Theology & Spirituality

The Enticing Sin of Ascetic Disdain

In some circles, there seems to be a movement against empathy. Two relatively recent articles demonstrate this: Joe Rigney’s “On the Enticing Sin of Empathy at Desiring God and Kevin DeYoung’s “What Does it Mean to Weep with those who Weep?” at the Gospel Coalition. Rigney’s piece imitates C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, in that it is an epistle from the demon Screwtape to his fiendish nephew and novice tempter, Wormwood. Pseudo-Screwtape begins by reminding his protege that sufferers always demand that their pain and suffering be recognized while simultaneously resisting any attempts to alleviate them. In light of this, he recommends twisting the “virtue” of compassion into the “vice” of empathy, “Compassion only suffers with another person; empathy suffers in them. It’s a total immersion into the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the afflicted.” By obfuscating the line between compassion and empathy, Christians are then confronted with the temptation to sin with the sufferer. While compassion maintains a distance between the sufferer and comforter which allows one to reject sin, empathy automatically crosses the line, transgressing into sin and unbelief: “Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.” The Christian, therefore, becomes “untethered” from the truth and steerable by the cacodemonic agenda. 

Kevin DeYoung’s piece is less dramatic in presentation and more moderate rhetorically. He attempts to trace the contours of Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” While commending uses of this verse that encourage compassion and pastoral care, he is cautious about its application. “It should not be taken as a one-size-fits-all formula that demands a rigid application in every situation where people are sad or distraught.” He brings three caveats to the verse: (1) we should not celebrate evil achievements; (2) we cannot rigidly apply Romans 12:15 in real life; and (3) Jesus did not weep with everyone who wept. Instead, he reminds us that Romans 12:15 is an exhortation to live in harmony with others in the Body of Christ by exercising proper emotional reactions to a given situation: “Raining on parades and dancing at gravesides does not help keep the peace.” So Christians should exercise compassion but “our sympathy is not untethered to all other considerations. Weeping in itself is not sacrosanct.” 

This move to defend against empathy is misguided. If anything, the American church needs to be better in this area, not more guarded. There are three major problems with the pictures painted above: First, Rigney’s description of the sufferer’s demands are oversimplified and essentialist. Second, both authors seem to reify an American impulse to distance ourselves from the sufferer. Third, taken together, these strategies create an attitude of “ascetic disdain,” to use Mother Maria Skobtsova’s language. We can only move past ascetic disdain when we recognize that our encounter with the other is an encounter with a divine image-bearer, and therefore, an encounter with God. 

It’s important to explore the picture Rigney paints of the sufferer. For him, the sufferer makes two demands at once: to be recognized in their pain and to not be helped. This rather unflattering portrait of the victim is a caricature more than a reality. Certainly, we can find stories of those who may use their bad situation to take advantage of others, but to apply a criterion of suspicion across-the-board ceases to grapple with the complexities of the sufferer’s situation. Suffering and evil are incoherent, so there are no magic words or solutions we can offer as a response. We can be present for others, we can weep and mourn alongside them, and we can bear their burdens with them (Rom 15:1), but we must not trick ourselves into thinking that suffering and injustice can be entirely alleviated with a Hallmark card or a meal train. The reaction of the sufferer will be complex, and sometimes even contradictory. This is a function of the nature of suffering, not a reflection of a defect in the sufferer. 

Rigney seems to associate suffering with sin, which is a dangerous connection to make. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is instructive here. The Proverbs, for example, lay out many natural consequences to unwise actions. The Scriptures also do detail instances in which pain and suffering are divinely inflicted in a retributive manner. Yet, the reasons for Job’s suffering are mysterious and hidden from him. Jesus extends a similar answer to his disciples’ question in John 9 about whether the blind man’s suffering was due to his sin or that of his parents, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” Suffering cannot be normatively chalked up to sin; it poses a mystery for us. The negative association of suffering with sin further obfuscates the fact that God is found in the lowly. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom acknowledges that the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man makes a similar point: 

Therefore do not say to me that [Lazarus] was full of sores; but mark this—-that he had within him a soul more precious than all gold; or rather, mark not only his soul, but also his body; for bodily perfection consists not in stoutness and vigour, but in being able to bear so many and so great afflictions. For, if one have in his body wounds of this kind, he is not therefore to be despised. But rather, if one have in his soul so many defects, for him we should have no regard;—-and such was that rich man, covered with wounds within. And as dogs licked the wounds of the one, so the evil spirits aggravated the sins of the other; as the one starved for lack of food, so the other for lack of virtue.

The rich man who enjoys prosperity and luxury is the one with the wounded soul, while Lazarus is purified and perfected through his suffering. If suffering is not necessarily due to some sin in the life of the sufferer, Rigney’s warning against empathy is hyperbolic at best. Empathizing with the pain of the sufferer does not entail either apostasy or accompanying them in sin. 

One of the conditions of modernity is impersonality. Kenneth Bessant identifies the factors of urbanization, industrialism, and rationalism as catalysts of a fractured and artificial understanding of how we as humans live together. We are now the artificers of our own reality, curating our social media feeds, news outlets, and other online bubbles to both consume and project the life we want. We insulate ourselves from the actual suffering of others digitally, a phenomenon which spills over into our actual lives. We aren’t the priest or the lawyer who leave the beaten man on the side of the road, we are consumers who don’t even care enough to look up from our phones. For this reason, I find both Rigney and DeYoung somewhat out of place in their critique of empathy. 

Romans 12:15 is not the only place where we see an exhortation to join ourselves to those suffering. Paul makes a similar, more expansive command in Galatians 6:1-2 in the context of church discipline, “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” In all things, we ought to be pursuing holiness, but suffering with someone else is a means by which we are sanctified. There is something sacred about shedding tears with those who weep. 

All of Paul’s commands on this topic hinge on Romans 12:1 where he affirms that we who have been identified with Christ’s death and resurrection in our baptisms (cf. 6:3-4) must now present ourselves as “living sacrifices” at the altar. This cruciform life must be characterized by the kind of kenosis whereby our Lord empathized with our sorry state: “being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). This sacrificial ethic must characterize all of our interactions with the other. Paul himself is a good example in wishing himself to be cut off from Christ for the sake of non-Christian Jews. He cared about his fellows so much he was even willing to be damned in their stead. 

The underlying pragmatism wrapped up in the thought process of Rigney and DeYoung is evidence of a modern desire for clinical distance from sufferers. This distance is antithetical to the Gospel. Mother Maria of Paris calls this ailment “mystical Protestantism” in that we seek to reduce everything to “God and I, God and my soul, and my path, and my salvation. For the modern Christian soul it is easier and more natural to say ‘My Father’ than ‘Our Father,’ ‘deliver me from the evil one,’ ‘give me this day my daily bread,’ and so on.” Yet the call to the individual Christian is to renounce all, take up the cross, and follow our Lord; this is the beginning of all Christian morality. On the cross, Christ stretched out his arms for the whole world to come within his saving embrace. When we join ourselves to his suffering, we too must become open to the suffering of the world, always fusing ourselves to the suffering of others.  

Mother Maria is critical of an attitude she calls ascetic disdain. This develops from an understanding of the social component of Christianity as a “secondary” aspect of the Christian life—emphasizing instead one’s private relationship with God, and thereby imbuing a contempt for others who are perceived as impediments to that private spiritual progress. What this mentality fails to capture is the reality that the worldly person is one who is actually sectioned off from the world by their egoism. Mother Maria says, “there is always an impassable abyss in their consciousness: ‘I’ and the world, which serves me, amuses me, grieves me, wearies me, and so on. All this reveals, embodies, reflects, realizes a single excessive ‘I.’ In this relation to the world there exist insuperable, high walls that separate man from man, nature, and God.” Yet many modern Christians find themselves similarly isolated from the world because of their supposed love of God. This is not possible: “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).  While perhaps well-intentioned, ascetic disdain merely replicates the worldly, self-centered mindset it purportedly eschews. 

Instead of reproducing the world’s way of thinking, Mother Maria urges us to understand that the giving of ourselves to to the world is a fundamental aspect of the Christian vocation: 

When we act in our modern life, visiting the sick, feeding the unemployed, teaching children, keeping company with all kinds of human grief and failure, dealing with drunkards, criminals, madmen, the dejected, the gone-to-seed, with all the spiritual leprosy of our life, it is not a job and not only a tribute to obedience that has its limits within our chief endeavor–it is that very inner endeavor itself, an inseparable part of our main task. The more we go out into the world, the more we give ourselves to the world, the less we are of the world, because what is of the world does not give itself to the world. 

In the act of empathy, we engage in a dialectic that frees us from worldliness. By bearing burdens, we give ourselves to the world, and the act itself is a re-enactment of the Crucifixion. In this vein, Herbert McCabe provides the haunting reminder that, “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.” While Rigney and DeYoung are correct insofar as they remind us that empathy is not an excuse to sin, their posts fail to do empathy justice. For a Christian, empathy is necessary because it binds us to others, like the way our Lord has bound himself to us out of his great love for the world. We are called to demonstrate to others the same love he has shown to us.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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