Empathy and What It Means to Love


In college, I remember being shown a video for a class that supposedly explained the difference between sympathy and empathy.

The video, narrated by University of Houston professor Brené Brown, begins with the following claims about sympathy and empathy:

"Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection."

She lists four qualities of empathy:

  1. Perspective-taking: recognizing that the other person's perspective is "their truth"

  2. Staying out of judgment

  3. Recognizing emotion in other people

  4. Communicating that you've recognized the emotion in the other person

She characterizes empathy as "feeling with people." She explains that she often imagines the difference between empathy and sympathy through the image of someone being in a dark hole. That person calls out that he or she needs help, and the empathetic person climbs into the hole with him or her, letting him or her know that he or she knows what it's like and that that person is not alone. On the other hand, sympathy is akin to the person who looks down into the hole and recognizes that it's dark. In order to be empathetic, she claims, one must recognize a connection between the feeling of the other person and one's own feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, is characterized with judgmental comments and the attempt to place a "silver lining" over someone's suffering. Perhaps most interesting to me was Brown's claim that trying to "make things better" is ineffective and (presumably) unempathetic. What's more effective is listening and simply letting the person know that you're there. She ends with this claim:

"What makes something better is connection."

I begin this post with this video because it illustrates something which is of a high value in our culture: empathy. I remember, after this video was shown in class, discovering that virtually everyone in the classroom agreed with this characterization of sympathy and empathy. I had just been exposed to this way of thinking of the two terms for the first time, but I was shocked that, seemingly out of nowhere, this new cultural value had emerged. People today - especially young people - highly value empathy, and they don't value sympathy very highly.


Since having taken that class, I've tried to be aware of the way in which empathy is valued in our culture affects the ways we interact with one another. What I've come to discover is that empathy is, to an increasing extent, highly valued in the church today as well as in the culture at large. This is one area in which, it seems, culture is deeply influencing the church, in such a way that it has come to define part of what it means to love. More than once, other Christians have claimed that to oppose another's perspective, even if that perspective is false, is "unloving." Repeatedly, I heard correction described in opposition to hearing someone and "loving" them. As the image for this post suggests, the goal is often to make someone "feel loved."


In critical theory, empathy is crucial for understanding the oppression of minority groups. The connection between critical theory and empathy makes sense in light of one of the statements that Brown makes in the video: perspective-taking is recognizing that the other person's perspective is "their truth." Empathy is a "choice" in the sense that the empathetic person chooses to let go of his or her own perspective and to imbibe the perspective of the other person. So, with respect to race, white people were told to be quiet and listen to the experiences of black people. With respect to the LGBTQ+ community, people who were not in the community were told that, to be allies, they had to "center LGBTQ+ voices" and refrain from commenting on their experiences. And so on for other minorities, especially race in the American context.


Again, this perspective has affected the church as well. I remember seeing a video by Breakaway Ministries, a campus ministry at Texas A&M that I've followed for years, called "A Conversation About Race." That conversation took place in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020 and in the midst of BLM riots across the country during that summer. Timothy Ateek, the Executive Director of the ministry who preaches every week, explicitly said in the video that he's approaching the topic of race as a "learner" rather than a teacher. He said that his role in this conversation with two people of color was to "shut up, listen, and learn." Evidently, because he was not a person of color, he had no place to speak about race, in spite of his role as a teacher of Scripture in this ministry. The implication, then, is that Scripture has nothing constructive to say about race, an unintended consequence of perspective-taking in this area that undermines Scripture's authoritative place in the Christian's life.

I embed the video here because it illustrates so well how empathy, and its connection to claims about love, have encroached on the church, and I want to begin this post by pointing out that this is an encroachment. Timothy Ateek expresses this encroachment explicitly at the beginning of the video when he notes that people around the United States were having conversations just like the one they were having. Resources, including time and money, went into the choice to produce a video on race that looked exactly like the world's approach to discussing race. Why couldn't Christians have chosen to approach the discussion in a different way, perhaps in a way that was unapologetically grounded in biblical teaching? The apparent answer is that it would not have been seen as empathetic and "loving."


There is evidence that suggests that empathy - as well as the claims that surround it - have been part of a marked cultural shift in the West in the last 20 years or so. An example of this can be seen in the fact that support for same-sex marriage has skyrocketed over the last 20 years. According to the Pew Research Center, 33% of American adults supported allowing gay and lesbian people to marry legally in 2003. By 2013, in just 10 years, that percentage grew to 49%, and the growth took place in every generation. The steepest rise in support came from Millennials, whose support for same-sex marriage grew from 51% in 2003 to 70% in 2013. According to Gallup, in 2021, support for same-sex marriage had grown to 70% nationwide among all demographics.


What caused such a marked shift in public support in so short a time? Undoubtedly, many factors are involved. As traditional religious faith becomes less common, especially among young people, people become less tethered to a particular definition of marriage. As homosexuality becomes more common and mainstream, it's more likely that someone knows and is close to another person who is gay, and it becomes easier to support that person once you know him or her. But another reason for this rise comes from the organization, Freedom to Marry, on a page in which the organization explains its strategy for increasing support for same-sex marriage:

"Freedom to Marry and our partners worked hard to reshape the national conversation on marriage around winning, authentic messages focused on love, commitment, and freedom, while highlighting the journey stories of people in the 'moveable middle.' This shift away from a focus on abstract rights and benefits enabled us to reach people whom we hadn’t yet reached by 2010, and was crucial to the exponential growth in support for marriage from 2010-2015."

Notice the precision of the claim being made by Freedom to Marry. They claim that the shift in their messaging - from "abstract rights and benefits" to "authentic messages focused on love" and "journey stories" - influenced the shift in support for same-sex marriage from 2010 to 2015, which happens to be the period in which support in fact increased rapidly prior to the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. This makes good sense in a culture so focused on empathy. If I supported same-sex marriage, it'd make sense to show you stories of same-sex couples in love. If you are happily married, those stories remind you of what it was like to fall in love, and then you desire for that same-sex couple to experience everything you were able to experience. That powerful empathetic connection, particularly in a culture in which empathy is seen as virtuous, will likely change many opinions on the issue.


So, empathy has great impact in the West today. It is a highly-valued cultural commodity and virtue. An unempathetic person cannot be an ally to the oppressed and is uncaring and unloving. This cultural narrative around empathy is so influential that is has affected the church. How can we sum up the concept of empathy? I'll summarize the concept with four claims:

  • Empathy is the ability to "feel as the other person feels," to connect one's emotions to that person's emotions and thereby to seek understanding.

  • Empathy recognizes the perspective of another without imposing one's own perspective (perhaps to the extent of allowing one's own perspective to shift because of the perspective of the other).

  • Empathy is a necessary component of love. If one doesn't empathize, then one is unloving.

  • Empathy is a virtue. Without it, one is not a good person.

In this post, I will argue that empathy is not a necessary component of love and is not necessarily a virtue, though it may contribute to virtuous behavior. I'll argue for this position in three sections:

  • Love Deferred to the Person vs. Love Deferred to Truth

  • Empathy as an Aspect of Personality

  • Virtue as Habituated Action Toward a Defined Good

Love Deferred to the Person vs. Love Deferred to Truth


I've been working out this distinction over the past couple of years as I've tried thinking seriously about the concept of love according to Scripture. I characterize the biblical perspective on love as love deferred to truth, as opposed to the West's perspective on love as love deferred to the person. One key text for defining the biblical concept of love in this way is Ephesians 4:15, in which Paul, in a long sentence explicating the impact and power of the gospel, characterizes Christians as "speaking the truth in love." Another key text is John 1:14, in which John is discussing the coming of the Word, Jesus Christ, in the flesh (NASB, emphasis mine):

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."

Both grace and truth are perfectly united in Jesus Christ. Similarly, we read in 1 John 4:8 that "God is love." So, for God, truth and love are perfectly united and never conflict or contradict. God loves by telling the truth, for He could not do otherwise. He is not a liar.


Thus, as we endeavor to show Christlike love, we must understand that love should be deferred to truth. We can never love by lying to another person. But this begs the question: what does it mean to love? We know that God does it in a way that's perfectly unified to truth, but what is it, exactly? Let's consider Paul's description of God's love in Romans 5:8 (NASB):

"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

So, two aspects of love that we see here is initiative and self-sacrifice. God loved us to the extent that, though we didn't love Him, He moved toward us to save us from our sin. It was "while we were yet sinners" that Christ died for us. That love is self-sacrificial in the sense that Jesus Christ, knowing what would be required of Him for our salvation, voluntarily gave Himself up for us. So, Jesus Christ's love is displayed by being willing to go to the furthest extent for our good.


But what if I, as a sinner, initially reject that I am in need of salvation and claim that, therefore, God doesn't love me? I may think and feel this way, but it is not true. Objectively (i.e., whether I know or acknowledge it), I am a sinner in need of salvation, and therefore, God loves me by condescending in this way and sending His Son to die for me. I may reject this, but in rejecting this, I do not diminish the love of God.


Love deferred to truth recognizes that any claim to love someone is to be judged by the standard of truth. If I lie to someone to make him or her feel better, for instance, then I have failed to love that person, even if that person in fact feels better. Furthermore, love deferred to truth recognizes that love is geared toward the objective good of another person. If I, for instance, refrain from sharing the gospel with a Muslim because I don't want to "impose my beliefs" on him or her, then I have failed to love the Muslim. Even if the Muslim rejects what is for his or her objective good, this doesn't change what's for his or her objective good.


So, the biblical concept of love, which I've called love deferred to truth, is a disposition toward the objective good of another, even if doing so requires sacrificing one's own good. Some might ask whether this definition is inadequate because it mentions nothing about emotion, and emotion is clearly associated with love. To this, I agree that certain emotions, such as compassion, are closely associated with love, but love cannot be identified with any emotions. There are two implications that follow from this:

  • It's possible to have intense feelings of affection or compassion for someone but fail to love them.

  • It's possible to love someone, even if feelings of affection or compassion are not present in the moment.

Another important implication of this definition of love is that love requires that one have a true concept of the good for another. This concept of "the good" could be circumstantial or ultimate. For instance, a circumstantial idea of the good is what's good for someone in that moment and in those particular circumstances. Anyone can love according to the circumstantial good for someone. For instance, if one is an alcoholic, to love that person is to confront him or her in his or her alcoholism and encourage him or her to quit drinking alcohol. Doing so may make the person upset, but it's what's necessary, given that the alcoholism will likely end the person's life. Thus, quitting alcohol is circumstantially for the good of that person in the moment. The ultimate good for someone is the good for anyone at any time and place. If Christianity is true, the ultimate good for someone is to know God through Jesus Christ and to surrender one's life to Him forever. Because the ultimate good for someone cannot be defined apart from Christ, not everyone can love someone according to the ultimate good. It's impossible, for instance, for the Muslim to love anyone according to the ultimate good, but the Muslim could be virtuous in loving his or her family according to circumstantial goods.


Another aspect of the biblical concept of love is that it ought to be disposed toward the objective good of anyone whatsoever. This is the biblical concept of love expressed in the Greek word agape, the universal love of God. Thus, we should, like God, love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).


Love deferred to the person is quite different from love deferred to the truth. Note at the start that love deferred to the truth can attend to the particular needs and desires of an individual. This can be seen, for instance, in marriage. Often, the needs or desires expressed and fulfilled in a loving marriage are such that it would be either inappropriate or even sinful to express or fulfill those needs and desires outside of that marriage. This can be clearly seen with sexual desires, the fulfillment of which is good in a marriage but adulterous and destructive anywhere else. Thus, we read in 1 Corinthians 7:3-7 that Paul advised married Christians not to deprive one another of sexual intimacy, since doing so could easily result in temptation. This is good advice within marriage, and it shows that offering oneself sexually to one's spouse can be a loving thing to do in the marriage. But that display of love is exclusive to marriage, something one can show only to one's spouse.


So, the concept of love deferred to truth can, given the situation, be deferred to the person in its particular expression, and indeed, familial bonds are an obvious example of this. The difference between love deferred to the truth and love deferred to the person is, rather, a matter of emphasis. Love deferred to the truth emphasizes truth by understanding that the good for someone, either circumstantially or ultimately, is a matter of objective fact and that someone can be mistaken as to what his or her objective good is. Love deferred to the person, on the other hand, emphasizes the perspective of that person, or that person's "truth." That is, love deferred to the person claims that to deny that person's perspective as false is unloving.


The primary difference between love deferred to the truth and love deferred to the person is the degree to which it sees truth and emotion, respectively, as relevant to the concept of love. With love deferred to the truth, as I've already indicated, love is associated closely with certain emotions, but it cannot be identified with those emotions. One can be loving, though perhaps not perfectly, without the attendant emotions. In placing its emphasis on the other's perspective, love deferred to the person decentralizes the notion of truth and its relevance to love. In doing so, emotion becomes central.


This, I believe, is why concepts such as connection and empathy are so highly valued in Western culture today. Love is clearly a virtue, and our culture has not abandoned it. But, in a culture in which the making of objective claims is considered a vice, love had to redefined to retain the status of being virtuous.


Let's illustrate this distinction by comparing responses to a situation from both perspectives, using a hypothetical situation. Consider how someone who held to either understanding of love would respond to this situation:

  • Jones is good friends with Bobby. They have a relationship in which they both feel that they can tell the truth to one another. Bobby is a more feminine man and has, at times, suggested that his sexual orientation may not be heterosexual. In the past, he had just flippantly suggested this, but some months ago, he told Jones that he now identifies as queer. Quickly thereafter, he started acting more feminine and soon began identifying as a woman, requesting that Jones and their friends call him Bonnie and refer to him, using "she/her" pronouns, instead.

Let's assume that it is true that "Jones loves Bobby" (as a friend; there is no romantic element here). In light of this hypothetical situation, what is implied by Jones's love for Bobby? This will depend on one's concept of love as it applies to this situation.


If Jones affirms the concept of love deferred to the truth, one immediate question would be something like this: "Is someone a woman just because he or she identifies as one?" Another relevant question would be this: "If Bobby has gender dysphoria, does it benefit him to identify as a member of the sex opposite his biological sex?" Yet another would be this: "Does Bobby have gender dysphoria?" Notice the relevance of facts to loving the person for love deferred to the truth. If Jones affirms the concept of love deferred to the truth, then he knows that he cannot effectively love Bobby unless he understands the situation accurately.


If Jones affirms the concept of love deferred to the person, then the key is not the answer to any of the above questions. Rather, the key for Jones is that he understands how Bobby feels about himself. Bobby's "truth" is clearly communicated by his identifying as a woman and requesting to be called Bonnie. So, Jones, in order to love him effectively, must incorporate Bobby's understanding of himself and act accordingly. To do otherwise would be to deny his "truth," leading to emotional pain and perhaps even violence against Bobby. So, to love Bobby, on this notion of love, Jones must call him Bonnie and refer to him using "she/her" pronouns. If this concept of love is true, then it grants incredible power to Bobby, who can now identify as an oppressed person because he is transgender. This means that, in order to love Bobby, Jones must not only accommodate Bobby's perspective in his own but change his own perspective that he had prior to Bobby's "coming out. This means that, had Jones believed in a gender binary before Bobby came out, he must now reject that binary in order to love Bobby. This is, I think, the reason why we see such a rapid shift toward accepting these ideologies in Western culture today, because "love" demands it.


I picked the example of transgenderism because it is increasingly common in our world today. Often, because most in our cultural milieu affirm the concept of love deferred to the person, this sort of situation would engender the latter response, rather than the former. In fact, even posing the questions listed in the first example would enrage many in our cultural milieu, bringing upon the questioner claims of bigotry and oppression. Yet I would strongly argue that the first response is the more biblical one.


Empathy as an Aspect of Personality


With the concept of love distinguished and the biblical concept defended, we can now turn back to the concept of empathy and its high importance in Western culture today. In distinguishing love deferred to the truth with love deferred to the person, we can derive some conclusions about empathy as a virtue, but I will discuss those in the third section of this post. For this section, I will discuss and defend the following claim: the outsized emphasis on empathy in Western culture leads to an outsized preference for certain personality traits and the subsequent disavowal of other personality traits. Indirectly, this will shape how we understand empathy as either a necessary component to love or as a virtue.


Psychologists recognize five primary personality traits in individuals, which are referred to collectively as the "Big Five." They include:

  • Neuroticism: the tendency to experience negative emotion, including anxiety, depression, anger, etc.

  • Agreeableness: the tendency to trust others and accommodate their needs, to work with others cooperatively

  • Conscientiousness: the tendency to be self-disciplined, organized, and control impulses

  • Openness to Experience: the tendency to be imaginative and spontaneous

  • Extraversion: the tendency to outgoing and sociable

As you might imagine, since each of the Big Five are tendencies toward something, any individual might more or less exemplify certain personality traits associated with the Big Five. Thus, each individual's personality traits exist on a scale between extremes. Consider, for example, neuroticism. A person who scores very highly in neuroticism tends to be anxious, depressed, and pessimistic. He or she tends to see everything negatively or be a "glass half empty" kind of person. If you've ever seen Winnie the Pooh, think of Eeyore. (Actually, Winnie the Pooh maps personality traits very well with all of its characters.) A person who scores very low in neuroticism is more likely to be calm and optimistic, not letting the circumstances get to him or her. If you've ever seen Inside Out, think of Joy. Most people, however, don't fall easily in either extreme. Rather, they're more or less neurotic, and this is true of all of the personality traits.


The Big Five provide the general framework for the study of narrower traits. For instance, altruism and empathy fall under agreeableness. The less agreeable person is less likely to exemplify altruism and empathy. Similarly, since neuroticism is associated with depression and anxiety, less neurotic people are less likely to experience depression and anxiety. Less conscientious people tend to be less self-disciplined and self-controlled. Now, you might know exactly where I'm going here. A culture's set of values may indicate a preference for certain degrees of these traits and shun others. This is how, I think, normative claims (claims of value) become attached to personality traits:

  • Neuroticism: Low ----------------------------------- High Good Bad

  • Agreeableness: Low ----------------------------------- High Bad Good

  • Conscientiousness: Low ----------------------------------- High Good Bad

  • Openness to Experience: Low ----------------------------------- High Bad Good

  • Extraversion: Low ----------------------------------- High Bad Good

Perhaps the value Western culture attaches to personality traits is not as clear in every case. For instance, I think that people in the West tend to think of extraversion in more neutral terms, since it is widely recognized as a personality trait that doesn't necessarily signal whether or not a person is good. Neuroticism is also "good" or "bad" not necessarily in moral terms, but rather in terms of preference, and I think that this is also true in the case of openness to experience. In the West today, we tend to encourage people to have a more positive outlook and to be more open to new experiences, but that encouragement is necessarily atttached to certain moral claims.


It is very clear, however, that agreeableness and conscientiousness are evaluated morally in Western culture. The famous clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who is an expert on personality, has argued that the prototypical figure of evil in Western culture is a white, heterosexual, successful businessman. This person fits the image of the white supremacist, misogynistic man. But, Peterson argues, this prototypical figure in the public imagination ranks high on conscientiousness and low on agreeableness. Ranking high on conscientiousness means that he will strive to be disciplined in the workplace, which will reward him with promotions more quickly than his peers (which advocates of CRT will claim is due to systemic racism). Ranking low in agreeableness means that he will be more individualistic and less open to collaborative work (which feminists will claim is due to the fact that he has a bias against women). Thus, the combination of the two - high conscientiousness and low agreeableness - are vilified in Western culture, especially if they are seen in a white man. (They also happen to be common personality traits in CEOs, another vilified group.)


So, ingrained socio-cultural values lead to preferences in Western culture for certain personality traits over others. But this begs the question: is it bad to have certain personality traits and not have others? In order to answer this question, we need to consider whether the notion of "personality' is itself biblical.


Though I haven't read a lot of scholarly interaction from Christians with the concept of personality from a biblical perspective, over the years I've heard a variety of perspectives, which signals to me that Christians are still in the process of analyzing claims about personality and whether they are consistent with the Christian worldview. I've heard pastors claim that the notion of personality is wholly unbiblical, that we should not even think of ourselves in these terms. This is unhelpful because such a blanket claim fails to answer a whole host of questions about the definition of "personality" as well as what it would mean for the concept to be "biblical." For instance, the Oxford Dictionary gives this definition for "personality" as a psychological term:

"The combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual's distinctive character"

At face value, there is nothing problematic about this definition. God has created each of us as unique, image-bearing creatures, and the traits we exemplify, excluding sin, reflect in some way the mysterious trinitarian God we worship. We see compassion as well as righteous anger in ourselves, just as we see these traits in Him. So, the idea that psychologists might study these traits as a way of understanding (even if they do not acknowledge it) how God made us seems unproblematic to me. Without greater precision, I don't know what to make of the blanket assertion that the concept of personality is not biblical, so that's all I'm going to say about it.


Even if personality as a concept is biblical (or at least not inconsistent with Scripture), some claims that are made about personality may not be. It's no secret that people in Western culture are obsessed with self-discovery. It's becoming more commonplace, especially in my generation and the one below me, to hear statements such as "I'm a 7," or "I'm INTJ." The former refers to the Enneagram, a so-called personality test whose New-Age roots are well-documented. The latter refers to the Myers-Briggs personality test, a detailed personality test that classifies one's personality according to the combination of four distinct personality traits, listed as dichotomies. So, each personality trait one trait or its opposite (extroversion/introversion). The Myers-Briggs certainly appears to be more scientific, but it has been criticized.


There is a connection between personality, self-discovery, and the esoteric knowledge claims of the New Age. Thus, many Christians have rightly made a connection between personality and the sort of neo-gnostic claims of "hidden knowledge" unlocked through knowing oneself. This is unfortunate because it tends to ignore the helpful elements of personality because of an understandable and commendable desire to avoid heresy or syncretism.


I felt the need to take this short excursus on whether the concept of personality is biblical in order to respond to what some Christians may regard as a problematic focus on personality in my arguments concerning empathy. I believe that extrabiblical concepts, derived from the sciences, can be helpful as long as they are consistent with Scripture and are not derived from an underlying worldview that contradicts the Christian worldview. So, let's discuss why this discussion on personality is relevant to our discussion on empathy.


I've already argued that ingrained socio-cultural values lead to preferences in Western culture for certain personality traits over others. That personality is an aspect of human experience is widely known. One way of putting it might be this: personality traits give us our predispositions toward certain behaviors and perspectives. The disagreeable person is less likely to be empathetic in situations in which the agreeable person would be empathetic. Since high agreeableness is the preferred personality trait in Western culture, it's likely that the more agreeable person's response would be considered "better" in an uncritical way. But the key question is this: given that situation, should the person have been empathetic.


Since we live in a hyperempathetic culture, one that preferences high agreeableness, there will be a tendency to uncritically favor the empathetic response over an unempathetic response, even in situations in which an unempathetic response is obligated. You might read this and think, "How would an unempathetic response be justified? Isn't empathy always better?" This brings us to our next section on virtue.


Virtue as Habituated Action Toward a Defined Good


Virtue is not widely discussed or highly valued in Western culture anymore. This is, at face value, surprising, given the fact that virtue is foundational for the development of Western civilization. In this section, I'll briefly introduce the concept of virtue and then apply it to our discussion of love and empathy, bringing together all of the various strands of our previous discussion.


In philosophical ethics, virtue ethics is a moral theory that was first developed in detail by Aristotle in his book, Nicomachean Ethics. In that book, Aristotle defines good or right action as that which the virtuous person would do in such-and-such a situation. Thus, ethics is about the development of the good person, rather than merely good actions. Central to virtue ethics is a central concept of "the good life," that is, a life of virtue in which the good person cultivates a life directed toward and cultivated for the sake of pursuing the good. Of course, this begs some questions:

  • What is the good?

  • What must one do to pursue the good?

For Aristotle, the good for a person is a life of virtue, in which certain virtues are cultivated through habituated action for the sake of that life of virtue. The action is habituated in the sense that the good must be practiced with the intent of producing certain virtues in the person. Thus, central to virtue ethics is a taxonomy of virtues to pursue and vices to avoid:

  • Virtues:

  • Generosity

  • Prudence (Wisdom)

  • Charity (Love)

  • Courage

  • Humility

  • Temperance

  • Justice

  • Patience

  • Truthfulness

  • Modesty

  • Vices:

  • Pride

  • Envy

  • Sloth

  • Covetousness

  • Intemperance

  • Anger

  • Gluttony

  • Lust

It will be immediately recognized that many virtues and vices are discussed in Scripture. In fact, Christians have, since the beginning, recognized that virtue ethics and biblical ethics overlap. For instance, Galatians 5:16-24 provides a taxonomy of virtues and vices in terms of "fruits of the Spirit" and "deeds of the flesh" (NASB, emphasis is mine):

"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, in order to keep you from doing whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: sexual immorality, impurity, indecent behavior, idolatry, witchcraft, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."

In this passage, Paul presents a dichotomy between the flesh and the Spirit. Being led by the flesh produces certain vices ("deeds of the flesh"), and being led by the Spirit produces certain virtues ("fruits of the Spirit"). But these deeds or fruit are described in terms of formation of a certain kind of character. Christians are distinguishable in terms of their virtues and avoidance of vices. A professing Christian who exemplifies the deeds of the flesh has no reason to be called a Christian.


Here is one serious difficulty with virtue ethics: it isn't necessarily clear how one is to actively exemplify a particular virtue. How does one "be courageous?" For this, we look to moral exemplars, people who exemplify the virtues in a way that can be imitated and replicated. This is central element in certain kinds of human relationships such as: father/son, teacher/student, or master/apprentice. For Christians, we find moral exemplars in at least three places:

  • More mature Christians

  • Human moral exemplars in Scripture (e.g., King David)

  • Jesus Christ

This order of imitation in developing a mature Christian character is reflected in Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NASB):

"Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ."

One of the most important aspects of virtuous action is cultivating an understanding of the way in which experiences call upon one to exemplify certain virtues. This is one of the reasons the story of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings is so compelling. He is called out of his comfortable home in the Shire to face the world's greatest and most dangerous evil. That call to adventure requires that he, for the first time, learn to exemplify courage.


Knowing what virtue, to what extent and in what situation, is called for requires wisdom or prudence, which is why wisdom is one of the most important virtues. We learn wisdom from all of Scripture, but especially from the Proverbs and Christ. Wisdom recognizes that a one-size-fits-all solution never works.


Virtue ethics requires not only the cultivation of virtues but also the cultivation of certain dispositions toward the virtues. Suppose that a man named Jones is faced with a situation in which a homeless man approaches him, asking for food. Jones has just finished grocery shopping and has plenty of food to give the homeless man. By giving him some food, Jones's ability to feed his family wouldn't be affected, and he is affluent enough that he could simply buy more if he needed to. If Jones is virtuous, he will act generously and lovingly to give the homeless man some food. But let's say that even though he gives the homeless man some food, Jones does so begrudgingly and later feels miserable about doing it. Has he done something virtuous? The answer is yes, but Jones could have done better. According to Aristotle, one is not virtuous to the fullest extent unless one enjoys doing what's virtuous. Scripture agrees, for instance, in 2 Corinthians 9:7 (NASB, emphasis added):

"Each one must do just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Mere giving is not enough. One should be cheerful in one's giving.


How does all of this contribute to our understanding of empathy and love? Recall what we've already said about love and empathy in the previous two sections. In the first section, I argued that love deferred to the truth, as opposed to love deferred to the person, is the more biblical approach to love. Love deferred to the truth understands that effectively loving someone must be conformed to the truth in order to be truly love. In the second section, I argued that of the five major personality traits, Western culture today tends to assign great moral value to high agreeableness and low conscientiousness, the former of which is mainly concerned with empathy. By taking our understanding of these issues and viewing them through a Christian lens, we can gain a greater understanding of empathy, as well as whether wisdom demands that we be empathetic all the time in an unqualified and uncritical way.


Consider the video that began our discussion on empathy. In that video, Brené Brown presented empathy and sympathy as opposed to one another. In order to truly help and "love" someone, one must not be sympathetic and instead must be empathetic. We can begin by denying this opposition outright. I put this in stark terms because, as Christians, Scripture is our standard for ethical living, particularly as we obey and imitate Jesus Christ. Sympathy and empathy are not found in the Bible, but compassion is. The Oxford Dictionary defines "compassion" as:

"Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others"

Even though "compassion," broken down, literally means "to suffer with," its meaning is not equivalent to sympathy or empathy, but rather, it incorporates aspects of both. It requires the recognition that one is suffering and the appropriate emotions that accompany that recognition. An uncompassionate person person is callous to the suffering of others. But compassion doesn't necessarily involve shared emotion, or feeling the same emotion that the other person is feeling. Compassion doesn't necessarily entail experiencing the same emotion as the other; rather, it involves feeling a certain sadness because of the suffering of the other.


In the gospels, Jesus is presented as compassionate toward the sufferings of others. Numerous examples could be cited for this. Here are just a few:

  • Luke 7:11-17: Jesus, out of compassion for the widow mother of a deceased only son, raises the son from the dead.

  • Matthew 9:36-38: Jesus feels compassion for the crowds following Him because they are like "sheep without a shepherd" (v. 36).

  • Matthew 15:32-38: Out of compassion for the crowd, Jesus miraculously feeds the 4,000.

  • Matthew 14:14: Jesus heals the sick in the crowd because He felt compassion for them.

  • Matthew 20:29-34: Jesus, moved by compassion for the two blind men, heals them.

This sampling of examples shows that compassion is an emotion that motivates action. Jesus doesn't just feel compassion and do nothing; His action is the result of His compassion toward those who suffer. He is also uniquely capable of aiding the suffering because He is God in the flesh; He is able to miraculously heal.


Here is the claim that I would make in connection with seeking virtue after the pattern of Jesus: compassion is what we ought to feel toward the one who suffers, if we claim to love the one who suffers. This statement clarifies what we've previously states about the connection between love and emotion, which we had merely mentioned before. In the formation of a Christlike character, we must seek to have the kind of emotive response that Christ would have in that situation.


We must be very careful, however, to clarify that Jesus always loved whoever He encountered. He was not always compassionate toward everyone, but He always loved everyone. Consider, for instance, His harsh words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13-24 (NASB):

"'But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut the kingdom of heaven in front of people; for you do not enter it yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. 'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. 'Woe to you, blind guides, who say, "Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated." You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And you say, "Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the offering that is on it is obligated." You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, the one who swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And the one who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells in it. And the one who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it. 'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!...'"

Jesus goes on like this with scathing rebuke until the end of the chapter (v. 36). He is neither experiencing nor showing compassion to the scribes and Pharisees, yet He always loves them. This scathing critique, because it is true, is for their objective good to hear, even if they instead reject it and crucify Him. One might call this display of love "tough love."


So, we may say that compassion is not always necessary in order to love someone. Similarly, neither empathy nor sympathy is necessary. As Christians, we ought to live so as to cultivate Christlike virtues and avoid the vices of the flesh. The central virtue of the Christian life is love, but its right expression will depend on the situation. Love itself remains the same, but it is not always shown in the same way. At times, pure compassion is necessary, as when a friend or even an enemy suffers severe hardship. At other times, "tough love" is necessary, as when someone's suffering is foolishly self-inflicted and a wake-up call is necessary in order to show the person his or her own foolishness. (One thinks of the alcoholic who, though occasionally seeking rehabilitation, still self-destructively behaves by going back to alcohol.) Most of the time, love requires a mixture of the two. The alcoholic who became as such after losing his wife tragically and suddenly comes to mind. Indeed, though we rightly criticize false worldviews and ideology, we must keep in mind that those who believe them suffer because they believe them and that we would be in the same position as they, were it not for Christ.


This leads me to a final comment on the West's preference for agreeableness and empathy. Notice the imagery at work in Brené Brown's video. The suffering person is in a dark cave, and she claims that the only morally-good way to help that person is to be in the cave with him or her. The suffering person needs help, but that help is given by lowering oneself to the suffering person's level. Certainly, there is a place for this. It can indeed be powerful to connect one's own experiences and suffering to that of another, but crucially, this connection functions as a kind of "pathway" that guides the one suffering through that suffering.


When I lost my fiancé in 2019 due to a terrible and unexpected medical emergency, I looked to C.S. Lewis's excellent A Grief Observed to express what I was experiencing with words I couldn't utter on my own. The feeling of connecting with the experiences of another was profound for me, but I couldn't bear to stay in the first chapter. Or, for that matter, the second. (If you've read A Grief Observed, you know what I mean. Each of the four chapters represents a stage of Lewis's process of grieving his wife's death.) Rather, the beautiful last words of that little book showed me the way forward, even if I had not yet gained the strength to walk that path to its end (76):

"How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, 'I am at peace with God.' She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornò all’ eterna fontana [then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain]."

The Latin quote is from Dante in The Divine Comedy, near the end of "Paradiso," in which Beatrice turns away from Dante, the poet, to finally face and worship God. For Christians, we know that a loved one, if a believer, will spend eternity with the Lord. One of the final major markers in the pathway of grief is recognizing that in losing the one you love, he or she has gained eternity. And this good is so great that one could never call the dead back to life, ripping him or her away form the Lord's presence, just to have him or her back again. Rather, one must let that loved one turn to God in blissful joy, which means turning away from the one who grieves. Yes, C.S. Lewis provided me with the words to describe my awful throws of agony in the beginning of the book, but that connection allowed him to pave the way for me as I walked through grieve and eventually allowed my late fiancé to face the Eternal Fountain, caught up in the blissful joy of knowing God face-to-face.


I share this story because, in light of experiences like these, the video that began this post seems awfully shallow to me. Because, in the West, people don't want to feel like one knows more, has the truth where they lack it, and can show them the way out, people have reduced "love" to a kind of flat plain in which everyone suffers, but no one truly gets better. At the end of the video, no one climbs out of the cave. The bear has not helped the fox, and by failing to use their common experience to provide a way out, he has failed to love the fox. We live in a culture in which pride prevents us from receiving true aid and seeking true flourishing through the help - and indeed compassion - of another. Compassion, including sympathy and empathy, is a component of love, but only insofar as it motivates one to help the person in need. If that person, like the Pharisee, denies that he or she is in need, then he or she won't accept the offer of love. We, as Christians obligated to love others, are not condemned because of an unwillingness on the part of others to accept the offer of God's grace. Neither are we permitted to change the meaning of love to accommodate error in the culture.

Final Thoughts


As usual, this post is longer than I intended it to be, but my hope is that it can provide a helpful guide for loving well, according to God's standard, in a world that has modified the concept of love in a way that's unbiblical. I'm convinced that many Christians are just as confused about these issues as non-Christians, and this confusion causes us to proclaim the gospel timidly, afraid that in doing so, we will appear unloving.


My encouragement to you is to strive to think of these issues in a way that is surrendered to Scripture. Though I've incorporated philosophy and science in my analysis of empathy, I hope to have shown that our bedrock foundation on these issues is Scripture. Only by striving to imitate Christ and Christlike brothers and sisters can we manage to balance the general command to love with the multitude of ways it can be virtuously expressed.


Similarly, I hope that we can come to a place in our churches in which those Christians whose personalities do not reflect the preferences of the culture are nonetheless encouraged in the way that God has made them. Any particular personality trait comes with strengths and weaknesses. The disagreeable person is less likely to be compassionate where he or she ought to, but the agreeable person is less likely to confront someone with the truth where he or she ought to. Thus, the disagreeable person as well as the agreeable person is prone to failing to love the other in certain situations, and brothers and sisters in Christ need one another to be strengthened in areas where they are weak. Otherwise, we get this lopsided Christian ethic that focuses only on some of Christ's teachings and ends up appealing almost entirely to women. The church's headstrong and convicted members needs its compassionate and empathetic members, and vice versa.


Finally, I hope that my own story can be an example to you of the proper use of empathy/compassion in such a way that can richly help someone in need. When I lost my fiancé, I desperately needed other believers to show me the path down which God had called me. He had called me down this bumpy and confusing road, filled with pain and loss, but He had also provided C.S. Lewis as a brother in Christ who had walked a similar path as mind before me. If we accept Brené Brown's - and, by extension, the wider culture's - stagnant and depressing view of empathy to guide us, we'll find ourselves all suffering, but without hope to get us through suffering to flourishing in Christ. That, in my mind, is the most damaging aspect of the culture's understanding of empathy: it closes the door to Jesus' bold claim that "the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32). It is a faithless empathy that leaves you where you are by joining you there. It is also a loveless empathy.


That's it for this post! I hope that this post will help you and edify you as you think critically about the culture's understanding of these issues as they compare to Scripture. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All