This issue is big enough that I’m posting my Substack post here.

The Centrality of Empathy for Godly Pastors

It has been brought to my attention by a number of friends, readers, and students that some pastors and professors and leaders are putting down empathy as a virtue for Christians and especially for pastors. I have myself heard a pastor in Chicagoland say he does not have empathy. From what I’ve seen of him I would agree, but I say so in grief.

From the best I can tell these denouncers of empathy are distinguishing the virtue of compassion from the potential vice of empathy. The former means to “suffer with” and the latter “to suffer in.” Or, to “feel with” and “feel in.” The former is rational; the latter appears to be less (that) rational, and perhaps irrational. At least in their constructions, it’s OK to suffer with but not to suffer in.

This may be the most unwise piece of pastoral theology I’ve seen in my lifetime. Pastors without empathy are not pastoring.

My response follows.

First, method. These folks are defining terms on the basis of English words rooted in etymology. This is called the “etymological fallacy.” We do not define terms by their etymology. “Sincere” no more means without wax than “cupboard” is a board on which one places cups. Beware definitions based on etymology. The Bible’s terms are far more important than these English terms and I will get the Bible’s terms below.

Second, definitions.

I want to explore how these terms are defined in a standard dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s definition of compassion and empathy:


sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Their 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.

It adds this as a second definition:

the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.

They distinguish the two this way:

Compassion is the broader word: it refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain.

Empathy refers to the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves.

Third, it is worth slowing down to see that psychologists operate with a definition something like this one by Jean Decety:

Empathy is a concept central to psychiatry, psychotherapy and clinical psychology. The construct of empathy involves not only the affective experience of the other person's actual or inferred emotional state but also some minimal recognition and understanding of another's emotional state.

It appears to me the recent proponents of diminishing empathy are not only basing their definition on etymology, they are ignoring standard definitions and in so doing are misdefining the both compassion and empathy.

They then invent their own definitions, extrapolate to something out of line, equate that with empathy, and then castigate a genuinely important act — empathy — as a result. We need both compassion and empathy, not one or the other.

So, fourth, such persons distance themselves from suffering (Jan Owens @janjowen) or diminish, or suppress feelings and emotions when one encounters someone in pain. My student, Becky Castle Miller, has recently written a thesis on emotions and feelings (they are not the same reality) and her work has made me more alert to the reality of white evangelical men suppressing feelings, exaggerating rationality, and combining such in the rise of masculinist white evangelicalism (K. Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne). Suppressing feelings has been the name of the game for many men in evangelicalism since World War II. By the way, Becky is at work turning her thesis into a book.

Fifth, lack of empathy characterizes narcissism and that was first thing I thought of when I heard about these recent denouncers of empathy. I suspect in the diminishment of empathy one will encounter someone who wants to control rather than be sidetracked by someone else’s emotions and feelings. There is a fear on the part of some that in empathizing one will get lost in another’s feelings or emotions or anxieties or troubles.

Check out these tweets @jdahlmd:

PSA: Widely promoting that empathy is a sin, while offering a position of authority (pastor) is a billboard advertisement to power seeking people who lack empathy biologically or socially to enter the organization. In medicine, these people are called narcissists or psychopaths.

3/ The statement "empathy is sin" is a test designed to determine feasibility of manipulation. This type of floating an idea or boundary challenge is the initial maneuver that narcissists/psychopaths use to determine whether they will be able to exert control w/person or group.

Side note: I cannot imagine who needs to LEARN empathy more than a bunch of white, type A, high achieving, Reformed, complementarian males who have LIKELY sought these positions of authority to feed some intense need for power This system is built to attract these types of men.

The empathic person feels the pain of another. When that person’s pain is being verbally rehearsed before another the listener who has pastoral gifts hears and empathizes. Empathic persons enter into the feelings of others for the sake of support, relief and healing.

In addition there is the added insinuation by some that compassion is rational and empathy irrational. This is inaccurate. If an act is irrational it is a case of bad judgment but that judgment has nothing to do with empathy. If one gets lost in another’s feelings or emotions, that’s a lack of boundaries and has nothing to do with empathy.

Here is empathy: “ p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Garamond} span.s1 {color: #ff2500} Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15).

Sixth, and for me the big one: instead of spending our time parsing the distinction between two English terms (one rooted in Latin, compassion, and the other in Greek, empathy), we need to ask about God and about Jesus in his public ministry.

God is often described in the Old Testament as loaded with “lovingkindness” and “love.” More closely now: one of the Great OT terms for God is racham, which is often translated “compassion” but can be translated “the innards being moved and twisted in pain and pity.” Forget “feeling with” vs. “feeling in.” What we have here is an overwhelming feeling by God when God sees someone in pain.

In the Gospels, Jesus is often described with the verb splanchnizomai, which means the same (almost) as racham. It means to be moved with emotion and pity for someone in pain and pastoral neglect, and it leads from understanding to actions that help alleviate the pain (like healing, teaching).

Here are some references in Mark and Luke, and I italicize the translations of splanchnizomai:

Mark 1:41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Mark 6:34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Mark 8:2I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.

Mark 9:22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.

Luke 7:13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

Luke 10:33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

Luke 15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

One can’t parse from these references big distinctions between feeling with vs. feeling in, nor can one find getting lost in someone’s feelings. Nor can one find here something irrational. One can impose such ideas but the texts aren’t cooperating. What we have is a deeply emotional Jesus being moved emotionally, in feeling, and sometimes in tears at the pain of others. A good explanation is that he entered into their pain. Most people call that both compassion and empathy.

Seventh, the response to a person in pain for the follower of Jesus, for the person in whom God’s Spirit dwells, with whom God is at work, is emotional pain in another person’s pain.

Pastors are pained by people in pain. Pained in another’s pain is an empathic response.

The fear some people today of getting lost in another’s pain is a chimera and diversion. Empathizing is the calling of the pastor. Pastors without empathy are not being pastoral.

Give us pastors who cry like Jesus.