What’s true? Does it matter? What about love? As a Christian, which should be my greatest concern? Do I have to walk a mile in my neighbor’s shoes before I can tell them they’re a mile off? For folks interested in apologetics, the question can become one of empathy vs truth, where my loyalty lies.
These days there’s an apologetics stop word that’s gaining popularity. Its empathy.
Evidently, if you haven’t experienced the plight of a person, you are disqualified to speak truth to them. To be accepted or qualified to take part in certain conversations, you must put on their boots for an undisclosed period and walk uphill, in the snow, both ways (like they have).
Of course, that’s impossible. It’s also the sad cry of a hypocrite.
Invariably it seems it’s alright for said folks to deliver truth to you without wearing your pair of Dingo’s.
What is empathy though?
Is empathy what some folks would like us to believe? Is empathy essential to loving another person? In other words, must we truly know a person’s pain to show them true neighbor love?
Empathy is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
There are times when this is possible. Sometimes we can relate to a person in such a way that enables us to understand something they’re experiencing and share the same emotion(s) brought about by that experience.
I know that when my son experiences the angst of becoming a man, I can relate. I was once his age. Physically a man, I also desired the benefits of being considered a man. When folks didn’t show me the respect that I felt ought to be shown to a man, I was sometimes hurt or even angered. My son experiences similar disrespect, sometimes from me. When he is angered because of that, I understand (although he probably doesn’t believe me). At times, when I know I have wronged him in that way, I share his emotions. I love him so, I empathize with him.
That is a way we have empathy. It’s very possible, in that respect.
Sometimes, empathy is not possible.
My sister has cancer. It’s a form of cancer usually reserved for women. It’s an experience in which it is impossible for me to relate in any meaningful way.
I am not a woman. So, I have no way of really understanding how this makes her feel as a woman.
I have never had cancer. So, I have no way of understanding how scary that is.
I have never had to go through chemo, radiation, or the painful or sickening side effects of those treatments.
I could go on with the dissimilarities between her and I, but I think you get the point. There is no way for me to truly understand and share her feelings. I can only attempt to relate in a very imperfect way. In a relationship like ours, I am only left with sympathy. I love her deeply, and although I’d love to share or even bare the weight of her cancer, I cannot.
How does truth fit?
Sometimes, we confuse experience as the only way we can know the truth about something. Actually, experience is not a very reliable authority when it comes to truth. Sometimes, experience can distort our view of truth. When we are intimately effected by an experience, our perspective is often distorted by emotion. Both experience and emotion can be valuable to our perspective, unless they taint our ability to reason or think critically about our situation.
Take the above example of my son. Sometimes I may disrespect him as a grown man. I ought not do that. But, if he allows that to make him so angry that he willfully dishonors me, his judgement has become clouded and he has sinned. Although he may be correct about my own sin and even righteous in his anger, his anger will have been a truth inhibitor.
Now, if I were a good father, a task in which I often fail, I would not allow my sons dishonor to bring me to anger. I would default to telling him the truth. The truth is that I ought not treat him as a juvenile. But, the truth is also that he ought not dishonor his father and mother. Both are true.
There are other things that are true about his experience. There are truths I’ve learned from my experiences as a young man that can be of great benefit to him, if he’ll listen. These truths are valuable because I truly share empathy with him. Empathy can be a real asset when it comes to helping someone you love.
Does a lack of empathy negate truth?
In the case of my sister, I must be more careful. If I presume too much, I can hurt her. If I pretend that I know how she feels or can truly relate to her condition, it could be insulting to her. The truth is, I can’t.
That doesn’t mean that’s the end of it. It can’t be.
Most doctors are not cancer survivors. Her doctor may not be a female. Does that mean that her doctor can’t deliver truth to her about her condition? Not hardly. It’s very likely that her doctor has a clearer vision about her situation than she does. In fact, if she decided that her doctor couldn’t or didn’t have the right to speak to her about her cancer merely because they had no empathy for her, it could be a fatal mistake. Her emotion and experience may give her a unique perspective but it may be a very twisted one.
Likewise, spiritually, I may have a clearer vision about my sister’s experience than her. Anger, depression, and denial are emotions that are a real part of her experience. They can also be misleading when it comes to reality. Although I should choose my words and timing carefully considering her situation, truths about God’s sovereignty, love, and grace remain relevant. My lack of empathy ought not veto the value of those truths.
Empathy vs truth
Each of our lives are a unique experience. No one can empathize with us in each specific experience. That does not, it cannot eliminate the need of others to speak truth to us. Although our experiences often persuade us that we are the only one who can understand us enough to deliver us, our minds tell us that’s not true. Empathy, although valuable is not essential to truth. As truth-tellers we ought to pursue empathy in meaningful ways. Our love for our neighbors ought to drive us to truly understand their experience and enter in to their pain. But, our lack of empathy ought not prohibit us from delivering the truth to them about their experience.
Jesus of Nazareth did this. He truly became one of us. He has experienced life as a human. Hebrews 2:17,18;5:2; and 7:26 describe Jesus as one who has empathy. His empathy is limited though. He did not experience everything that could be experienced. Time prohibited that. Furthermore, he did not sin. But, he is supremely qualified to be our Great High Priest. He embodies truth and his truth is supremely valuable and beckons us to come to him with our experience and our emotion because he truly sympathizes with us (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus doesn’t beckon us to himself merely to feel our pain though. Our advocate beckons us to the truth about ourselves, to change, and repentance.
Before you reject the truth merely because of a lack of empathy; before you decide to withhold the truth from someone who needs it, think of Christ’s example. In the case of empathy vs truth, where does your loyalty lie.