Did you know that sympathy is a Christian virtue, but empathy is a sin?

That’s the word, according to two leaders in the Gospel Coalition, a self-appointed group of prominent figures in the evangelical world.* In this video (here) Dr. Doug Wilson and Dr. Joe Rigney together construct a false dichotomy between sympathy (literally “suffering with”) and empathy (literally “suffering in”). Imagine that a person is caught in a fast-moving current and in danger of drowning. Sympathy would recognize the danger and reach out to the victim, while still keeping one foot on shore and one hand holding a tree branch. Empathy, however, would dive in the river and risk drowning with the victim. Wilson and Rigney say that sympathy is good and Biblical, while empathy is “a more modern term, invented in the twentieth century.”

I wondered where the two Christian intellectuals were going with this, so I continued listening to the video. Finally, after fifty minutes of rambling interaction, they got to the point. They were demonizing empathy because it was part of being “woke” in modern society. It all became clear when Wilson gave two examples of toxic empathy to illustrate his point. It can be seen in “enflamed relations between the sexes — the ‘MeToo’ world, and in cops shooting Blacks, the Black Lives Matter setting” (around minute 51 in the video). The two examples of illegitimate empathy that he immediately thought of were a woman coming forward with a complaint of sexual harassment and George Floyd crying for his mother with his last breath. How dare we have empathy for such drowning victims!

Contrary to what these “experts” say, empathy is clearly encouraged in the Bible, both by precept and example:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 John 3:16-17)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. (Romans 12:14-16)

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) **

Jesus saw us drowning, and he jumped right into the river beside us. He challenges us to do the same as we see others going under.

Sympathy is good; empathy is better. I’m glad I’m woke to that.

— Pastor George Van Alstine

* One of the Gospel Coalition’s signature teachings is “Complementarianism,” which is really a reaffirmation of male headship and women’s subservient role. This video series is called by Wilson “Man Rampant,” a title that exposes his agenda. He describes his goal as having “uncompromising conversations about Christianity, leadership and masculinity.”

** Also read: Psalm 56:8, 1 John 4 19-21, 1 Peter 5:7, Hebrews 4:15-16.