Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: self-centred

Unmoved by empathy

Empathy was foisted upon us 60 years ago as a more egalitarian substitute for sympathy. I suppose I’ve always had an analytical mind, sometimes that’s just an excuse for inaction. But I never believed this new word offered anything useful.

I have been part of a small minority. The majority has come to believe that what the world needs is more empathy. In recent years this has even crept into Christian thinking and Christian literature.

Empathy is the idea that we need to feel the pain and pleasure of others. But how does it help someone to tell him “I feel your pain”? How does it help me to be able to make myself feel the pain that others are going through?

Paul Bloom, a New York psychologist and researcher at Yale University, believes that empathy is a self-centred emotion and does more harm than good. In 2016 he published Against Empathy*, in which he argues that compassion is a far healthier and more useful response to the pain and suffering of others.

To put it as simply as possible, Bloom argues that when I feel empathy for your suffering it makes me feel very bad, but does not move me to do anything to help you. Compassion, on the other hand, causes me to do something to help you, rather than trying to analyse my own feelings. Bloom says that empathy can cause us to become overloaded with painful feelings and separate us from the ones who are suffering.

Compassion is a word that we often encounter in the Bible. Jesus demonstrated compassion for all those in sorrow and distress. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite may well have felt empathy for the poor man lying by the side of the road. But contact with blood, or with someone who was possibly dead, would have rendered them unclean for service in the temple. So they avoided looking too closely at the injured man. The Samaritan was moved by compassion and went ahead and did what he was able to do to help the man. Jesus closed the parable by telling the Pharisee “Go and do thou likewise.”

That message is meant for all of us. Let’s discard this newfangled empathy which leads to a preoccupation with our own feelings. May we rather allow ourselves to be moved to action by compassion.

Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion, by Paul Bloom, © 2016, published by The Bodley Head, London

Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?

Jim walked into the small town grocery store, a bundle of tracts in his hand. He looked around, found the tract rack and saw it was almost empty. He dropped the tracts in his had on the counter and went out to his car to get more.

The clerk was reading one of the tracts when he returned. “Don’t read that!” he said. “Unless you want to change your life.”

She looked up at him, smiling. “Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?”

I’ve pondered that for a long time. I don’t think we do. We want our life to be different, but it’s other people and the circumstances of my life that need to change. I am not the problem here, my life will never change unless someone else makes some changes in the way they treat me.

It’s like banging my head against a brick wall. I get a headache, the wall is just the same, has no idea why anyone would expect it to change.

One day God says “You are the problem. You need to change.”

That’s ridiculous. I’m doing the best anyone could hope to do when he has to live and work around all these turkeys.

God persists. I begin to see little things where I might have said things differently, done things differently. But what would that really help? The turkeys are the real problem.

One day things go really badly, and I know that I caused this problem. A light goes on. “OK God, I don’t know how to get out of this mess I’ve made. Please help me.”

Nothing great happens, except I’m a little calmer, now. After a few days I realize that the turkeys don’t seem much like turkeys anymore; they’re pretty much the same as me. I even start to like them. I don’t often see them making mistakes any more but my own mistakes are becoming painfully obvious. I find myself saying “I’m sorry” quite often. I never used to do that. 

One morning I realize that I am looking forward to the day, the little interactions that I might have with all those interesting people around me. Something has changed, and it’s not them. I am different, but it is God who has made the difference in me. I didn’t have a clue where to begin.

Do you want to change the world?

So does God.

He wants to begin with you.

The self-important self

Nelson Gage Canadian Dictionary

The dictionary pictured above lists 80 hyphenated words beginning with self; the Canadian Oxford Dictionary lists 200. What a bunch of self-centred, self-satisfied, self-important bores we have become!

We think that good self-esteem is essential for happiness. We study self-help books to help us attain self-fulfillment, self-actualization and self-realization. There is a little problem though — everyone else is  engaged in the same quest for self-empowerment and has little time or interest for admiring our enhanced self-image.

Jesus invites us to step off this merry-go-round and follow Him to find true happiness. He says the first step in following Him is self-denial. This should not be confused with self-abasement. Jesus is simply inviting us to turn our attention from self to Him and to allow Him to lead us.

Some Christians talk about self-discipline, self-control and self-restraint. These may produce results that somewhat resemble self-denial, but they hold a snare for the unwary. What those words really imply is control of self by self — and self gets the credit! That is self-deception. We cannot turn to God without turning away from self.

Jeremiah was moved to write: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23). God also revealed to Jeremiah: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11). God’s plans are always going to be better than ours. Why not abandon all those efforts for self-improvement and allow Him to lead us?

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