Biblical Child Discipline in an Age of Therapeutic Goo (3)

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Empathy and the Clowns

Sermon Video


Many Christian parents are aware of the fact that the outside world is hostile to our faith, and as a consequence it is hostile to the approach we must take in bringing our children up in that faith. We are usually aware of the fact of the hostility, but we are frequently unaware of the root of that hostility. What it is that is necessitating such a radical clash? Why is it that everything seems to have come unstuck? Why is it now such a challenge to just bring up normal kids?

The Text

“Therefore be imitators of God as dear children” (Ephesians 5:1, NKJV).

“Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13–14).

Summary of the Text

One of the central ways that children learn is through imitation. This is natural and is built into the very fabric of the created order. Because God has adopted us as His children, we have been brought into the family and household of God (John 1:13; Eph. 2:19). In our first text (Eph. 5:1), we are told to imitate God as His dearly beloved children. Now we know that, in the very nature of the case, we can never duplicate what God is and does. But we are nevertheless commanded to imitate it. Our imitation of Him should naturally carry over into how we care for our own children. He has children, and we should imitate Him in how He treats them. We know how He treats us, and so we should turn and treat our own children the same way.

Our second text provides us with one point where such imitation will be most fruitful (Ps. 103:13-14). A good father pities his children, and God is just like this also. He too pities His children, showing tender care to those who fear Him. He knows and understands our frame. He is fully aware of our frailty. He remembers that we are but dust. And in just the same way, good and godly parents are sympathetically aware of their children’s frame. Godly parents therefore have sympathy for their kids. They know and feel how vulnerable it is to be a kid.

So sympathy is a foundational parental virtue, but beware. There is a trap.  

Sympathy and Empathy

So I used the word sympathy just now, and we must therefore begin by distinguishing it from the therapeutic uses of empathy. The word sympathy is of ancient use, and it means to “feel together with.” We have a sympathetic high priest in the Lord Jesus, for example. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling [sympatheo] of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). And we as Christians are commanded to be sympathetic: “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion [sympathes] one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous” (1 Peter 3:8).

But the word empathy is of relatively recent coinage, and it is used in two ways. One is the man-in-the-street approach, which simply uses empathy as a synonym for sympathy. That’s okay, no bones were broken, and we shouldn’t freak out about it. So if other folks are using the word in an ordinary way, you shouldn’t be shushing them like you were the censorious library lady. But whenever you have a choice, sympathy is a perfectly good word that covers everything we need to express. And you know you should stick to your guns when someone starts shushing you for having used the word sympathy.   

This is because there is an extraordinarily destructive use of the word empathy. This other use of empathy is the one that is currently destroying Western Civilization, and is filled with a toxic hatred of all that is good. As you are bringing your children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, this is the central threat that your children will face. This is what you must protect them from. This is the central danger of our time.

I am talking about empathy as it is being employed by the therapeutic professionals, and how their definition has worked its way into our laws, our customs, our HR departments, the media, the military, and our courts. This form of empathy demands that we feel with others without making any judgments whatever about them or their behavior. Their feelings are to be considered paramount, and no questions asked. And if you do not provide this unconditional empathy, on demand, it is incontrovertible proof that you are a hater.

Here is how we may distinguish the two concepts. If a man is drowning in the river, and as he floats by, you throw him a rope, while remaining firmly on the bank yourself, that’s sympathy. If a man is drowning in the river, and as he floats by, you take a header in alongside him so that you might drown together with him, that’s empathy. The difference lies precisely in this—with sympathy, there is an objective solution outside of, and independent of, that person’s feelings. With empathy, those feelings are the only reality that may be considered. 

What the True Danger Is

For the sake of additional clarity, let us call this sort of toxic empathy untethered empathy. But this raises a question. This pathos, the feeling that the person has, is untethered from what exactly? The answer comes at us forcefully, and with the hard and bitter logic of the outer darkness. Feelings, in this understanding, are untethered from absolutely everything else. Like the ancient Israelites, “they defiled it by their own way” (Eze. 36:17). That phrase, their own way, is taken out to the extreme edge, which is where the outer darkness is.  

And the danger can lie festering close to home. Remember that ostensibly Christian homes can be governed by “feelings as the queen bee,” only using Christian vocabulary to provide the hypocritical cover. What sets the tone in your home? Is it the Scripture, and the fruit that grows naturally in the soil of Scripture? Or is it made up of emotional states that range from bitterness to hurt feeling to goopy sentimentalism to anger to envy? Many times Christians just attach Bible verses to their various sinful feelings, but with the feelings in charge, and then when their child goes off to be a freshman at Leviathan U, everyone is astonished at how rapidly he lost his faith there, and began to feel like he should be a girl now. But he didn’t lose his faith. He kept his foundational faith, and just snipped off the Bible verses. They were just getting in the way anyhow. Sudden apostasies only seem sudden.   

Back to what the world is teaching. This therapeutic heresy, which has insisted on a radical emotional autonomy, this independence from the oppressiveness of all fixed reality, has resulted in absolutely incoherent phrases like “my truth.” The demand to untether from everything objective and “outside self” in this way has been a demand, in effect, to “make reality optional.” And it was not long after that when the focus of that coercion shifted and became “make such denials of reality mandatory.” This is the foundation that the pronoun madness rests upon. We went from their optional right to use their own pronouns to your mandatory obligation to cater to their delusions. This is the cornerstone of all the transgender confusion. Take this disordered empathy away, and clown world disappears. Remove the fuel and the fire goes out.  

Gracious Tethering

What clown world in its lusts is seeking to detach us from—the fixed nature of absolutes—we as believers must be doggedly intent on embracing. “I cling to Your testimonies; O Lord, do not put me to shame!” (Psalm 119:31). The key word there is cling. All the things the worldlings are jettisoning, we must tether ourselves to. And what is that? Perhaps the word tether is too weak. How about weld?

God is the immutable one. God is a rock and His works are perfect (Dt. 32:4). “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). Second, His Word reflects the constancy of His character. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: But the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Isaiah 40:8). And third, the objective world reflects the character of God as well. “You who laid the foundations of the earth, so that it should not be moved forever” (Psalm 104:5). God created nature such that it has a fixed nature.

And this is why your child’s feelings must be taught to obey God, to obey His Word, and to obey His world. This is why we must obey our chromosomes. This is why we must disobey the pronoun madness.

At this point you might be wondering about something. “I thought that this was supposed to be a sermon on child rearing?” Oh, but it is. Everything comes down to how you handle the showdown you are having over your child’s distraught unwillingness to eat her lunch. Her feelings are quite petulant and demanding, and so what do you do? You fight for her salvation, of course.

If you are distraught because you must bring up children in this bedlam, and you have come to see empathy as a ravening monster, which it is, take heart. Your rescuer, your savior, your deliverer from this monster is the fact that God has given us a sympathetic savior. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with [have sympathy for] our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Always remember you have Christ. Turn away from your feelings of fear, inadequacy, shame, or ignorance, and turn to Him. As you do this, turning away from your feelings, you are modeling for your children how to do the same. You may sometimes feel like you are drowning, but He is not. He is at the right hand of the Father, and He has thrown you a gospel rope.  

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mater et peccatur
mater et peccatur
1 month ago

Being a sinner makes parenting doubly hard. I err on the side of not enough sympathy at times, due to my own fear of going down the road of “untethered empathy” and my fear of others’ disapproval of either my children’s behavior or my own parenting choices. Thanks for this encouragement to remember that God is a sympathetic and gently caring Father, not a drill sergeant. Thanks for again clarifying the difference between sympathy and untethered empathy. It would be helpful to get your thoughts or an example of how one might sympathetically yet firmly, grounded in biblical truth, respond… Read more »

1 month ago

Good reminder. Was this inspired by your recent interview with Room for Nuance? Or something you’ve already been working on via plodding?

1 month ago

I think you have found the watershed, (ala Scheafer)

28 days ago

Is the way you treat individuals like Sitler and Wright this, “untethered empathy” too?

28 days ago

Pastor Wilson, (maybe I will write you a letter for your consideration about this.. I have been pondering it for some time… but…) What about a valid use of “empathy” as that sympathy which *feels* with another because they have actually *experienced* what the other is going through. Along the lines of what the Bible talks about (in Corinthians?) where it talks about comforting others with the comfort you have been comforted with.. sort of like that. By no means(!) *not* *untethered* sympathy/empathy…. but firmly tethered/welded to the Holy and gracious God of the Bible. What about the use of… Read more »

27 days ago
Reply to  Robert

…. In Christ and the Gospel…