Volume 46 - Issue 3

Navigating Empathy

By Jonathan Worthington


What exactly is empathy? There is confusion. Most empathy scholars laud it as putting yourself in someone’s mental and emotional shoes for a time, usually to help them. Most laypeople also commend empathy, but some misunderstand it and are actually commending such unhealthy (and non-empathic) practices as enmeshment and extreme relativism—but under the banner of “empathy.” Other people condemn “empathy” as an enticing sin, polarizing, etc. But they tend to condemn non-empathic practices that have been called “empathy” by their perpetrators without realizing the term is being used wrongly. They thereby seem to critique (and many times think they are critiquing) empathy itself, or a certain version of empathy. Can multiple definitions of “empathy” conflict and yet each be legitimate? If conflicting definitions of one term are used widely, how can any be thought illegitimate? This article helps readers navigate discussions about what empathy is and is not within academic research, diverse (and conflicting) lay uses of the term, and various clashes that arise.

Jesus saw people hurting and was moved deep in his gut, his σπλάγχνα; he had pity, even compassion (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34). He experienced what medical and psychological scholars commonly call “sympathy,” an emotional discomfort or even pain “caused by the realisation that something bad has happened to another person.”1

Jesus also took what psychological and medical (and other) scholars today call an empathic stance. Jesus (still) understands our human nature, weakness, suffering, temptation, etc. from our vantage point (in his incarnation), even feeling something of the emotions we feel in all types of situations (Heb 2:14–17a; 4:15). And it is Christ’s empathic approach to us that motivates us to approach the throne of grace with confidence for merciful help (2:17b–18; 4:16).

This article, “Navigating Empathy,” aims to help several groups of readers. Some do not know what empathy is. Some are familiar enough to already have queries about my word choices above. (More on that below.) Still others are invested in current debates about “empathy,” not least as promoted by Brené Brown and criticized by Joe Rigney (and Doug Wilson).

Empathy and sympathy are both healthy for social interaction.2 Neither is a sin. By this article’s conclusion, I hope you want to nurture each within your hearts and communities—rightly understood, of course. At the very least, I hope it helps you feel more confident to navigate claims, criticisms, and commendations of “empathy” in scholarly and popular arenas.

1. Navigating Debates about Empathy

Empathy is usually considered good. Some seem to speak against it. Section 1 lays groundwork for further exploring what empathy is and is not in sections 2–4.

1.1. Against Empathy?

Paul Bloom appears to be against empathy. After all, he entitled a book Against Empathy.3 In “Empathy and Its Discontents,” Bloom writes,

There are alternatives to empathy. In particular, compassion—in the sense of valuing other people and caring about their welfare but without necessarily feeling their pain—may have all the advantages of empathy and few of its weaknesses.4

Doug Wilson has added a moral dimension, entitling his Man Rampant interview with Joe Rigney “The Sin of Empathy.”5 Similarly, Rigney provocatively called his own article, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.”6 After some push-back, Wilson wrote in “The Empathy Wars”:

The sin of empathy, as we [Wilson and Rigney] defined it, was the sin of [a] entering into someone else’s experience totally, [b] without keeping a firm grasp on objective truth at the same time.7

This shows that Wilson and Rigney are against (a) enmeshment plus (b) extreme relativism. Those are sins, and especially enticing ones in America. But “empathy”?

Wilson further simplifies and polarizes:

Sympathy remembers to love God while loving the neighbor; empathy abandons God for the sake of the neighbor. [“Turns the neighbor into God,” Rigney adds.] … That sympathy-empathy distinction is very important, and a lot of people miss it. But at the end of the day, it’s pretty straight-forward. Right? Love God and your neighbor, not just your neighbor.8

While “men have to be tender, compassionate, loving, sympathetic,” Wilson continues, “they should think of empathy… like someone said ‘lung cancer.’”9 Rigney responds,

That’s right. So, I would say empathy is the parasitic version of sympathy…. It’s what sympathy looks like when it goes bad…. Don’t be steered by the demand for empathy. Instead, actually show compassion. Actually lean in with help. Don’t get stuck twisting in the wind as you try to conform to the latest grievances.10

James White apparently thinks it is pretty straight-forward too. In a similarly polarizing tweet, White writes,

When you start with a man as image-bearing creature of God, you can understand why sympathy is good, but empathy is sinful. Do not surrender your mind to the sinful emotional responses of others.11

Also against empathy but taking a more political line in “Empathy Is Tearing Us Apart,” Robert Wright writes, “Americans are as polarized as they’ve ever been. Could the problem be that we’re caring for each other too much?”12 Wright builds upon Simas, Clifford, and Kirkland’s article “How Empathetic Concern Fuels Political Polarization,”13 in which they explore how people “high on an empathy scale” tend to be more negative toward an opposing party. Wright concludes that high-empathy people are “prone to Schadenfreude” (finding joy in another’s misfortune),14 while Rigney reacts to this research, “Whoa, highly empathetic people also tend to be highly polarized and tribal!”15

With such an understanding, it’s no wonder they can criticize “empathy.” What if I saw a ship sailing toward me with those descriptors as its banner: loss of identity and truth, against love of God, a surrendered mind, Schadenfreude, and tribalism. I’d prepare for battle too! But is any of that really empathy?

1.2. “Ramming Speed!” When Definitions Collide

Onlookers know a ship’s character, crew, and mission by its standard. Ally or enemy country? Military or trade vessel? Regarding empathy, it seems one ship is flying the banner “Empathy” while crewed by understanding others from their vantage and feeling something of their emotions, but another ship is flying the banner “Empathy” while crewed by enmeshment (losing identity), extreme relativism (losing truth), etc. Those are very different ships!

As we prepare to navigate the basics of empathy, remember how in the introduction I used “sympathy” for passages not using the συμπαθής word group and “empathy” to gloss a passage that actually uses συμπαθέω. This was to flag a fundamental but multifaceted issue underlying how to navigate the clashing definitions.

  • What did συμπαθής and ἐμπάθεια mean in the New Testament (NT) era?
  • Is it okay for meanings of words and symbols to morph over 2,000 years?
  • What does the English term “empathy” (and “sympathy”) mean now?
  • Are all definitions created equal?
  • Can multiple definitions of “empathy” (or “sympathy”) conflict yet each be legitimate?
  • If two conflicting definitions are used widely, how can one be thought illegitimate?

Below I demonstrate that the banner “Empathy” does have a certain meaning, and its ship and crew are on a certain mission. Others have begun stealing onboard and promoting a thoroughly different and damaging agenda under the beautiful banner. And to criticize the banner by looking at the mutineers is to move the discussion in an unhelpful direction.

A similar dynamic is taking place with “sympathy.” This is not the focus of this article. But a brief glimpse is illustrative.

In an animated video—with over 16.5 million views!—Brené Brown criticizes “sympathy” to commend empathy.16 “So, what is empathy,” she asks, “and how is it very different than sympathy?” For Brown (and some others in popular opinion),17 sympathy is calloused, lighthearted, with no real care toward the person in pain. Most scholars, however, treat sympathy either as an aspect of empathy18—as an “empathic emotion”19—or at least as closely related to empathy.20Very different”? Not by any stretch.

One of Brown’s missteps is not differentiating between some popular assumptions about sympathy, on one hand, and researched, parsed, analyzed, tested, peer-reviewed, careful definitions of sympathy. She merely assumes the former and criticizes “sympathy” per se. Some do the same thing with empathy. Thus, we will navigate academic research on empathy and popular uses of it, for divergent definitions of empathy are reaching ramming speed.

2. Navigating the Basics of Empathy

What is empathy? Theresa Wiseman writes, “there is general agreement as to the definition of empathy.”21 But Bruce Maxwell writes, “When it comes to ‘empathy’ the waters of terminological confusion run deep indeed.”22 Oh great; scholars can’t even agree on whether there is agreement! Well, that is not exactly true.

A pattern in scholarly descriptions of empathy does emerge. But there are also many aspects of empathy to explore: e.g., its composition, its mode of operation, its communication.23 After navigating some rocky etymological waters (section 2.1), we will chart a basic course through two common foci in empathy studies, cognitive and affective dynamics (2.2–3) before taking a quick dip into a few other angles of study (2.4).

2.1. Navigating Etymology

In popular debates about empathy, many people start with a basic etymology of “empathy” and “sympathy.” What are the parts of the words? Sympathy is “feeling with” and empathy is “feeling into,” or something like that. When navigating these etymologies more carefully, however, one cannot sail in such a straight line—especially not with “empathy.”

Πάθος referred to passions and pulls in general, contextually referring to “sinful passion,” the emotional experience of “suffering,” etc. With the prefix συν (or συμ, “with”) it portrayed feeling some sort of passion alongside someone, usually someone suffering. It did not necessarily mean feeling the same emotions as them; rather, someone is suffering (perhaps with the intense shock and grief of betrayal) and so you are suffering alongside him or her (perhaps with general sadness at their pain). Add the prefix ἐν (or ἐμ, “in”) and the word portrays having passions within yourself (not in any way “feeling into” someone else).

The words συμπαθής and συμπαθέω are used only in 1 Peter 3:8, Hebrews 4:15, and 10:34. The word ἐμπάθεια is not used in either testament. Some Christians thus automatically trust the English word “sympathy” and question the value of “empathy”—because only the former is “in the Bible” (and thus the other is not biblical?). To counter this façade-level distrust of “empathy,” it is not helpful to mention that words such as “trinity” (circa 200 CE) are not in the Bible either. Because ἐμπάθεια did exist at the time. So, why was it not used?

When ἐμπάθεια was used in ancient texts, it conveyed “passions” swarming “within” or filling you up24—contextually these could run the gamut: sexual passions, hot anger, etc. (In modern Greek, ἐμπάθεια has actually retained such a basic meaning—passions burning within you—though it has narrowed to only one main burning emotion: hatred or malice.25) So, suppose for a moment that NT authors wanted to obligate Christians to understand others from their vantage and feel something of their emotions—the basic scholarly definition of “empathy” (see sections 2–3)—they would not have used ἐμπάθεια to convey such a Christian obligation.

The English (Greek-like) word “empathy” was born more directly from the German Einfühlung.26 Fühlung concerns “contact,” being in “touch” with something, “sensing,” or “feeling.” The prefix ein- is directional,27 like the English “into” or the Greek εἰς. Einfühlung referred to “feeling into” something or someone else, like projecting oneself “into” a piece of art.28 When Edward Titchener converted Einfühlung from art appreciation to British psychology, he should have coined a Greek-ish term “eispathy” instead of borrowing ἐμπάθεια. But he didn’t.

Our current English term “empathy,” then, is not exactly connected to the Greek term ἐμπάθεια. Rather, the English “empathy” involves moving yourself into someone else’s mental and emotional shoes to walk around from their perspective for a time, especially to help them.

2.2. Cognitive Empathy

Empathy involves significant cognitive activity, not least understanding someone else’s perspective—“perspective-taking.” Some scholars further parse this angle into “the ability to imagine the other’s experiences” (cognitive) and “the ability to directly perceive the other’s experiences” (perceptive).29 In general, then, cognitive empathy is discerning the other person’s experience and interpretation from their vantage point.

Anecdotally, cognitive empathy corresponds with something my friend learned from Francis Schaeffer as they strolled on an Alpine path. Schaeffer counseled,

When do you know you are ready to critique his theological perspective? When you can articulate his own perspective to him in such a manner that he responds, “Yes, that is what I believe”—with no modifications, further clarifications, or caveats. Then you are ready to critique his argument.30

Practicing such cognitive empathy involves a humble (and difficult) listening skill: temporarily withholding judgment on the other person’s feelings, words, interpretation, and perspective until you understand accurately and robustly.

Note the words “temporarily” and “until.” Christians who (rightly) resist the extreme relativism of our culture can easily misunderstand the notion of “non-judgmentalism” in cognitive empathy. In pop culture being “non-judgmental” often involves agreeing with or validating whatever a person feels and says—all for the sake of “love” or “tolerance.” Someone says, “If you don’t validate my self-understanding, you clearly don’t love me.” (Though that’s not what “love” means, even though it’s popular.)

Joe Rigney offers a helpful diagnosis and stiff-arm against this unholy American Zeitgeist. Extreme relativism counsels hurting people “to resent all resistance to their feelings,” as if such resistance were “a direct assault on their dignity and an affront to the depth of their suffering.”31

Researchers maintain that having “cognitive empathy” for a patient or client (or congregant or friend) does not validate their perspective. But we must be careful here. This non-validating aspect of cognitive empathy does not demand or even suggest automatic distrust of someone in pain. Automatic distrust is often born from epistemic arrogance. Arrogance repels others; empathic understanding typically opens doors. Cognitive empathy seeks to deeply understand someone from his or her vantage point, which also means that later “critical observations” (if necessary) will be more appropriate, nuanced, trusted, and thus easier to accept.32

2.3. Affective Empathy

Empathy is not only about cognition but affection as well. It is about feeling in some measure the emotions of someone else33—“affective matching,”34 or affective attunement.35 Step into another’s emotional shoes to walk a mile—or ten, depending on the pain and confusion.

Affective empathy is also easy to misunderstand. For even though it focuses on affections, it still “involves cognitive evaluation.”36 Even though it centers in the limbic system, it remains “regulated by executive functions.”37 It does not cut off critical thinking and analysis, nor does it neglect broader realities.

Some lay uses of “empathy” (likely only meaning affective empathy without realizing it) miss this or assume something different. As Alastair Roberts writes,

The empathetic individual, bound up with the feelings of the other person, can be deeply reluctant to cause them further or exacerbated pain, even though that pain may be in their good. By contrast, compassion has sufficient nerve to wound the other person for the sake of their good, like the surgeon prepared to cut into the patient in order to save their life.38

Following Roberts, Rigney writes that “empathy is often fundamentally or primarily oriented to the feelings of sufferers” while “compassion (or sympathy) is fundamentally or primarily oriented to their good.”39

This contrast between feelings and the bigger good undoubtedly holds true in many people. But this is not the way empathy is discussed in the research. Van Dijke and her coauthors write, “Many prominent researchers in the fields of psychology and philosophy argue that empathy is grounded in concern for, and thus oriented toward, the other’s wellbeing or good.”40 And the American Psychological Association fills out “wellbeing or good” by showing that empathy is concerned with the good of the human’s person, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, cognitions, affections, motivations, and behaviors.41

Another misstep is to think affective empathy necessarily involves becoming “enmeshed” in the other person’s emotions. Enmeshment is “a condition in which two or more people … are involved in each other’s activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity.”42 Enmeshment is unhealthy even though popular these days. Scholars argue that affective empathy is not enmeshment, nor does the former necessarily lead to the latter. Empathy does not involve losing one’s own identity or perspective or blurring boundaries between people and perspectives.43 In fact, academic proponents of empathy have been warning people against enmeshment for years. In 1957 Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology and psychotherapy (which means some Christians automatically distrust his insights), wrote this:

To sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the “as if” quality—this is empathy, and this seems essential to therapy. To sense the client’s anger, fear, or confusion as if it were your own, yet without your own anger, fear, or confusion getting bound up in it, is the condition we are endeavoring to describe.44

“Over-identifying with the patient,” Rogers warns, may “distort understanding” and thus would “threaten” the entire “therapeutic process.”45 Avoiding enmeshment has always been crucial for practicing affective (and cognitive) empathy in counseling.

But is it possible to be clothed in full affective empathy without necessarily changing out of it and into enmeshment? Yes. Jeffery observes, “The empathiser is able to resonate with the patient’s emotions yet remain aware of what is distinct in that patient’s experience.”46 Even Brené Brown, whose view of empathy (see below) and certainly sympathy (see above) may have some problematic elements, warns about empathy without boundaries: “We have to know where we end and others begin if we really want to show up with empathy.”47

Affective empathy itself, then, does not involve enmeshment. But plenty of people make the mistake. Steve Cuss discusses precisely this error in leadership: “the enmeshed leader struggles with codependency but calls it empathy.”48 Such a leader does not have empathy but an unhealthy blending of identity (enmeshment) that has led to codependency.49 But he or she tries to pass it off as something healthy—i.e., empathy.50 This confuses discussions.

2.4. Many More Ways to Explore Empathy

Scholars are clear that cognitive and affective dimensions of empathy are both healthy, go together, and do not involve extreme relativism or enmeshment.51 But there are so many more ways to explore empathy than just these. Here are a few examples.

Some scholars add communicating empathy as a third major aspect of empathy alongside its cognitive and affective dimensions.52 The communication of empathy is a nuanced sub-field in itself.53 Most psychologists, however, would differentiate experiencing empathy itself from competently communicating accurate empathy.

Some scholars look at the mode of empathy rather than its make-up. Some explore empathy as an incident, analyzing a particular moment where it is seen. Others examine it as a process—like a developing pattern of praxis.54 Others analyze empathy as a way of knowing wherein it “provides a more accurate assessment of the patient’s needs.”55 Others investigate empathy as a way of being, as in “That’s just the way he is.” Still others see a “continuum of empathy development,” expanding from incident to way of knowing to process to way of being (or some other configuration).56

Some scholars explore empathy’s automatic (“low-level”) versus thought-through (“high-level”) aspects.57 Still others explore empathy’s aesthetic dimension, or moral dimension, or behavioral dimension, or bodily (“somatic”) dimension, or neuroscientific elements.58 Empathy is not just something to chat about in tweets, blogs, videos, etc. There is a world of responsible research going on!

What is empathy? Empathy is a rich and dynamic ship on a mission of accurate other-orientation. Yes, scholars select different aspects and nuances to analyze, parse, test, define, and analyze some more. But there is something called “empathy.” There is a definite ship crewed by particular sailors that legitimately sail under the banner of “Empathy.” And it looks remarkably like Christ’s incarnate help for us in our weakness as described in Hebrews 2 and 4. Jesus understands and experiences our perspective and emotions from our vantage point, without losing truth or becoming enmeshed, so as to help us in the most effective way for our good.

3. Navigating Empathic Tools and Nuances across Disciplines

We have explored the basics of empathy. But various disciplines—including nursing, counseling, and ethics—provide tools, insights, and nuances about empathy we must navigate.

3.1. Navigating Empathy and Diagnostic Truth in Medicine

Nurses’ interactions with patients and their families are crucial to successful medicine, and these should be characterized by empathy and sympathy.59 In nursing literature and training, sympathy and compassion are understood as being pained that the patient is suffering and thus moved to help.60 And empathy is consistently understood as in section 2 above with its cognitive and affective dimensions. As Jean Decety and Aikaterini Fotopoulou conclude,

Overall, there is solid and accumulative evidence that all facets of empathy play an important role in medical practice and have an impact on both the patient and his/her physician. A physician’s empathy can improve the patient’s psychological and physiological adjustment to disease, contribute to healing, and can influence the overall well-being of the recipient.61

For example, physiologically, the presence of people who are empathically for a patient’s improvement “helps individuals to conserve metabolically costly somatic and neural resources through the social regulation of emotion.”62 Such presence even helps the patient’s brain “respond to environmental changes adaptively.”63

What is more, empathy training in the medical field involves practicing cognitive and affective empathy while not ruling out the physician’s or nurse’s ability, right, and need to sometimes disagree about the patient’s interpretation of their own situation. Part of medical care is to treat what is actually wrong—in truth, as Rigney and Wilson would say—regardless of the patient’s perspective. Only non-empathy abandons truth. Fortunately, nurses listen to the nursing scholars and not the crowds for their understanding and practice of empathy.

3.2. Navigating Empathic Tools and Truth in Counseling

Toward the end of their Man Rampant conversation, Rigney and Wilson push for forgiveness.64 Interestingly, as empirically demonstrated over the past decades of forgiveness research, empathy is one of the most important and effective aspects in forgiveness (alongside humility).65 And it is understood in its cognitive and affective fullness (as described in the literature above): “A person might [1] cognitively take the offender’s perspective and even [2] identify emotionally with him or her.”66

What’s more, it is the other-oriented nature of empathy that helps motivate the altruistic gift of forgiveness. While pop-icon Oprah takes a self-focused approach to forgiveness, pushing the masses to forgive others because you will be healthier (which is true, by the way), psychology researchers Steve Sandage and Everett Worthington empirically demonstrate that cognitive and affective focus on and care for the other (empathy) is “more effective in promoting forgiveness” than is a “self-enhancement motivation.”67

In forgiveness-based (and other) counseling settings, cognitive and affective empathy is bi-directional. First, the psychotherapist seeks to empathize with the client. He or she is thereby better equipped to coach the hurting person toward healing, perhaps even helping them rethink their perspective and feelings toward the offender and situation. Sounding like Francis Schaeffer, Wynn Schwartz trains counselors to continuously ask themselves during their empathic reflections whether the client can “tolerate the way I express what I understand about them.”68 He further teaches that “therapeutic tact” and “careful listening” (both fueled by cognitive and affective empathy) “come first and may take considerable time before problematic motivations and constraints are interpreted”; then the “critical observation” can be given effectively.69

Second, the hurting person is also counseled to cognitively and affectively empathize with the offender or perceived offender: “[1] I see my offender’s motivations and understand his or her point of view. [2] I feel what he or she might have been feeling.”70 Understanding and even feeling why a person might have offended or hurt a person does not make the offense less offensive, hurtful, or even evil; but it does help him or her forgive the offender.71

In terms of helpful tools for stimulating empathy, here are two. Since “empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s chair,” Everett Worthington writes,

Pretend that the other person is in an empty chair across from you. Talk to him. Pour your heart out. Then, when you’ve had your say, sit in his chair. Talk back to the imaginary you in a way that helps you see why the other person might have wronged you. This builds empathy, and even if you can’t empathize, you might feel more sympathy, compassion, or love, which helps you heal from hurt.72

Empathy is so potent for forgiveness not least because “gaining empathy for an offender may humanize, though not necessarily exonerate, that person.”73

Secondly, the therapist (counselor, pastor, friend) says, “So, from your point of view….” Some Christians will misunderstand this as unhealthy relativism. It actually helps foster something Rigney and Wilson promote: the assumption that the hurt person’s perspective on their own pain is not necessarily the “single right way of looking at the problem.”74 (This tool is not meant to be used to convey skepticism that the hurting person was really wronged.)

3.3. Navigating Empathy and Limits in Ethics

Recall Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy (section 1.1). Bloom says, “Sometimes people get the idea I’m against empathy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a big fan of empathy.”75 Chuckling confusedly, I then realize his nuance: empathy is “essential” for a full life but terrible “as a moral guide”76—for “guiding our decisions.”77 Bloom explains,

What I’m really interested in is [1] putting yourself in another person’s shoes and [2] feeling what they feel. And a lot people—a lot of smart, concerned, good people—think that this is central to morality.… In a very simple situation—just you and one other person—empathy’s fine.… I’m not against empathy in general. I’m against empathy as a moral guide. I think empathy is a valuable part of intimate relationships. It’s a great source of pleasure…. A world without empathy would be immensely impoverished.78

Notice that Bloom defines empathy according to scholarship (section 2 above). Notice that Bloom values empathy highly. Understood rightly, it is certainly not a sin. But notice, too, that Bloom thinks it is too limited to be good for making moral decisions on a broad social scale.79 His reasoning? Supposedly, affective empathy is fit to give one person not millions (number) and easier to have toward your own ethnic, socioeconomic, or ideological group (selectivity).

However, Cameron, Inzlicht, and Cunningham summarize the findings of a growing number of empirical studies regarding empathy and number:

Whereas people usually feel less empathy for multiple victims (versus a single victim), this tendency reverses when you convince people that empathy won’t require costly donations of money or time. Similarly, people show less empathy for mass suffering when they think their helping won’t make any difference or impact, but this pattern goes away when they think they can make a difference.80

Regarding in-group selectivity, Robert Wright and Simas, Clifford, and Kirkland appear to confirm Bloom’s critique. Remember, people “high on an empathy scale” tend to be more negative toward an opposing party. But they conclude that empathy is polarizing81 and tearing us apart,82 which is incorrect. Their research actually shows that the people “high on an empathy scale” have lots of empathy for their own party but no empathy and even antipathy for their out-groups. And it is more precisely the “deficits in empathy for out-group members” that polarize, tear us apart, and create more general “negative societal impact.”83

But perhaps it is inevitable that people who are highly empathic (toward their in-group) will be tribal and polarizing. Not according to the research. First, yes, it is difficult to have affective empathy toward people who are ethnically, religiously, or physically different from oneself. (Then again, Jesus never told us it would be easy to love or forgive or do good to our enemies and not only our friends [e.g., Luke 6:32–36], just necessary if we are to be like him.) Second, the nuances in section 2 above are important here: cognitive empathy must play a more significant role in such situations where affective empathy for the out-group is difficult.84 And third, even affective empathy “can be learned” by those with empathy deficit toward out-groups—a certain intervention even helps “learning experiences change empathy-related brain responses”!85

I am not arguing affective empathy is crucial for society-wide moral decision-making. I am merely navigating certain claims about empathy, such as this one by a public leader in ethics. Bloom understands empathy correctly. Bloom highly values empathy. And Bloom’s two main reasons for limiting empathy for large scale moral decisions are not actually clearly limits at all.

4. Navigating Empathy and Truth in Popular Level Material

We finish exploring empathy research and popular uses by navigating comments by two people garnering attention regarding empathy: Brené Brown and Joe Rigney. Both say some unhelpful things but are also easily misunderstood. We would do well to listen empathically.

4.1. Navigating Cognitive and Affective Empathy in Joe Rigney

Since his initial interview and articles, Rigney has honed his understanding of popular uses of “empathy.” He recently tweeted this:

1) Empathy (A), properly understood, is less than sympathy & the servant of sympathy. 2) Empathy (B), commonly understood & frequently practiced, is regarded as superior to sympathy & involves a dangerous untethering from truth and judgment. We might call these tethered empathy & untethered, or governed & ungoverned. And crucially, Empathy (B) is thus a distortion or corruption of Empathy (A).86

By now we should notice that neither public opinion (A) nor public opinion (B) align with empathy research.

We should also add Empathy (C) to Rigney’s taxonomy of popular understandings of “empathy.” In a 2019 study by Hall, Schwartz, and Duong—“How Do Laypeople Define Empathy?”—191 participants from an Introduction to Psychology class were asked to define and give examples of empathy.87 The researchers documented ten narrative empathy codes. “Non-judgmentalism” was among them, though only in 8% of the laypersons’ definitions. Compare 59% describing “perspective taking” as essential to empathy, 46% describing “emotional sharing,” and 29% including “accurately judging another person.”88 Lay use “Empathy (C),” then, actually aligns most closely with the research. Thus:

Popular Uses of Empathy Scholarly Research on Empathy
Empathy A: less than and servant to sympathy
Empathy B: extreme relativism + enmeshment
Empathy C: perspective taking + emotional sharing Empathy: perspective taking (without extreme relativism) + affective attunement (without enmeshment)

To most fully navigate Rigney’s perspective on “empathy,” many points of which have been scattered through this article, I must highlight a final point. Rigney can attend well to empathy research. In “Do You Feel My Pain?” he summarizes eight possible definitions or elements of empathy charted in a 2019 meta-analysis of psychological literature on the subject:

(a) knowing another’s thoughts and feelings; (b) imagining another’s thoughts and feelings; (c) adopting the posture of another; (d) actually feeling as another does; (e) imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; (f) feeling distress at another’s suffering; (g) feeling for another’s suffering, sometimes called pity or compassion; (h) projecting oneself into another’s situation.89

From our navigations above, we will recognize three basic elements represented in these eight:

  1. understanding the other person’s cognitive or emotional perspective (a, b, e, h);
  2. experiencing in some manner and measure emotions similar to the other person’s emotions (c, d);
  3. being emotionally moved that the other person is suffering, which many scholars place into its own (related) category of “sympathy” and “compassion” (f, g).

Does Rigney see this pattern? With a good synthesizing eye, Rigney makes this commendation:

It’s clear that we can find much to praise in the concept of empathy. It’s good [1] to try to understand others, to see things from their point of view, to recognize their felt reality. It’s good [2] to feel the same emotions as other people—to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). It’s good [3] to feel warm and compassionate emotions for those in distress (and hopefully be moved to help them in concrete ways).90

For Rigney, then, cognitive empathy is good, affective empathy is good (and biblical), and sympathy and compassion are good.

Likewise, though in a different forum and format, Rigney says this to Hannah Anderson:

It is interesting to me that you used over and over again in that description [of empathy] the word “understand.” Because I think that is precisely the word that I would want to lean on. I think it’s the biblical word for it…. “Live with your wife in an understanding way” [1 Pet 3:7]. You’re talking about that. Which doesn’t imply that you think your wife is right about everything, but that there is an attempt to sort of approximate … attempting to [1] understand from her vantage what just happened and why the way the world is. And that’s an obligation on Christians…. And it’s not simply a cognitive thing; it involves the imagination; it involves at some level [2] the emotions and sort of a phenomenological [question]: “What is it like to be that person?”91

Rigney’s language captures what empathy is as understood by the people who study it in depth, with rigor, and in a peer-review system. He even calls it “an obligation on Christians”!

When does Rigney’s tune change? He responds to Anderson,

But what’s interesting is that you insisted there on “it doesn’t carry with it affirmation.” But that’s precisely, I think, the way that in the wider cultural moment it does carry with it the wider affirmation—that affirmation is essential.92

Perspectival shifts are soundlessly occurring. Anderson continues functioning from a technical understanding of empathy, which explicitly does not involve affirmation or validation (see above). A few minutes prior, when Rigney was also thinking within Anderson’s realm (scholarship), he acknowledged that it does not involve affirmation or validation: “it doesn’t imply that you think your wife is right about everything.” But at this point, Rigney has shifted his perspective to what some in this “wider cultural moment” consider “empathy” to be.

(Remember Brené Brown’s similar hermeneutical move regarding “sympathy” in her kids’ video. She tried to define empathy from scholarship [see below], but for “sympathy” she merely voiced the everyday jerk and ended up defining it in opposition to scholarship.)

Some people do sneak a relativistic form of “non-judgmentalism” onboard empathy’s ship. Rigney critiques such extreme relativism. Good. But we should also critique their misunderstanding of empathy. I wonder how many of the former are following Brené Brown’s short video.

4.2. Navigating Empathy and Truth in Brené Brown

In her viral video,93 Brown explicitly relies on Theresa Wiseman’s 1996 nursing publication for her understanding of empathy.94 She observes that Wiseman “came up with four qualities of empathy” and words them as such:

  1. “Perspective taking: the ability to take the perspective of another person, or recognize their perspective is their truth.”
  2. “Staying out of judgment (not easy when you enjoy it as much as most of us do).”
  3. “Recognizing emotion in other people.”
  4. “And then communicating that.”95

Numbers 1, 3, and 4 are roughly equivalent to what scholars say: cognitive empathy, affective empathy (or perhaps perceptive cognitive empathy), and empathic reflection, respectively.

But the way Brown words 1 and 2 give them a feel of extreme relativism: “their perspective is their truth,” “staying out of judgment.” Some think Brown here is advocating losing grip on truth.

Interestingly, while Wiseman did use “non-judgmentalism” as one of empathy’s four defining attributes (though the self-admittedly most debatable one), Wiseman did not mean extreme relativism. Remember, in nursing there is always room for critiquing the patient’s interpretation against the more objective diagnosis. Wiseman also did not include non-judgmentalism in her “holistic conceptualization of empathy” in 2007.96 And non-judgmentalism is not included as an aspect of empathy in the “standard empathy conceptualizations and measuring instruments.”97

This means that if Brown wants “staying out of judgment” to mean validating whatever the hurt person says (extreme relativism), Brown has misunderstood her own primary source (Wiseman) and her own trade tools. This would mean that Brown does not merely have a different definition of empathy from scholarship, but a wrong definition. And those people (perhaps millions) who follow her video definition are thereby using and perpetuating a misunderstanding of what empathy truly is, not merely a different understanding.

I suggest, though, that Brown’s listeners have the wrong definition. But Brown’s language exacerbates their misunderstanding.

According to Brown’s wider teaching, in order to cope with perceived threats, fear, or pain, we tell ourselves stories about what we think is happening and why. “So, if we give the brain a story,” Brown teaches, “we get a chemical reward, a calm reward…. The problem is that the brain rewards us for a story regardless of the accuracy of the story.”98

Brown believes our stories can be accurate or inaccurate. Knowing this reality, Brown asks her boss to hold her interpretive narratives (her stories) in check, even having him say things to her like: “Keep checking out the stories with me, because that’s a crazy-ass story.” (How is that for suspending judgment?!) Brown observes, “The stories we make up and our ability to reality-check them completely predict our levels of bounce and resilience.”99

Brown maintains a “reality” beyond a hurting person’s perspective, and it is important to be accurate to it. So, when she asks, “If you were to share your story with me, how do I stay open and sit in that with you as opposed to moving into blame and judgment?”100 we would be wrong to take such empathic listening as losing grip on truth. She pauses judgment and critique for a time, until she accurately and deeply understands the person from their cognitive and affective vantage point. She waits until she is in a good relational position to help them do the necessary “reality-check.”

But surely Brown’s language of “their perspective is their truth” is full-on extreme relativism, right? While this is common and popular wording, and sloppy, it is not necessarily synonymous with thinking their perspective is the truth or of equal value with the truth. It could merely be a (shoddy) way to admit that the client truly believes what he or she thinks, that such beliefs truly affect their feelings and actions, and that they are not intentionally lying. Remember, Brown believes “their truth” eventually needs to be checked against “reality” (the truth).

I think Brown’s language will push many culturally primed listeners in places she does not actually intend them to go, and where empathy research says they should not go if they are practicing true empathy. Empathy scholars tend to use sharper, more helpful language such as “objectivity” (the ability to hear disturbing confessions or perspectives without being personally shocked, reacting negatively, or immediately condemning) or even “unconditional positive regard for the client” (not for all their views, many of which need to “change”).101

An understanding of empathy that involves extreme relativism is a misunderstanding. It is not merely a different definition of empathy, but a wrong definition as it is a misappropriation of the very sources on which it attempts to base itself. And when the language of those who do understand properly—or at least better—gets sloppy or in some manner blurry, the misunderstandings and poor definitions of empathy will wreak havoc on communities.

5. Conclusion

There are debates in scholarship over nuances, angles, and implications of empathy. But it is far from a free-for-all. As we have seen in this article, here are a few aspects that are more fixed than people realize:

  • it is healthy to be bothered at the fact that someone is hurting—sympathy;
  • it is healthy to seek to understand others from their perspective—cognitive empathy;
  • it is un-healthy to lose a sense of truth, to lose the possibility of a bigger perspective that goes beyond or even contradicts a hurt person’s perspective on their own pain—extreme relativism;
  • empathy (properly understood) does not involve extreme relativism;
  • it is healthy to seek to share something of the emotions of others—affective empathy;
  • it is un-healthy to lose your own identity and perspective in someone else’s experience of suffering—enmeshment;
  • empathy (properly understood) does not involve enmeshment.

Does Christ deeply understand our human weaknesses and pain from our perspective while maintaining a firm hold on objective truth? Undeniably. Does Christ feel something of our emotions, especially suffering, while maintaining a clear distinction between himself and us? Absolutely. Christ does not give in to either extreme relativism or enmeshment. No, Christ empathizes with us profoundly. Real sins can be smuggled onboard a virtuous ship flying an honorable banner. And extreme relativism and enmeshment are surely being smuggled onboard the Christ-like ship of empathy.

Let us not validate the mutineers, as if what they are saying and doing is legitimate. Neither let us criticize the banner itself. Rather, let’s clarify the true nature and mission of the ship and remove the sinful, damaging elements from it. The ship is good and its mission is right—when rightly understood. Let us say, “Your enmeshment, extreme relativism, antipathy toward outgroups, etc. is not empathy. And your use of non-empathy is the problem. You can’t steal this ship and banner.” If we do not take such a careful and clarifying stand together, I fear we will never be able to successfully navigate the Christ-like ship through murky and rocky waters of public opinion to properly serve hurting people and communities in Christ’s name.

[1] David Jeffrey, “Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion in Healthcare: Is There a Problem? Is There a Difference? Does It Matter?,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 109 (2016): Cf. Anna Gladkova, “Sympathy, Compassion and Empathy in English and Russian: A Linguistic and Cultural Analysis,” Culture Psychology 16 (2010): 267–85.

[2] Jean Decety and Kalina Michalska, “Neurodevelopmental Changes in the Circuits Underlying Empathy and Sympathy from Childhood to Adulthood,” Developmental Science 13 (2009): 886–99, emphasis added.

[3] Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: Ecco, 2016). Cf. Paul Bloom, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, 19 December 2016,

[4] Paul Bloom, “Empathy and Its Discontents,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 21.1 (2017): 24.

[5] Douglas Wilson and Joe Rigney, “The Sin of Empathy,” Man Rampant Season 1, Episode 1, Canon Press, 1 October 2019,

[6] Joe Rigney, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion,” Desiring God, 31 May 2019,

[7] Douglas Wilson, “The Empathy Wars,” Blog & Mablog, 17 March 2021, (emphasis original, bracketed letters added).

[8] Wilson and Rigney, “The Sin of Empathy,” minute 26:00–40.

[9] Wilson and Rigney, “The Sin of Empathy,” minute 1:03:18–33.

[10] Wilson and Rigney, “The Sin of Empathy,” minute 1:03:34–1:04:26 (emphasis added).

[11] See James White, “Empathy, Sympathy, and Cage Stages,” Cross Encounters, 15 March 2021, (emphasis added).

[12] Robert Wright, “Empathy Is Tearing Us Apart,” Wired, 9 November 2019,

[13] Elizabeth Simas, Scott Clifford, and Justin Kirkland, “How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization,” American Political Science Review 114.1 (2019): 258–69.

[14] Wright, “Empathy Is Tearing Us Apart.”

[15] Joe Rigney in Alastair Roberts, “The ‘Sin’ of Empathy? (with Hannah Anderson and Joe Rigney),” Adversaria Videos and Podcasts, 18 March 2021,, minute 107:45–55.

[16] Brené Brown, “Brené Brown on Empathy,” RSA, 10 December 2013,

[17] Shane Sinclair, Kate Beamer, Thomas Hack, Susan McClement, Shelley Raffin Bouchal, Harvey Chochinov, and Neil Hagen, “Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences, and preferences,” Palliative Medicine 31.5 (2016): 437–47.

[18] Judith Hall and Rachel Schwartz, “Empathy Present and Future,” Journal of Social Psychology 159.3 (2019): 225–43.

[19] David Lishner, Daniel Batson, and Elizabeth Huss, “Tenderness and Sympathy: Distinct Empathic Emotions Elicited by Different Forms of Need,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37.5 (2011): 614–25.

[20] Cf. Jodi Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Stewart Mercer and William Reynolds, “Empathy and Quality of Care,” British Journal of General Practice 52 (2002): S9–S12; Mohammadreza Hojat, Salvatore Mangione, Thomas Nasca, Mitchell Cohen, Joseph Gonnella, James Erdmann, “The Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy: Development and Preliminary Psychometric Data,” Educational and Psychological Measurement 61 (2001): 349–65.

[21] Theresa Wiseman, “Toward a Holistic Conceptualization of Empathy for Nursing Practice,” Advances in Nursing Science 30.3 (2007): E61–72, citing E62; cf. Jeannette Gagan, “Methodological Notes on Empathy,” Advances in Nursing Science 5.2 (1983): 65–73.

[22] Bruce Maxwell, Professional Ethics Education Studies in Compassionate Empathy (New York: Springer, 2008), see front matter.

[23] Jolanda van Dijke, Inge van Nistelrooij, Pien Bos, and Joachim Duyndam, “Towards a Relational Conceptualization of Empathy,” Nursing Philosophy 21.3 (2020):

[24] See LSJ, s.v. ἐμπαθής.

[25] Nick Nicholas, “Why Does the Word ‘Empathy’ Derived from the Greek Word εμπάθεια Have the Complete Opposite Meaning in Greek?,” Quora, 4 August 2019,

[26] See Michal Piasecki, “To Reclaim Einfühlung: The Search for a Formula of Radical Empathy in Harun Farocki’s Early Work,” trans. Lukasz Mojsak, View: Theories and Practices of Visual Culture 26 (2020),

[27] “Ein,” Cambridge Dictionary,

[28] “Empathy,” Online Etymology Dictionary, (emphasis added).

[29] van Dijke, van Nistelrooij, Bos, and Duyndam, “Towards a Relational Conceptualization of Empathy.” Cf. M. C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); R. W. F. Meneses and M. Larkin, “Edith Stein and the Contemporary Psychological Study of Empathy,” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 43.2 (2012): 151–84.

[30] Recorded in 2004 from a private conversation with the recipient of Schaeffer’s counsel.

[31] Rigney, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” See also Alastair Roberts, “An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion,” Alastair’s Adversaria, 27 May 2013, (emphasis added). Cf. James White, “On the Sin of Empathy,” Alpha and Omega Ministries, 13 March 2021,

[32] Wynn Schwartz, “The Parameters of Empathy: Core Considerations for Psychotherapy and Supervision,” Advances in Descriptive Psychology 10 (2013): 203–18.

[33] Jeffery, “Empathy”; cf. Janice Morse, Gwen Anderson, Joan Bottorff, Olive Yonge, Beverley O’Brien, Shirley Solberg, and Kathleen McIlveen, “Exploring Empathy: A Conceptual Fit for Nursing Practice?,” Image 24 (1992): 273–80.

[34] This term is found widely in the literature.

[35] Attunement does not require that we feel the exact feelings of the other (i.e., matching), but that we attend to and, in a sense, vibrate similarly to the other. See Linda M. Frey, “Intersubjective Relatedness and Internal Working Models,” ScholarWorks at University of Montana (2004): 30,

[36] See Jeffery, “Empathy.”

[37] Jean Decety and Andrew Meltzoff, “Empathy, Imitation, and the Social Brain,” in Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 58.

[38] Roberts, “An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion” (emphasis added).

[39] Rigney, “Do You Feel My Pain? Empathy, Sympathy, and Dangerous Virtues,” Desiring God, 2 May 2020, (emphasis added).

[40] Jolanda van Dijke, Inge Van Nistelrooij, Pien Bos, and Joachim Duyndam, “Care Ethics: An Ethics of Empathy?,” Nursing Ethics 26.5 (2019): 1282–91 (emphasis added).

[41] “Empathy,” Dictionary of Psychology, (emphasis added). Cf. Barbara Carper, “Fundamental Ways of Knowing in Nursing,” Advanced Nursing Science 1.1 (1978): 13–23, esp. 17.

[42] APA Dictionary of Psychology,

[43] Cf. Liz Bondi, “Empathy and Identification: Conceptual Resources for Feminist Fieldwork,” ACME 2 (2003): 64–76; Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy; Jeffrey, “Empathy.” Benjamin Cuff, Sarah Brown, Laura Taylor, and Douglas Howat, “Empathy: A Review of the Concept,” Emotion Review 8.2 (2016): 144–53; Jean Decety and Aikaterini Fotopoulou, “Why Empathy Has a Beneficial Impact on Others in Medicine: Unifying Theories,” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 8 (2014): 457.

[44] Carl Rogers, “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 21.2 (1957): 95–103 (emphasis added); reprinted in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 44.3 (2007): 240–48, quoted on 243.

[45] Jeffery, “Empathy”; see Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (London: Constable, 1961).

[46] Jeffery, “Empathy.”

[47] Brené Brown, Dare to Lead (New York: Random House, 2018), 142 (emphasis added).

[48] Steve Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019), 119 (emphasis added). Edwin Friedman, on whom Joe Rigney relies in part for his critique of what he views as “empathy” (or a certain type of empathy), writes that empathy in leadership is often a “disguise for anxiety” (A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix [New York: Seabury, 2007], 133).

[49] Codependency is “a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological addiction” (APA Dictionary of Psychology,

[50] See also Sheri Jacobson, “Sympathy and Empathy—Do You Really Know the Difference?,” Harley Therapy Counselling Blog, 19 May 2015,

[51] Maxwell, Professional Ethics, ch. 2. Cf. Amy Coplan, “Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects,” in Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3–18; Jeffery, “Empathy.”

[52] Irving Dickson, “Empathy: Towards a Conceptual Framework for Health Professionals,” International Journal of Healthy Care Quality Assurance 17 (2004): 212–20.

[53] Cf. Sun Yeob Choi, “Concept Analysis of Empathy,” Journal of Korean Academy of Fundamentals of Nursing 26.3 (2019): 145–54; Mercer and Reynolds, “Empathy and Quality of Care,” S9–S12.

[54] See Wiseman, “Toward,” E67–8.

[55] Wiseman, “Toward,” E66.

[56] See Wiseman, “Toward,” E61–72.

[57] Cf. Coplan, “Understanding Empathy”; Sarah Songhorian, “Review of Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives,” Methode Journal 2 (2014): 217–30. Songhorian takes slight issue with the way Coplan construes high-level empathy.

[58] See numerous chapters in Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie Coplan, ed., Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Janice Morse, Joan Bottorff, Gwen Anderson, Beverley O’Brien, and Shirley Solberg, “Beyond Empathy: Expanding Expressions of Caring,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 17.7 (July 1992): 809–21; Adrian Raine and Frances Chen, “The Cognitive, Affective, and Somatic Empathy Scales (CASES) for Children,” Journal of Clinical Child Adolescent Psychology 47.1 (2018): 24–37; Lishner, Batson, and Huss, “Tenderness,” 614–25.

[59] Gordon Kraft-Todd, Diego Reinero, John Kelley, Andrewa Heberlein, Lee Baer, and Helen Ross, “Empathetic Nonverbal Behavior Increases Ratings of Warmth and Competence in a Medical Context,” PLoS One 12.5 (2017): e0177758,

[60] Cf. Barry Silverman, “Physician Behavior and Bedside Manners: The Influence of William Osler and The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine,” Proceedings: Baylor University Medical Center 25.1 (2012): 58–61; Decety and Fotopoulou, “Why Empathy,” 457.

[61] Decety and Fotopoulou, “Why Empathy,” 457 (emphasis added).

[62] Decety and Fotopoulou, “Why Empathy,” 457.

[63] Decety and Fotopoulou, “Why Empathy,” 457. Cf. Theresa Wiseman, “A Concept Analysis of Empathy,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 23 (1996): 1162–67, esp. 1162; Patricia Chaney, “The Importance of Bedside Manner to Trust and Patient Engagement,” UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, 18 July 2016,; Cf. Anna Morrow, “Why Is Bedside Manner Important?,” in-Training, 22 October 2018,

[64] Wilson and Rigney, “The Sin of Empathy,” minute 57:24–58:00.

[65] Steven Sandage and Everett Worthington, Jr., “Comparison of Two Group Interventions to Promote Forgiveness: Empathy as a Mediator of Change,” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 32.1 (2010): 33–57, esp. 37; Ann Macaskill, John Maltby, Liza Day, “Forgiveness of Self and Others and Emotional Empathy,” The Journal of Social Psychology 142.5 (2002): 663–65.

[66] Everett Worthington, Jr., “An Empathy-Humility-Commitment Model of Forgiveness Applied Within Family Dyads,” Journal of Family Therapy 20 (1998): 59–76, citing 63 (numbers added).

[67] Sandage and Worthington, “Comparison,” 37.

[68] Schwartz, “Parameters,” 209.

[69] Schwartz, “Parameters,” 203, 207.

[70] Worthington, “An Empathy-Humility-Commitment Model,” 63 (numbers added).

[71] Sandage and Worthington, “Comparison,” 52.

[72] Everett Worthington, Jr., “REACH Forgiveness of Others,”

[73] Sandage and Worthington, “Comparison,” 52 (emphasis added).

[74] Worthington, “An Empathy-Humility-Commitment Model,” 67–68.

[75] Bloom, “Against Empathy,” 19 December 2016, minute 26:28–34 (emphasis added). See also Jesse Prinz, “Against Empathy,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 49.1 (Sept 2011): 214–33; Adam Waytz, “The Limits of Empathy,” Harvard Business Review (Jan–Feb 2016):

[76] Bloom, “Against Empathy,” minute 26:35–27:28.

[77] Paul Bloom, “The Perils of Empathy,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 December 2016,

[78] Paul Bloom, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” The Brainwaves Video Anthology, 27 January 2017,, minute 1:22–4:18 (numbers and emphasis added).

[79] Meghaan Lurtz, “When More Advisor Empathy Isn’t Better and the Compassion-Based Alternative,” The Kitces Report, 13 January 2021, Anderson in Roberts, “The ‘Sin’ of Empathy?,” minute 44:34–45:00.

[80] Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, and William Cunningham, “Does Empathy Have Limits?,” The Conversation, 1 March 2017, Cf. Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne, “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100.1 (2011): 1–15; Eesha Sharma and Vicki G. Morwitz, “Saving the Masses: The Impact of Perceived Efficacy on Charitable Giving to Single vs. Multiple Beneficiaries,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 135 (July 2016): 45–54.

[81] Simas, Clifford, and Kirkland, “How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization.”

[82] Wright, “Empathy Is Tearing Us Apart.”

[83] Grit Hein, Jan Engelmann, Marius Vollberg, and Philippe Tobler, “How Learning Shapes the Empathic Brain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113.1 (2016): 80–85 (emphasis added).

[84] Helen Riess, “The Science of Empathy,” Journal of Patient Experience 4.2 (2017): 74–77.

[85] Hein, Engelmann, Vollberg, and Tobler, “How Learning Shapes the Empathic Brain.”

[86] See Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney), Twitter, 16 March 2021,

[87] Judith Hall, Rachel Schwartz, and Fred Duong, “How Do Laypeople Define Empathy?,” The Journal of Social Psychology 161 (2021): 5–24. The sample consisted of 60/40% female/male representation; a mean age of 19 in a range of 18–25; 6.3% African American, 33.5% Asian/Asian American, 39.3% White/Caucasian, 7.3% Hispanic/Latin American, 6.3% Middle Eastern, 7.3% other; and representing all majors in the university.

[88] Hall, Schwartz, and Duong, “How Do Laypeople Define Empathy?,” table 1.

[89] Rigney, “Do You Feel My Pain?” This is Rigney’s summary of Hall and Schwartz, “Empathy Present and Future,” 225–43 (I converted bullets to letters for subsequent reference).

[90] Rigney, “Do You Feel My Pain?” (emphasis and numbers added).

[91] Rigney, in Roberts, “The ‘Sin’ of Empathy?,” minute 1:06:21–1:07:18.

[92] Rigney, in Roberts, “The ‘Sin’ of Empathy?,” minute 1:07:30–1:07:42 (emphasis added).

[93] Brown, “Brené Brown on Empathy.”

[94] Wiseman, “A Concept,” 1165.

[95] Brown, “Brené Brown on Empathy.”

[96] Wiseman, “Toward,” E61–72.

[97] According to Hall, Schwartz, and Duong, “How Do Laypeople Define Empathy?,” 5–24, these “standard empathy conceptualizations and measuring instruments” include the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), the Affective and Cognitive Measure of Empathy (ACME), the Empathy Quotient (EQ), the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire, the Questionnaire Measure of Emotional Empathy, the Batson’s empathy adjectives, and the Basic Empathy Scale.

[98] See Brené Brown, “Audience Q&A,” Overheard, 11 July 2019 (last viewed 21 July 2021),, minute 40:10–43.

[99] Brown, “Audience Q&A,” minute 41:40–44:25 (verbal emphasis).

[100] Brené Brown, “Shame & Empathy by Dr. Brené Brown,”

[101] Rogers, “Necessary and Sufficient,” 95–103.

Jonathan Worthington

Jonathan Worthington is vice president of theological education at Training Leaders International in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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