Desiring God, the blog run by conservative author and preacher John Piper, is known for making controversial statements that are low on empathy. No wonder. In a recent post by Joe Rigney, it turns out that having too much empathy is actually sinful. (Actual subtitle: “How Satan Corrupts Through Compassion.”)
Fancying himself as a modern C.S. Lewis, Rigney copies the narration style of The Screwtape Letters, in which Satan writes letters to “Wormwood,” his young apprentice, on how to manipulate and entice humans to follow him instead of God.
Writes Rigney [to “Wormwood”]:
Your confusion in this case, however, is somewhat understandable. I’ve always said you were a gullible devil. It seems the Department of Propaganda has been too successful. Even our tempters have been taken in. As a result, it falls to me to explain again some of the elementary doctrines of our Father Below.
When humans are suffering, they tend to make two demands that are impossible to fulfill simultaneously. On the one hand, they want people to notice the depth of their pain and sorrow — how deep they are in the pit, how unique and tragic their circumstances. At the same time, they don’t want to be made to feel that they really need the assistance of others. In one breath, they say, “Help me! Can’t you see I’m suffering?” and in the next they say, “How dare you act as though I needed you and your help?” The sufferer doesn’t want to be alone, and demands not to be pitied. This makes their emotional turmoil in suffering not only delicious to our taste, but also highly combustible and unpredictable.
Rigney seems to think there’s only one kind of suffering, unaware of all the GoFundMe pages in which people with cancer (but no health insurance) beg strangers for help. He’s also oblivious to the homeless people who hold up signs saying “Anything helps.” Plenty of people are in dire need of help, and appreciate whatever sympathy and compassion and donations they can get.
But for the purposes of his post, those people don’t count.
As Rigney continues, remember that he’s writing from the perspective of Satan and that, in this context, the “Enemy” is referring to Jesus:
Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.
Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.
This begins, of course, with the sufferers themselves. Our policy has been to teach sufferers to resent all resistance to their feelings. Any holding back, any perceived emotional distance — especially a distance that is driven by a desire to discover what would actually be good for them — must be regarded as a direct assault on their dignity and an affront to the depth of their suffering. As I said before, this is not difficult. A human in pain is practically primed to say, “You don’t love me if…” and then to place entirely unreasonable demands on others.
Because Rigney is trying so hard (too hard, honestly) to emulate the famous Christian apologist, he’s not providing specific examples of this “You don’t love me if…” scenario, but we can make a few educated guesses based on the other content on Desiring God.
Piper and his writers are not LGBTQ-friendly. They don’t support women in ministry. Because gay rights and women’s rights are always in the news in some fashion, it’s safe to say that perhaps the “loving” thing to do, according to Rigney, is to not capitulate to the “unreasonable” demands that LGBTQ people deserve equal rights or that women can preach if they want to — or expect reasonable punishments for the men in power who abuse them.
Rigney’s final argument is that complete empathy is akin to trying to save someone who is sinking in quicksand without being firmly tethered to something on land first. That is not how helping the suffering works. When physically saving people is not possible, we can give our time, money, possessions — or at least our eyes and ears. We can vote with our feet and use our platforms to educate and spread awareness.
What we cannot do, regardless of religious beliefs, is ignore the suffering on the grounds that those in pain somehow deserve it or are faking it for attention. But then again, John Piper’s Calvinist belief is that all human beings are inherently depraved, so suffering is not only inevitable, but deserved, no matter who you are.
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