.
This is because, in the grip of empathy, we’re unable to distinguish between the distress of others and harm to others. But consider Jesus, who caused distress to Mary and Martha (and Lazarus!) when he deliberately delayed coming to them in order to heal Lazarus. The apostle John describes this delay, which clearly caused great distress, as an act of love (John 11:5–6).
Under the influence of empathy, it’s easy to lose the distinction between distress and harm. And out of a good desire to avoid causing harm, we commit to not saying or doing anything that might cause distress. In such an environment, our ability to speak the truth contracts and constricts (sometimes under pressure from highly empathetic people), and as Lewis said, “Sorrows that used to purify now only fester.”16
How Abusers Manipulate Feelings
Lest we think that empathy is a danger only when faced with genuine suffering and hardship, however, consider the ways that abusers manipulate the feelings of those they abuse.
“Don’t tell anyone. If they found out, I’d be in so much trouble.” This is a direct manipulation of the empathy of a victim. (In his discussion of the passion of Pity [i.e., empathy], Lewis notes that through it, many a woman has been cheated out of her virginity.) And the manipulation doesn’t stop there. Abusers very often play on the soft-heartedness of churches and communities in order to evade responsibility for their actions. They redirect attention away from the suffering of actual victims to their own suffering as perpetrators, counting on our empathetic emotion-sharing to suspend our rational judgment about what should be done.
In such cases, churches don’t necessarily suffer from a lack of empathy, but instead from a radically misplaced empathy. But ensuring that our feelings are directed in the right place requires that we maintain the appropriate emotional boundaries so that we can think clearly and rightly about a particular situation. In other words, sympathy or compassion, with its insistence on self-differentiation and concern for long-term good, is what is needed.
Empathy and Tribalism
The possibility of misplaced empathy raises a final danger. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science, has written an entire book called Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.17
Bloom notes that, because we are finite and can feel the feelings of only a limited number of people, empathy is highly selective. Empathy, therefore, behaves like a spotlight, linking us to the suffering and feelings of particular people or groups and not others. This empathetic myopia results in competing empathies, with some identifying with the suffering of one group, and others identifying with the suffering of another group. This built-in bias inhibits our ability to see the big picture. We struggle to maintain an appropriate measure of objectivity. We find it easy to demonize those that we don’t feel empathy for. Thus, empathy for our in-group often goes hand in hand with intense anger (and even hatred) for our out-group. Thus, a recent spate of articles has noted that an increase in empathy, far from building connection, seems to be joined with increased polarization and tribalism.18
In other words, we are often selectively empathetic, turning our opponents into devils because they’re easier to hate.
The Virtue of Empathy
In the end, it’s the dangers and dynamics described here that I’m mainly concerned about, not the labels. I don’t want to be a stickler about words. The word empathy can be employed in ways that are perfectly good and right.
Abigail Dodds, as one good example, has given a compelling account of empathy’s natural goodness, while also highlighting its significant dangers.19 What’s more, her article highlights how a clear understanding of empathy’s proper place can help men and women serve together in the home, the church, and the world. If empathy simply means “understanding the perspective and emotions of another,” then not only is it good, but it’s essential in order to love people. And even some kind of emotion-sharing is demanded by the call to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice, as well as by Paul’s words about the body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Empathy in this sense is an aspect of love.
This is especially true for counseling those who are suffering. As a friend of mine who is a Christian psychologist puts it,
For me, good Christian therapy — the kind that promotes God-centeredness — requires connecting empathically with people where they are (without necessarily endorsing all that they are experiencing). We do this in order to help them grow in self-awareness so that Christ can enter into their unresolved and unredeemed internal world in order to bring healing.
In this way, empathy, rather than being superior to sympathy, is the servant of sympathy (or compassion). By sharing the emotions of the afflicted (including their negative and painful emotions), I am able to build connection, to build trust, to cross the divide that so often isolates the sufferer from everyone else. The ultimate goal of that emotional connection is to bring the sufferer to Christ so that he can comfort and heal. Empathy serves sympathy, and sympathy moves us to loving action, just as sympathy so often moved Jesus to act to help the hurting in the Gospels (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32).
Weeping for Good
At the same time, my own preference is to follow the biblical authors in primarily using words that mean “suffer with” — sympathy and compassion — to refer to a Christ-driven and Christ-tethered impulse to join others in their suffering, to feel for them and with them, to identify with the hurting as much as one can without sinning.
While we maintain our fundamental identity and allegiance to Christ, we weep with those who weep, we listen to their lament and their pain, we consider both their immediate feelings and their ultimate good, we learn to humbly and wisely distinguish between their felt reality and actual reality, and we use wisdom in bringing such distinctions to bear for them. We communicate with our words, our tears, our faces, and our presence, “This is hard. I know you feel that way. I’m with you in this, and I have hope.”
In all of this, my main concern is not to correct sufferers in the moment of their pain, nor to call into question the deep distress of those who are suffering. Instead, I simply want to insist that comforters maintain their integrity while joining others in their pain. Call it maintaining boundaries. Call it preserving self-differentiation. Call it avoiding enmeshment. Call it rejecting corrupt and unhealthy empathy. Call it resisting the idolatry of feelings. Call it remaining tethered to the True and the Good. Call it maintaining allegiance to Jesus.
Whatever you call it, it’s refusing to be totally immersed in the feelings of another. It’s refusing to allow other people to steer our emotional vehicles. It’s refusing to concede what should not be conceded, and resisting attempts to subordinate truth to the feelings and sensitivities of the most reactive and immature members of a community. It’s moving deliberately and intentionally into the pain of others while clinging to Jesus for dear life. It’s maintaining hope in the face of another’s despair, even as you wisely choose the timing of encouragements, exhortations, and corrections.
As Christians, we must have deep feeling for the hurting, the broken, and the suffering. We are, after all, called to clothe ourselves with “bowels of mercies” (Colossians 3:12 KJV). But our feelings, and our sharing in the feelings of others, must be tethered to Truth, to Reality, to Christ. May God help us to do so.
The dictionary defines tolerance as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Now consider the actual attitudes and behavior that fly under the banner of tolerance in the modern world. Few things are actually more intolerant than the modern notion of tolerance. One can easily imagine a Screwtape Letter where the elder demon describes the demonic strategy in hiding totalitarian instincts under the banner of tolerance. Likewise, if someone were to warn about “the sin of tolerance,” many modern Christian readers would intuitively grasp what he meant. ↩
This is a major reason why I utilized the Screwtape genre in my initial writings on the subject. The Screwtape genre makes use of demonic exaggeration in order to shed light on the subtleties of sin. Likewise, in The Great Divorce (which I relied upon for another article), Lewis depicts the damned souls from the Grey Town as exaggerated versions of real people. They are essentially caricatures. But a caricature is drawn in order to accentuate real features of a person’s face. In these cases, the ghosts and the demons show the end result of our own sins on earth; they show what happens when corruption is full-grown.
In this way, the exaggeration and caricature acts like a microscope, allowing us to more clearly see the corrupt tendencies and trajectories of our own hearts. Lewis shows us the exaggerated corrupt fruit so that we can understand the present corrupt seed. In other words, the Screwtape genre lends itself to unmasking the actual dynamics beneath our otherwise unobjectionable terms. Few Christians come out and say, “I’m seeking to be accepted by God based on my performance.” Instead we talk about the importance of holiness. Our functional works-righteousness hides behind biblical language.
A clear example of this sort of demonic unmasking through the Screwtape genre is Lewis’s observations on the term Unselfishness. Screwtape notes the success of the demonic philological arm in substituting Unselfishness for the Christian virtue of Charity. Unselfishness is a negative term emphasizing what we’re going without. Charity is a positive term emphasizing the good we’re doing for others. The value of the shift is that the demons can “teach a man to surrender benefits not that others may be happy in having them but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them” (The Screwtape Letters [1942; repr., New York: Harper, 2015], 141).
He goes on to note the ways that Unselfishness can mask very complicated forms of self-righteousness. One member of a family says they’d like to go out to eat. Another member says, “I’d prefer to stay in, but I’m willing to go out” (in the spirit of Unselfishness). The first person withdraws the proposal in the same spirit of Unselfishness, not wanting to allow others to practice petty altruisms on him. Instead, the first says, “I’m willing to do what everyone else wants.” Immediately the whole family, all caught in the grip of Unselfishness, insists that they’re each willing to do what everyone else wants as well. They seek to outdo one another in showing Unselfishness, with the result that “passions are aroused . . . and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides” (144).
Now at this point, someone might object, “But Lewis, these people aren’t actually being unselfish; they’re being the opposite. Their behavior is profoundly selfish and self-righteous. No one would define Unselfishness in the way that you have.” And Lewis would no doubt reply, “Quite so. People rarely advertise their sins as such. Envy hides behind a mask of “equality and justice,” greed behind a facade of “blessing and prosperity,” laziness behind the desire to respect other people’s space, busybody-ness behind the call to love and sacrifice for others, pride and superiority behind gratitude (‘I thank you, God, that I’m not like that man . . .’). The devil loves to hide real sins in innocent phrases, and especially inside of virtues. Screwtape helps us to see the demonic traps beneath the mundane terms.” ↩
C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (1949; repr., New York: Harper, 2009), 25. ↩
This is why, before writing my initial criticism of empathy, I devoted an entire article to this danger (see “Killing Them Softly: Compassion That Warms Satan’s Heart,” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/killing-them-softly). Interestingly, though in that letter I had Screwtape encourage his protégé to employ “God works all things together for good” as a part of the demonic strategy to corrupt compassion (by wielding Romans 8:28 as a weapon against the hurting), no one objected to my placing the biblical passage in the mouth of the devil. I suspect that this is because we all recognize that the glory of Romans 8:28 can be twisted and used in unloving ways. My suggestion in my recent writings is that empathy can be similarly twisted. ↩