There are probably more, but my thoughts have taken me to three pitfalls which I have found can accompany empathy.
Empathy focuses on feelings. God created us as emotional beings and we are told to have compassion on one another and to share in one another’s feelings (1 Peter 3:8).
When untethered from truth, however, empathy becomes corrupted just as other virtues can.
We are told to live at peace with one another (Romans 12:18), for example, and to cultivate peace in our lives as a whole (Psalm 34:14). If peace is isolated from truth, though, there is a danger of becoming apathetic and passive to sin or suffering. Again, if goodness is isolated from truth, it begins to mirror what the world perceives as ‘good’, and not the true goodness found in God’s Word.
Empathy, too, needs to be wrapped tightly in God’s truth. Without this truth intertwined there is nothing governing my feelings. God’s Word and His promises must take precedence over my fleeting and unreliable emotions.
“The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” – C S Lewis
Identifying with the depth of sorrow that another is feeling through a painful trial is good; it allows us to draw near in prayer, support and encouragement. Remove truth from the equation, though, and you may believe that suffering is abhorrent and shouldn’t exist in the world. Suffering is never enjoyable and doesn’t ‘feel’ good, but the Bible is very clear that it is permitted for a purpose (Romans 5:3-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7) and should be rejoiced in (James 1:2).
"But they're going through a really hard time" is a phrase I hear all too often both at work and in social situations. Remove the "but" and it conveys an understanding of difficult circumstances, perhaps even involving empathy. However, the addition of that small word indicates an excusal of behaviour.
In a previous job, where I worked in a school with vulnerable children, I was constantly met with a variety of excuses for poor behaviour. My strapline (or so it felt!) became "that explains your behaviour, but it doesn't excuse it". This was usually followed by some work to help them understand why whatever they did was wrong and how they could make reparations. You see, it would have been easy for me to distort my empathy to the point that I excused their choice, for example, to throw a chair at a teacher. I certainly understood that they were having a bad day, things at home were tough and the teacher had unknowingly touched a nerve. It’s not my job to make excuses for behaviour, though. If the behaviour is never challenged and no better way is shown, the child will believe that it’s okay for them to throw that chair and may do so again.
The same goes for my Christian walk; I might be able to understand sin's logic, but I should never rationalise it. For example, if I have a friend who is slandering another due to being hurt by them, as much as I may be able to understand and empathise with her feelings, it would be a distortion of empathy to tell her that her sin ‘makes sense’ and is thus justified. Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation with someone close to you. It’s our job as friends to point out, lovingly, the sinful nature of her words; not to judge her, but neither to ignore nor excuse what she is doing.
"Let all that you do be done in love" (1 Corinthians 16:14 NASB)
I've mentioned in a previous article how it can be easy to 'switch off' from the needs and emotions of those around us. Perhaps one reason for this is the emotional impact empathy can have upon the person empathising. It hurts to be empathetic.
In Social Work we talk about emotional burnout. We do our best job when we empathise with service users, putting ourselves in their shoes in order to understand their circumstances and ascertain the type of support they need and the best solutions for them. However, the emotional toll of doing this can be great.
I've found the same outside work. When I put myself in another person’s shoes and empathise then I find myself better equipped to support them. However, there is a danger that this may lead to despair when exposed to deep suffering and pain in other people's lives. At work we develop appropriate strategies to combat such an occurrence. In our personal lives as Christians there are also 'strategies' that can be employed to tackle this issue, as well as the other pitfalls mentioned.
- Paul exhorts us to pray “in everything” (Philippians 4:6). Pray for guidance on how to handle emotions and empathy. Prayerfully meditate on the root of my emotions. Pray for support when it hurts. Pray, pray, pray!
- Search the Scriptures to see good and proper examples of empathy. Be reminded of Christ's perfect empathy and how this has no sin in it.
- The devil will seek to use and distort our empathy - put on the full armour of God to stand against his 'wiles' (Ephesians 6:11-18).
- Cultivate a proper sense of ourselves by “humbl[ing] yourselves under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6 NASB).
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; prove me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any grievous way in me; and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24 JND)