Who’s Afraid of Empathy?

Are we a society of narcissists? Without a doubt. And are we a people afraid of guilt and shame? More than most. Would we rather commiserate with our own misery than take the outstretched hand of others? Plainly. It is astronomically easier to “grin and bear it” than it is to admit weakness. And on account of this, we hide behind excuses like “you wouldn’t understand” or “you’ve never walked in my shoes” or “you’re not me, so stop trying to understand.” And we count on people’s lack of empathy to be a cover for our apathy, anger, suffering, guilt and shame for any number of things or conditions. We rely on others not being capable of empathy because it allows us to reject their compassion as patronizing and condescending; allowing us to continue in our misery. And we’re often right. The absence of empathy can often lead to the misconstrual of suffering as sin, conflating illness with culpability leading to the misdiagnosis of mental illness and other psychological disorders as solely existing in simple categories of sin and spiritual rebellion.

I’ve done those things and I’ve made those excuses in defending my misery by declaring the absence of empathy, I cursed those I said I loved with the ability to empathize with me.

But does that make empathy the poison pill in the caring of others, an infection that no amount of antiseptic can cleanse? I don’t think so. Empathy is certainly not a positive skill; it isn’t something you set out to learn, isn’t something you possess apart from prior experience, empathy is a fruit of pain and is never acquired through anything other than suffering, it’s an irreducible consequence of the fall. Empathy is the practice of suffering with others through common experience, an experience that is shared not by choice but by circumstance. To empathize should not be a therapeutic goal but understood as the result of human suffering in this present evil age. Empathy is an accidental skill born of stumbling through a fallen world. But it is real. That we might share the sufferings of others, though it may and often leads to more effective treatment, is not something to celebrate but lamented because more people suffer. Though as with Joseph, what his brothers intended for ill, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20), the pain and suffering were still pain and suffering. Joseph did not suffer in order to receive comfort from the Lord, but the Lord comforted him and guarded his steps through his suffering.

Empathy is not a qualification for authentic compassion yet neither can it exist apart from the instinct of compassion. Compassion is sympathy “for” not “with”, to have sympathies “with” is to have empathy because you have or are suffering or experiencing alongside them. To say “I have suffered as you have suffered” is not a negative. It’s beneficial to the sufferer, as long as it is true. An experiential affinity for another’s pain is not a hindrance to compassion but an often essential ingredient for fellowship. It is a way for us to turn our pain to blessing in the lives of others in pain.

Compassion without empathy cannot operate healthily apart from a marriage with compassion. It is my shared experience that can gain me entrance into the heart of the afflicted, yet the goal remains that help is found outside of us. Empathy alone leaves us as destitute as we were to begin with, but coupled with a compassion that uses empathy as the first step outside of oneself, it is resoundingly effective.

And I’m not writing this in a vacuum. I speak as a person stricken with mental illness, an affliction regardless of my culpability. And in spite of realizing that I can use my suffering in the service of others, it is a suffering that I desperately wish that I could banish from my life, despite the window it gives me into the pain of others. But it isn’t a window that, given the choice, that I would leave open, not even a crack.

But this doesn’t make empathy without merit or necessarily insidious by nature. I don’t demand that those who counsel me suffer in the same way that I do. In fact, I rarely want them to. I know well how I feel, though it can get lost in translation. But there are also those times when the fellowship of those with like afflictions can be a reminder I’m not alone, that there are people out there like me that I don’t have to explain myself to be understood. That in itself, can be cathartic. Because it can become incredibly exhausting to always have to explain your pain.

Humility With A Sledgehammer

My wife recently said something to me I, in my often navel gazing regarding mental and spiritual issues, had either disregarded or never entertained. She pointed out that for her, living with my mental illness made living out her vows a struggle because of my often unpredictable behavior and their sinful consequences. It put in stark contrast how I thought my problems had affected her and how they actually had. It reminded me that though not sinful in itself, my mental instability, if not lived in the constant presence of the promises of God fulfilled in Christ, my life is a wild car chase careening into a crowd of people. And that crowd is foremost my family by blood and by confession.

Mental illness is a peculiar affliction. It’s almost impossible to inoculate against, is explosive in its effects and gives no quarter; as unpredictable as a Norse Berserker and as merciless as the worst tyrant. And it teaches humility with a sledgehammer; sowing chaos beyond those close to the afflicted, extending to everyone in the vicinity like an emotional claymore.

Whether it’s bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression or any other of the multitude of varying conditions, there is always an opportunity to glorify God and enjoy the comfort of his promises (2nd Peter 1:3-4). Though we should be wary of proffering empty promises of mystical comfort; mantras of peace, peace when there is no peace. But we have liberty in Christ to know and claim the promises of God for our own comfort. And it gives meaning to our suffering. And it enables our suffering to acquire purpose without claiming it as a blessing. Instead, it gives substance to the comfort we receive that we wouldn’t otherwise enjoy (Romans 8:18-28).

And the effects it can have on the spouses and children of those with mental illness is often overlooked because of the plainly obvious struggles of those who, like me, live with the constant companion of an often unpredictable condition that can build resistances to both medication and cognitive remedies. It becomes a stumbling block in the pursuing fidelity of vows to spouse and God we have made in the midst of his holy assembly.

Mental illness isn’t just something I deal with, but something that my family deals and to a lesser immediate degree, my church deals with. It isn’t just a spiritual condition that can be remedied through prayer and contrition. Nor is it merely a medical phenomenon that can be dealt with by a regime of medication and therapy. It takes both spiritual salves and the utilization of common gifts we have received through medical science.

Who Owns the Future?

As a definition, this take on what it means to be a “progressive” takes the wind out of the sails of social liberals, challenging their claim that, in tattooing “progressivism” across their chests, they own the moral/metaphysical high ground of today and tomorrow.

9780801039348-e1528300425939Beneath the paralysis that keeps many in our culture from giving over their identity to Jesus Christ lies the question about the culture: who owns the future? We live in a context where many people and ideas claim to be “progressive.” Think about it for a moment: the essential point of claiming to be progressive is that one owns the future, that the future is progressing toward the position I hold. So, for example, Barack Obama claims to be progressive, bringing in the way of the future; but likewise, the conservative Tea Party movement could call itself progressive, claiming that the way of the future is not big government programs. Musicians, actors, and others in popular culture claim to be progressive, bringing in the new to outdo the old. In politics and popular, various positions claim to be progressive, which is another way of saying, “I own the future on this issue.”

Yet in view of changing cultures and times, one could begin to have serious doubts about whether we have any sense at all of what it means to be progressive. My generation, Generation X, was told that the future belongs to us. Younger generations are told the same thing. But of course, that’s not really true since every generation has a generation following it. Things that seemed progressive to my generation are likely to seem retrograde the next. At various points in recent history, practices like eugenics and racial segregation were championed as progressive. The fact that they no longer seem progressive to us just shows how much the future is out of our grasp.

J. Todd Billings, “Union with Christ” pg 31-32

The Free Offer

Therefore, God his creator having pity on himhas loved the world, that he has given his only son Jesus Christ, for mediator, patron, advocate, and intercessor between him and man, to reconcile them to him, even when they were his enemies. Wherefore it follows, that he has done this, not having regard to any deserving of man, who neither had nor could deserve but only eternal death, but has only regarded his own goodness and mercy. Wherefore as there is but one only God, creator, governor & conserver of all things, nor any other saviour than he, nor in whom man may trust, nor worship, nor invocate: no more is there likewise but one only mediator Jesus Christ, by whom man may have access to God, and find favour in his sight and recover that which through his own fault has lost.

Pierre Viret

Trying To Gain Traction In A Slippery World

What happens when moral distinctions slowly disappear? More precisely, what happens when categories of decency and deviancy collapse into each other? What happens to a culture that adopts our actions as our identities and by extension normalizes our desires as human rights regardless of how they may violate preexisting moral understandings? These are important questions that as both a Christian and a parent trouble me as I seek to raise my children to be discerning while engaging the culture they take part in without becoming a casualty of amoral and distinction-less group think.

1 Corinthians 6:18 – Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.

The initial question that confronted me was this, what is the social consequence of the normalization of deviancy? In other words, how do we say no to our children, how do we set boundaries for them when the world around them teaches that the restriction of “any expression” or realization of a desire is an abomination. That in fact admonitions to abstain and flee homosexual acts and desires, sex before marriage, etc, are sinful restrictions of their own self-discovery and realization. How do we parent in a world that is increasingly telling us that nothing is truly wrong?

One thing that we mustn’t do is be afraid to be quite clear that dressing up sin as righteousness is not love. That it isn’t love that wins when when the moral law is sidestepped or denied in the name of deviancy, but idolatry. “Love Wins” is not a victory for humanity but a declaration of our rebellion before God. Never has been Romans 1:21-28 been more real to me.

(21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

(24) Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, (25) because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

(26) For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; (27) and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

(28) And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to [a]a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Romans 1:21-28 ESV

The Dumbing Down Of Reverance and Awe

Ever since I found myself apart of the confessional reformed church, I have always been struck by the reversal of roles that often occurs in the “liturgies” of contemporary evangelicalism, more so that I have been removed from the Sabbath practices of American Evangelicalism, specifically. Dr. Horton, more succinctly than I, identifies the unintentional estrangement from the historic worshipping church that results from the reorientation of biblical anthropology and ecclesiology. Continue reading “The Dumbing Down Of Reverance and Awe”

Christian Hegemony

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. ~  John Adams, Thoughts On Government Applicable To The Present State Of The American Colonies.: Philadelphia, Printed By John Dunlap, M,Dcc,Lxxxvi

The insistence that America was and is a Christian nation, by an Evangelicalism broadly defined, is built upon a Christianity that is dominated by a Jeffersonian egalitarianism that has very little to do with orthodox Protestantism or even a traditional Catholicism. It’s a Christianity conceived as an individual perception and conception, eschewing both tradition and education; an intentional disconnect from the faith of our fathers. It’s a system the dismisses any authority that is does not elevate the will of the parishioners as primary; it insists to such a degree the priesthood of every believer, either by not acknowledging or through ignorance of the definition of the clergy as a vocation and its requisite qualifications, it sees no point in the education of ministers, nor the guidance of church history in its breadth nor narrowly by particular creeds and confessions.

As a consequence, rejection of the past and the intellectual isolation it brings seems righteous and liberating. And in its infancy, appears the correct choice, as a repudiation of the sins of our forefathers both real and imagined. But as often happens in revolutions fueled by tyranny and oppression, the enlisted soldiers of liberation, both of the masses or the minority become the inquisitors. In the pursuit of preventing the sins of the past and granting humanity to the memory of the fallen, they become the abusers of the new underclass.

And that seems to be the thing that we either avoid confronting or just don’t have the time to contemplate — that revolutions propelled by violence, be it through force of arms or political coercion, never produce equality. It always demands reparations. It always demands vengeance cloaked in acts of justice.

Liberals and Conservatives, Meh

The social gospel, the belief that Church has the skills and obligation to ameliorate the moral deficiencies society, both real and imaginary, is not only a disorder of the liberal church today but of those that ostensibly identify as conservative evangelicals. But the real differences are largely circumstantial, rather than largely substantial. Both seem to be more concerned with a socio/political vision of the perfect society than with the person and work of Jesus; the great society rather than the great commission. This is where we’ve come to, where the differences between the liberals and conservatives in the church are ones of moral persuasion rather a commitment to a transcendent message.

As a result, the politics and the ideologies that develop with the subsumption of theology to social activism contribute to the privation of sanctuary that the church is supposed to provide for the body of Christ. There is no escaping the travails of society in the Church when to it has been co-opted by politicians and those they manifest from as a wing of their political party and a means of legislative dominance. And Evangelicalism has embraced the message and vociferously dispensed with the spirituality of the Church. And without the spirituality of the Church, one may argue that the institutional Church vanishes, along with any true and lasting influence, namely the gospel.

Almost a hundred years ago J. Gresham Machen, seeing something similar in his own day, and foreshadowing our current predicament, closed Christianity and Liberalism with this.

Is there no refuge from strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus name, to forget the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.

J. Gresham Machen