Like anything, empathy can be a healthy part of life or an unhealthy one depending on how it is being used. Edwin Friedman wasn’t a big fan of empathy because empathy can be a tool used to keep stuck systems stuck and dysfunctional systems dysfunctional. Empathy can hijack a relationship or a system and keep people from moving forward because in hurting with those who hurt it can make it more difficult to move forward in a way that is actually good for the people in the system.
I agree with his analysis but I don’t think that discounts our need for healthy empathy that comes from a well defined sense of self. In fact, I believe that healthy empathy can actually reinforce our own sense of identity rather than hijack it as we begin to understand how our feelings and the feelings of others are not always the same, even when experiencing the same things.
Today in churches just as much as in corporations or even politics, we see empathy used as a coercive force. This is not true empathy because empathy cannot be forced. If I can force you to hurt with those who hurt then I can keep you from fixing the actual problems that might actually alleviate some of the hurt. I have seen arguments in churches boil down to one party claiming to be the “weaker brother” in order to get their way! Talk about coercion via empathy and a twisting of the scriptures to win the day! That is a demand more than anything else and, again, you cannot force someone else to have empathy for you. In other words, that is a demand to put yourself in my shoes in order to allow my position to win the discussion, regardless of what is truly best or right.
Empathy can be skewed. It can be abused.
Instead of being coerced into empathy, we should be welcome it and experience it as people who are people of compassion and mercy.
Empathy still has a place in the lives of Christ-followers. Paul tells us as much in 1 Corinthians 12 where the all the parts of the church body both suffer and rejoice together. That is not supposed to be unhealthy enmeshment in the church where the whole body shuts down because the finger got a hangnail or the eye got a stye. Instead, it is supposed to be a process of mutual support and encouragement that doesn’t drag the body down, rather it lifts the body up.
So be empathetic and learn how to spot forced, manipulated empathy for what it is.