Category Archives: love

Is your empathy really self-serving?


Empathy, or feelings of understanding or identification with another, seems to be a primary vehicle of human expression of love and compassion. In the world of therapy, empathy seems the foundation for all good counselor work. Sure, we can act in kind, compassionate, yet robotic ways but knowing that someone gets you and helps you is better.

But this begs two questions: Are empathy and altruism connected and parallel? And, is our empathy really self-serving? Taking the second question further, could our empathic responses be destructive to the very people with whom we want to help? Psychologist Paul Bloom thinks so (short video of his contra empathy point of view). While I think his argument against empathy is seriously flawed and really merely an argument against naïve, superficial, and self-serving do-gooderism–a significant problem in our society where we solve problems on emotion and often without taking the time to understand either cause or consequence–the bigger question is whether or not we ever really have concern for others outside of self-interest. And if we discover that all empathy is self-serving, does that deny the Christian virtue of self-denial and voluntary submission to others?

What is at the heart of our empathic, altruistic behavior?

We all have numerous instances where we have witnessed self-sacrificing behavior. The reason these instances stand out in our memories is that they are unusual and somewhat rare experiences. But consider the more run-of-the-mill expressions of empathy. You see a GoFundMe page for a friend in need and you give. Your church is seeking donations for Thanksgiving baskets and you buy groceries. Your neighbor is sick and you mow her lawn. Do we do these behaviors for them? Or do we do it, in large part, for ourselves?

Josh Litman’s paper “Is Empathy Ultimately Just Narcissism?” seeks to summarize the research literature about whether empathy and altruism are positively correlated and whether empathy is really about the other or about self-interest. His answer? Empathy and altruism may not be all that connected. Empathy is better understood as feelings of “oneness” or connectedness to the other. When I identify more with someone, I’m more likely to feel empathy and do self-sacrificial for them.

In conclusion, this paper defends a non-altruistic, egoistic strain of empathic concern. It might be heavy-handed to call it narcissism, but evidence has shown that empathic concern is certainly motivated by self-interested factors rather than selflessness.

Could this be the reason why more people changed their Facebook profile images to a French flag after the Paris bombings and far fewer chose a Turkish flag after the most recent airport bombing? Do we more closely identify with one group over another and thus feel more empathy and make more statements of support and care?

Does this proclivity to more strongly identify with some more than others reveal self-interest and self-concern? If so, does that make our caring of others all about ourselves and cause us to suspect the warmth and empathy we get from others?

So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19, NLT)

Oneness and love in the created and the Creator

I think empathy can be self-serving (I care for you because I want to be cared for) but I do not think it must be this way. Rather, I would argue that we have been designed to understand our world by means of our experiences. Because I understand what it could feel like to lose my home to a flood I am moved to donate time and talent to help rebuild a home. Because I see your humanness, I am able to empathize with your losses and then consider what possible ways I might respond.

Oneness does help us empathize. But empathy is not the same thing as love. True love, as an action verb, requires a willingness to expend self for the sake of another. True love enlarges the population you are one with. So, straight people find themselves in the experiences of gay people; Christians in the experience of Muslims; liberals in the experience of conservatives. True love moves beyond simplistic understandingfile-nov-02-12-21-19-pms with oneness and best reflects the character of God who self-sacrificially loves beyond measure, choosing to take up our infirmities as his own.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2:5-8, NIV)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.(Heb 4:15, NIV)

 

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Love your neighbor? Love your enemies? What does this mean today? 


The greatest two commands for all christians: Love the Lord your God with all your heart…and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31). As Jesus says, “there is no greater command than these.”

Not hard, right? 

Wrong.

The Luke version of this story tells us that the one questioning Jesus about keeping the law follows up with a self-justification question: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Like him, we want to know just who we have to love. But of course, just a few verses before (6:27, 35) Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to do good to them who hate us. So, whether enemies or neighbors, we are called to love both.

Let’s admit that some neighbors are pretty easy to love. Tomorrow I am leaving for Rwanda to love my Rwandan neighbors. But you know what, it isn’t a hard thing to do. Besides the 23 hours of travel to get there and being away from my family, I can’t say it is much sacrifice. I’m given far more honor there than I deserve. The weather, food, and company are hard to match. If love is a sacrifice, this is hardly love.  

Some neighbors are hard to love. They don’t treat us with the honor we think we deserve. They ask for things and don’t give back. Even worse, some neighbors hate us and seek to harm us.

Think for a minute: who do you find it hard to love? Is it a near (actual neighbor) person? A far person (a politician or person who represents an ideology you hate)? Have them in mind yet? Now think about what it means to love them. Since love is both doing things for someone and NOT doing evil to them, consider both the positive and the negative sides of your love. 

Here’s some examples: What does it mean to love ISIS fighters? Do we pray for them even as we highlight victim stories? What does it mean to love Barack Obama (if you are opposed to his presidency) or Donald Trump (if you are opposed to his desire to be president? Do we gloat at their failures? Getting closer to home, what does it mean to love a person on the other side of you in the Same Sex Marriage Supreme Court ruling or in the race debates? What does it mean to love the person who swooped in and took your parking spot? 

A Few Thoughts on What Love Means

Some might think that “love your neighbor/enemy” means never speaking up when wronged, never seeking justice, never making a stink. It does not. period. You can love your enemy even as you seek justice. Speaking the truth can happen…IF…it is done in love. So, what does speak the truth in love mean? 

  • Making sure that truth spoken is really true. Not exaggerating the flaws of the other; not engaging in slipperly slope argumentation. Straw men and exaggerations are not true. 
  • Making sure that love is the agenda for the truth. Speaking up for the sake of destroying a person’s career is not love. Though, speaking up to protect victims is love and to stop a person’s sinful behavior is also love.

Loving your enemy means being willing to forgive even before the forgiveness is sought. Of course, seeking and offering forgiveness does not mean justice and consequences for evil are not felt. But it does mean that I do not participate in an “eye for an eye” or vengence. As we remember, vengence is God’s to wield. 

Finally, loving your enemy is not merely avoiding revenge but requires us to “do good.” How do we seek the welfare and the peace of a city (or a person) who does not consider our needs or treat us fairly? 

Hard questions, but let us seek to be a community of people known for insane love of victims and perpetrators, willing to tell the truth and to see the prosperity of those who do not love us in return. 

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What if your spouse acts the part of empathic listener (but really isn’t)?


You’ve had a bad day. Your spouse comes home and you proceed to tell them about your difficult, frustrating day. When you finish telling your tale of woe, your spouse says the following (with appropriate feeling)

Wow, that really was a tough day. I’m sorry it has been so hard for you. Why don’t you take it easy and I’ll handle…[whatever menial task you would normally do right now]

Normally, this validation would feel quite nice. But what if you knew that your spouse didn’t really feel the warm fuzzies they were trying to send your way? What if they were only saying what they thought you wanted to hear?

Would you still feel loved because of the effort they made? That they wanted to “fake it ’til they make it”?

A recent This American life radio episode covers this very issue. The fifteen minute episode tells of a man with Aspergers who needed to learn how to love his wife and did so by observing and mimicking others who had better social skills. At one point in the show, the interviewer asks his wife if it matters to her that her husband doesn’t feel the empathy he is trying to convey.

Her answer? No.

What would your answer be?

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Filed under love, marriage, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized


[A version of this post was first published here on February 24, 2009. Given the content of my previous post, I decided to place it back at the top by republishing today]

Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 1 Cor. 7: 1-4

In the past year I have had several conversations with men about these verses. In every situation one spouse (not always the woman) had refused to engage in certain sexual practices with their spouse. These they found unappealing or disconcerting for a variety of reasons (e.g., a husband did not wish to use sex aids, a wife did not wish to receive oral sex, a spouse found a position brought back memories of abuse, or either found themselves undesirous of any sexual activity).

And so the frustrated spouse remembered these verses and wished to use them to compel their spouse or at least remind them of the duty to provide sex.

So, whose desires trump if the gist of the passage suggests that neither has full ownership of their own body nor has the right to demand in the bedroom? 

Sadly, I have listened to  men argue that women must submit to their husband’s sexual requests. She should fulfill her marital duty, should abstain only for prayer, and that her body is her husband’s. They appeal to this text and to Ephesians 5 which commands women to submit to their husbands.

Here is what is missing in that argument:

1. The husband is commanded to sacrifice everything to love his wife. That would include his desires.

2. This passage clearly states that the wife has control over her husband’s body and thus gets veto power over how he wants to use it in bed.

Some other things from the text that get neglected:

1. The Corinthian church wanted Paul’s opinion about sex and marriage. Paul does not affirm their position. In fact, he says that given the problem of immorality, couples should not unnecessarily tempt each other.

2. Sex is not the highest good in life or in marriage. It would be better to not marry and no, not everything is beneficial. Thus our desires cannot be a god to us.
2. The mutuality of sex is obvious. No one gets trump. The goal of the passages is to encourage each other to look out for problems of temptation.
3. And yet, these aren’t commands but advice (v. 6).

Now consider these application Q & As:

1. Should a spouse comply to a request for sex if they aren’t interested?

Interested is a key word here. Some spouses may wish to engage in sexual activity even as they know their own level of desire isn’t nearly as high as the requesting spouse. But the one who wishes to please their spouse ought not feel compelled or asked to do something they find distasteful or compromising. Couples that can talk through sexual desire differences in a manner where both the asker and the assenter feel heard and supported should not face much difficulty here. It is only when either the asker feels rejected or the assenter feels forced/guilty does differences in sexual desire create trouble.

2. Should one ever use these verses to urge their mate to engage in certain sexual behaviors?

There is a big difference between asking and urging (aka compelling). Lauren Winner says that God oriented sex is unitive and sacramental. It is about giving rather than getting and/or performance. It is hard to imagine how a person would use these verses  in a manner that wouldn’t violate the law of sacrificial love. Recall that these texts are not providing “rights” for either party. The entire Christian life is a “dying to self” experience.  

3. Are there situations that might cause a couple to abstain from sex other than for prayer?

Absolutely. The text doesn’t cover every situation. Health factors obviously limit sexual activity. These may include non-genital disease, STDs, and even past or present traumas. Generally speaking, married individuals enjoy sex. So, if one is resistant to sex or to certain sex practices, it probably won’t take much time to uncover problems in the relationship or other illnesses. Note here that this 1 Corinthian text focuses on the problem of sexual immorality. Paul gives several pieces of advice (give yourself to ministry, avoid marriage, get married, watch out for each other, etc.) but nowhere does he command any of these activities. His goal is to help the church avoid the sins of idolatry and adultery. When we take the text and look for a passage to defend our “must-haves”, we miss out on the larger context and purpose and fall into the very sin Paul is exhorting us to avoid–idoloatry.

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March 8, 2013 · 5:07 am

Define peace? Define Joy?


There are certain words that are used within christian circles meant to communicate a particular mindset or way of living. Peace, joy, trust, love, faith are just a few of these kinds of words. We all know what we mean by these words, right? Or do we?

Consider “peace” for a minute. When you think of peace do you think of quietness? relaxation? calmness? Do you imagine lying in a hammock? Do you imagine total serenity?

Isaiah 26:3 says,

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.

Perfect peace. Is that peace on steroids? Is it possible to have this peace in the midst of a battle? When you just found out your job has been eliminated? Would such a peace look different from peace on a vacation?

Here’s a question: Does Jesus lack such “perfect peace” when he cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” If you believe, as I do, that Jesus was sinless and did not cave to human frailties, you might need to re-imagine “perfect peace” and define it in such a way that you can have it and be in utter emotional agony at the same time.

So, if perfect peace is more complex, it stands to reason that joy within sorrow, trust within questions and love without feelings are all quite possible.

How would you define peace in light of the realities of suffering and abuse?

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Filed under christian counseling, Christianity, counseling, love, Psychology

State of the (Marital) Union: A time to review


Just prior to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night I thought of the above blog title and that it probably makes sense to every married couple to have their own state of the union review. Then I had fun imagining the similarities that such an occasion might have with the political review before the 2 other branches of power and the rest of the American public. First, the more dominant spouse speaks to what is going well with either cheers and/or ice-cold silence from the other spouse. Then the dominant spouse goes on to outline what they want to see happen in the following year. Afterward, the minority spouse rebuts and/or counter proposes his or her plans for the coming year. Since there is no media present to breakdown and critique the arguments, each spouse takes the role of reporter  to give a replay of the key points and also that of pundit by debating the merits of said points.

Sounds like most couple fights. I guess we don’t need a special night for this!

All kidding aside, it is good for couples to do an annual “take stock of our marriage” review. Here are some ideas that might be more constructive:

  1. Start with remembering why you got married and what you really like about each other. Too often we focus on the negative and allow those issues to skew the picture. Remind each other of their strengths and of their value to the marriage.
  2. Take time to listen to the dreams and concerns of each other. Take the lead in seeking out the mind of your spouse. What are their dreams and concerns? Don’t debate the merits of these dreams and concerns…and don’t problem solve to make them happen just yet. Just listen and validate everything you can! Oh, and if you are sharing your concerns…make sure you do two things: share them in a way that doesn’t accuse and attack (“I’m concerned that you don’t love me” may not help as much as “I’m concerned about how little time we spend together.”) and be sure to return the favor by asking about their dreams and concerns.
  3. Acknowledge your own weaknesses and ways you know you need to improve (could be anything from eating better to giving more compliments). And when your spouse does admit the need for improvement, resist piling on or adding to their list. Be bold. Ask for and extend forgiveness!
  4. Name the hot spots or threats to your marriage (external, internal, controllable, uncontrollable). See if you can’t find agreement on a couple. During this time, don’t go too deep into the complexities or get into problem-solving. Just name them in a matter-of-fact way.
  5. Set one goal and a simple means to start moving. Goals need to be something you can control. “Get our kids to respect us” isn’t one either of you can control. It also helps to be specific. “Spend more time together” is pretty vague. Try, “spend 2 hours one night per week together doing something other than talking about kids or watching television.” Then consider what barriers might block you from meeting the goal. Keep your efforts simple, doable, easy to repeat. This doesn’t mean you are setting the bar low but that you are trying to be faithful in the little things and trusting God for the bigger things.

One last thing: don’t wait til the following year to review. Otherwise you might have a mutiny at the next mid-term elections and get voted out of (dominant spouse) office.

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Filed under Communication, love, marriage, Uncategorized

What is your reaction to 20 years of marriage?


Just heard a story-teller talking about his transformation from disregard of marriage to wanting to marry his longtime girlfriend. Looking back to the time when he thought marriage offered him nothing he said his private reaction to the question, “When are you two going to get married?” was something like this,

How come you never hear someone say, “ooh, I can’t wait to get a piece of that (meaning long-time monogamous relationships).” No, we only see them as portrayed as a ball and chain.

We all are aware of the negative connotations to monogamy in our current culture. This particular person couldn’t see any benefits and only drawbacks to marriage. It took a life-threatening crisis to bring him to another perspective.

Closing in on 20 years of marriage, I can attest that it isn’t glamorous but it is good. Marriage isn’t really about ecstasy (well, there IS some of that) it is about commitment. And commitment doesn’t give highs, it moderates the highs and the lows into something far more long-lasting pleasurable than a momentary mountaintop experience.

As I said in my recent talk on this topic, lust may begin a relationship, romance may continue it, but something more (unity, IMHO) provides the motivation to finish the race.

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Inside adulterous love: “It’s all about me!”


There’s no denying that forbidden love lust generates massive pleasure–even if it leads to equally massive despair, guilt, and/or destruction. If it didn’t, few would allow an affair to develop and continue risking all that is dear to them (respect, trust, family, friends, even job). Like heroin, the pleasure within adultery screams to be experienced again. Often those caught up in this kind of pleasure feel they have found their soul mate, their completion as a person. But let’s take a look at this “love” for a moment and the lies told.

1. “You complete me.” Sounds like it is a compliment to the other, right? Nope. It is all about how the speaker feels. That is the focus. Very self-indulgent.

2. “I can’t wait to be with you again.” Again, the focus is on what you do to me.

3. “You get me.” Ditto #1 and 2.

The funny thing is, if you were to remove the “love” phrases being bantied back and forth in an affair from their context, you see how self-focused the expressions of pleasure and satisfaction are despite the pretense of care for the other. But both parties delude themselves that it is real love as long as the “drug” lasts. As long as both feel that the other exists to bring them pleasure it feels like mutual love.

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Filed under adultery, deception, love, Relationships, self-deception, Sex

Hating the desire for intimacy


In prep for a presentation next week I have been reviewing Dan Allender’s”The Wounded Heart.” While I’m not a fan of his approach in this book (it’s too much at once for those with PTSD), I do think he has many, many nuggets of truth. Here’s one on p. 41:

Let me state an important observation: I have never worked with an abused man or woman who did not hate or mistrust the hunger for intimacy. In most victims, the essence of the battle is a hatred of their hunger for love and a strong distaste for any passion that might lead to a vulnerable expression of desire….The enemy, or so it feels, is the passion to be lovingly pursued and nourishingly touched by a person whose heart is utterly disposed to do us good. Such people (if they exist at all) are rare; it is therefore easier to hate the hunger than to wait expectantly for the day of satisfaction.

I see this love/hate/fear theme in many troubled marriages–even those where abuse is absent. When we desire this nourishment from someone “utterly disposed to do us good” and then continually wake to the realization that the person we married is not–no, cannot–disposed to do us good in the way we dream, we often feel rejected and invalidated because it seems to us the person is holding out on us. In response to these fears, we have one of several choices:

  1. Demand/pursue via criticism, complaint, accusation, suggestion, etc. that the person give what they are withholding: perfect validation and intimacy
  2. Withdraw into coldness, self-hatred, workaholism, fantasy, etc. to avoid the intimacy that is present in the marriage because it is not what we think it should be
  3. Actively pursue the dream of intimacy with others, or
  4. Daily die to the dream that the other will make us fully secure and happy WHILE continuing to offer unconditional intimacy, support, validation of the other in order to better provide sacrificial love AND yet still communicating (without demand) clearly our requests for how the other can love us well or what behaviors they should stop that are hurtful.

As you can see the 4th is impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit. The first 3 are much easier choices. They require less of us and maintain our all/nothing view of self and the world. The truth is we can only approach the 4th position if we place our trust in God to sustain us in a broken world. And therein lies the problem. It is hard for us humans to trust an unseen God, especially when our experience with the seen world tells us that love is conditional, that we are not valued, etc.

What’s the answer then? There is no one answer. But am I willing today to do one thing where I trust the Lord and show love/civility to the other as a creature made in the image of God. If I can answer yes, then I need to find another human being (since we are made for community) to help me discern what that love might look like today (hint: it may not look anything like what my spouse thinks it should look like).

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Filed under Abuse, Anxiety, christian counseling, christian psychology, Communication, conflicts, Desires, Great Quotes, love, marriage, Relationships

Cherishing suffering?


Reading in the CS Lewis daily reader about the common feeling of shame that a bereaved person has for feeling better on a given day. My friend described that feeling as one of feeling disloyal to his deceased wife. Lewis describes this well.

We don’t really want grief, in its first agonies, to be prolonged: nobody could. But we want something else of which grief is a frequent symptom, and then we confuse the symptom with the thing itself. I wrote the other night that bereavement is not the truncation of married love but one of its regular phases–like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase. We don’t want to escape them at the price of desertion or divorce. Killing the dead a second time. We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don’t want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will be still married, still in love. Therefore we shall still ache.

From A Grief Observed

Good description of the pain of losing a mate based on my friends experience.

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