“Emotional Blackmail” and “The Sin of Empathy”

When Joe Rigney published his first article on “The Enticing Sin of Empathy” on the DesiringGod website in May 2019, many were bewildered — where did this come from? In subsequent articles, Rigney has unpacked some of the sources of his position, including the work of Edwin Friedman and his “The Fallacy of Empathy.” But another significant source for this idea is found in the teachings of John Piper himself, particularly the concept of “emotional blackmail.” Piper developed this concept over the course of several years, from talking about our “emotionally fragile age” in 2006, to the way children “emotionally blackmail” their fathers in 2007, to a speculation regarding A.W. Tozer’s wife in 2008. Through Piper, the language of “emotional blackmail” became widespread among conservative reformed evangelicals, especially at The Gospel Coalition, so when Rigney wrote his articles on “the sin of empathy” a decade later, they found a ready platform at DesiringGod, and a ready audience (among some) in conservative evangelicalism, because they so closely resembled Piper’s original concept, if perhaps dressed up in new, more provocative, language. The following post documents this development from 2006 to 2021.

“An Emotionally Fragile Age”

John Piper does not include the phrase “emotional blackmail” in his 2006 book What Jesus Demands from the World, but he develops several points that he will pick up in later sermons and comments on “emotional blackmail.” In the chapter titled “Love Your Enemies—Lead Them to the Truth,” Piper includes a section under the heading “Challenging the Absoluteness of the Beloved”:

The next obvious implication of Jesus’ words for the meaning of love is that it is not unloving to call someone an enemy. We live in an emotionally fragile age. People are easily offended and describe their response to being criticized as being hurt. In fact, we live in a time when emotional offense, or woundedness, often becomes a criterion for deciding if love has been shown. If a person can claim to have been hurt by what you say, it is assumed by many that you did not act in love. In other words, love is not defined by the quality of the act and its motives, but by the subjective response of others. In this way of relating, the wounded one has absolute authority. If he says you hurt him, then you cannot have acted lovingly. You are guilty.

No one I have ever known in person or in history was as blunt as Jesus in the way he dealt with people. Evidently his love was so authentic it needed few cushions. It is owing to my living with the Jesus of the Gospels for fifty years that makes me so aware of how emotionally fragile and brittle we are today. If Jesus were to speak to us the way he typically spoke in his own day, we would be continually offended and hurt. This is true of the way he spoke to his disciples and the way he spoke to his adversaries.

The point of this is that the genuineness of an act of love is not determined by the subjective feelings of the one being loved.

I am stressing another side of the problem that seems unusually prevalent in our psychologized world. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that feeling unloved is not the same as being unloved. Jesus is modeling for us in his life the objectivity of love. It has real motives and real actions. And when they are loving, the response of the loved one does not change that fact.

pp. 641–43 in The Collected Works of John Piper, Volume 6.

Though Piper does not use the term “emotional blackmail” in this chapter, he will explicitly use some of this same language (“feeling unloved is not the same as being unloved”) when describing “emotional blackmail” in 2008.

One point seems interesting and important to note here. Piper draws attention to the fact that Jesus sometimes used sharp words in “the way he spoke to his disciples and the way he spoke to his adversaries.” All of the scripture references in this section of What Jesus Demands are directed toward his twelve disciples, Pharisees, Herod, and Jesus cleansing the temple. Though Piper would later apply this reasoning to a wife who claimed that she did not feel loved by her husband, casting doubt on her claim, and wondering whether she might be engaging in “emotional blackmail,” it is striking that this is a significant leap from the text of the scriptures that Piper cites to support his initial claim. What Jesus directs toward hard-hearted disciples and Pharisees, Piper will apply to wives, and anyone else who he thinks is too “emotionally fragile.” Whether such a leap from text to application is warranted, the reader must judge.

Children Blackmailing Fathers

The first reference to “emotional blackmail” in Piper’s works can be found in a 2007 sermon on Ephesians 6:1–4: “Marriage Is Meant for Making Children . . . Disciples of Jesus, Part 2: A Father’s Conquest of Anger in Himself and in His Children.” While unpacking the phrase “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,” Piper acknowledges that angry children are not necessarily evidence of a sinful father:

So what shall we say to us dads about this matter of anger in our children? First, we should say that this verse may not be used as emotional blackmail by the children. Blackmail would say, “I am angry, Dad, so you are wrong.” Some people never grow out of this childish self-centeredness: “My emotions are the measure of your love; so if I am unhappy, you are not loving me.” We have all experienced this kind of manipulation. We know Paul does not mean that because Jesus himself made many people angry, and he never sinned or failed to love perfectly. Since all children are sinners, therefore, even the best and most loving and tender use of authority will provoke some children sometimes to anger.

(Note: this paragraph (indeed, the whole sermon) was reproduced in book form in 2009 under the heading “No Emotional Blackmail” in This Momentary Marriage (p. 151))

Though the focus of the sermon is on fathers and children, note that Piper broadens the scope to include people who “never grow out of this childish self-centeredness,” and manipulate others with their emotions. 

Aiden and Ada Tozer

The following year, Piper would use the term “emotional blackmail” in a discussion surrounding the wife of A.W. Tozer. Tozer (1897–1963) was a pastor and author who is probably best known for his two books The Pursuit of God (1948) and The Knowledge of the Holy (1961). In 2008, Lyle Dorsett published a biography of Tozer, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. Dorsett’s biography included frank descriptions of his home life,  including the fact that his wife Ada felt neglected by him.

The occasion that prompted Piper to write was a brief reflection on Dorsett’s book by Sean Michael Lucas, then the associate professor of church history at Covenant Theological Seminary. In his post, “A Passion for God,” Lucas said this:

Dorsett exposes a fundamental contradiction in Tozer’s character that raises all sorts of questions about holy zeal and its effect on the whole of life. The contradiction could be summed up: how did Tozer reconcile his passionate longing for communion with the Triune God with his failure to love passionately his wife and children? Perhaps the most damning statement in the book was from his wife, after she remarried subsequent to his death: “I have never been happier in my life,” Ada Ceclia Tozer Odam observed, “Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me” (160).

Now, certainly all human beings have flaws; that is not the point here. Rather, the point that Dorsett failed to explore adequately is how Tozer reconciled his pursuit of God with his failure to pursue his wife. This reconciliation–or failure to reconcile–should have raised questions about Tozer’s mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life. After all, if his piety could spend several hours in prayer and also rationalize his failure at home, then it should raise questions about his approach to piety. 

In his blog post on The Gospel Coalition, “Tozer’s Contradiction and His Approach to Piety,” Justin Taylor published an excerpt from Lucas’s post, and added that “John Piper writes in with a helpful caution.” Here was Piper’s “caution”:

Sean Lucas seems to say that Tozer’s wife’s greater happiness with her second husband implies Tozer’s “failure to love passionately his wife.” When she remarried after his death she said, “”I have never been happier in my life. . . “Aiden [A. W. Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me.” Lucas may be right to infer from this sentence that Tozer loved his wife poorly. But Tozer’s wife’s statement does not prove it.

We would need to be as penetrating in our analysis of her spiritual condition as we are of A. W. Tozer’s. Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same. Jesus loved all people well. And many did not like the way he loved them. Was David’s zeal for the Lord imbalanced because his wife Michal despised him for it? Was Job’s devotion to the Lord inordinate because his wife urged him to curse God and die? Would Gomer be a reliable witness to Hosea’s devotion? I know nothing about Tozer’s wife. She may have been far more godly than he. Or maybe not. It would be helpful to know.

Again I admit Lucas may be totally right. Tozer may have blown it at home. Lucas’ lessons from this possibility are wise. But I have seen so much emotional blackmail in my ministry I am jealous to raise a warning against it. Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, “If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.” There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question. This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.

I am not saying Tozer’s wife did this. I am saying that the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.

Maybe Tozer loved his wife poorly. But his wife’s superior happiness with another man does not show it. Perhaps Lyle Dorsett’s new biography of Tozer, A Passion for God, penetrates to the bottom of this relationship.

A few things are noteworthy. First, it seems clear that Piper has not read Dorsett’s book (“Perhaps Dorsett’s new biography penetrates to the bottom of this relationship”). Everything he writes here about Ada Tozer is pure speculation. 

Second, note what Piper is “jealous” about, what provokes him to write: upon hearing of Ada Tozer’s claim that her husband neglected her for the sake of his ministry, Piper is not jealous to “raise a warning” to pastors. He could have said “Pastors, whatever you do, be sure to love your wife. If you have to leave the ministry, be sure to love your wife. Do whatever it takes to love your wife.” Rather, Piper is jealous “to raise a warning against emotional blackmail.” 

Third, note that in this post he draws together material from two previous occasions (1) What Jesus Demands from the World on “emotional fragility” and the fact that “Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same” and (2) his teaching on the way that children attempt to manipulate and use “emotional blackmail” on their fathers; and then directs this combination at the claims of a wife that her husband was neglecting her and their family for the sake of his ministry.

(Note: for another review of Dorsett’s book from a reformed evangelical a few years later (2011) see Tim Challies, “A.W. Tozer: A Passion for God,” which highlighted the dichotomy in Tozer’s life and ministry, but did not question Ada’s account, or hypothesize on whether it amounted to “emotional blackmail”).

Ray Ortlund and Jared Wilson

Piper’s quote and particularly his phrase “emotional blackmail” was eventually picked up by other figures in the reformed evangelical network. In 2013 pastor Ray Ortlund republished Piper’s quote in a TGC blogpost (“Emotional Blackmail at Church”), and added his own analysis:

When a church’s mentality — the very categories and assumptions with which they process reality — is not biblical but therapeutic, this “great evil” can be perpetrated without any troubling of the conscience.  But no one should ever be pressured to confess as sin aspects of their behavior which the Bible itself does not identify as sin.  It is the Word of God, chapter and verse, and only the Word of God, not human expectations or emotions, which defines sin.  When we forget this, we exalt ourselves to the place of God with our own self-made demands and haughty accusations.  This is indeed a great evil, though self-exaltation rarely feels evil.  Misguided moral fervor feels good, even virtuous.

The following year (2014) Ortlund would reproduce this point, including Piper’s quote and discussion of “emotional blackmail” in his book in the 9Marks “Building Healthy Churches” series: The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (p. 101).

Jared Wilson also republished the quote on his TGC blogpost “Piper on Emotional Blackmail in the Church.” (This post appears to have been removed from the TGC website, but can still be found on Wayback).

As an observation, this is the way that a phrase and a concept work their way through a broader community, in this case, conservative reformed evangelicalism. Terms are coined, and then delivered in sermons and conference messages, then published in blog posts, and then in books, spread around by other influential pastors and writers. After a few years “emotional blackmail” became a part of the reformed evangelical vocabulary.

Marg Mowczo’s Critique

Not everyone appreciated Piper’s “warning.” In 2015, Marg Mowczo wrote a post critiquing Piper’s use of the term “emotional blackmail.” She also noted that “It seems the people at TGC really like these words” (“John Piper and Emotional Blackmail”). Mowczo found “a few things disturbing in John Piper’s words”:

First, John uses the examples of three women in the Bible who, for various reasons, had a problem with the godly zeal and devotion of their husbands. These three women—Michal, Job’s wife, and Gomer—are presented in a negative light in the Bible, and John compares their negative attitudes, words, and actions with the feelings of a woman who he admits he doesn’t know, Tozer’s widow.

The statement I have the biggest problem with, however, is this reference to Tozer’s widow: “… the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.”

This is unfair. Why not believe her when she says she felt loved by her second husband, with the implication that she didn’t feel loved, or as loved, by Tozer. Why cast it as an “assumption”? And why attach her feelings to the issue of emotional blackmail? 

…It is disrespectful for John Piper to have used Tozer’s widow to explain “emotional blackmail.” But there is more to this quotation. 

He suddenly makes it personal and talks passionately about the emotional blackmail he claims he has often seen in his ministry…

John believes that some church members have wrongly assumed that he and other ministers have hurt them, when in fact they have loved them. He asserts that some hurting church members failed to feel the love of their pastors and then resorted to emotional blackmail.

I know of people who have been hurt by pastors. This usually occurs when people have unrealistic expectations of their ministers. Yet these expectations are usually reinforced from the pulpit or by church culture, or both. When pastors allow the perception that they are powerful people with a better or deeper spiritual understanding, maturity, or capacity than other church members, or when pastors accept accolades to that effect, then some church members will expect more than what pastors can actually give. Some members may even expect to be loved in such a way that they will feel loved.

To some extent I agree with John that “a person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt,” but what concerns me the most about his words is that John never admits that there were times when he failed to love well. He puts all the blame and guilt on those who have felt hurt.

Being a pastor can be a very difficult role, and there are times when pastors need protection. But John seems intent on protecting himself and his fellow shepherds at the expense of his fellow sheep. To protect A.W. Tozer’s reputation, he maligns his widow. To protect his fellow shepherds who have been emotionally blackmailed, he puts all the blame on the sheep. Surely there must be a way of supporting and caring for the shepherds without resorting to unhelpful and uncaring insinuations against fellow Christians.

For the record, I agree with Mowczo’s critiques here. I find Piper’s criticisms unwarranted and seeming to “protect shepherds at the expense of the sheep.”

Erik Raymond

In 2016, Boston pastor Erik Raymond published an article on TGC on “Common Evangelical Attacks Against Sola Scriptura.” In it he listed “3 common attacks upon the sufficiency of Scripture” and the third was “The unmeasurable and devastating emotional blackmail.” Raymond favorably quotes Piper’s 2008 remarks on the Tozers and concludes the paragraph with this: 

How does this undermine the sufficiency of Scripture? It does so because the Bible gives us the basis for interpreting what loving behavior actually is. There is fruit that corresponds with love. And sometimes it doesn’t make us feel very good.

“Emotional blackmail” had moved from a tactic used by children on their fathers, to a dismissal of a wife’s claims, to an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.

Joe Rigney and The “Sin of Empathy”

In 2019, Joe Rigney published his first article on “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” In this initial article, he does not use the term “emotional blackmail” but the ideas are consistent. In the genre of a “Screwtape Letter” Rigney has the demon Screwtape explain the plan for emotional manipulation:

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.

Over the next couple of years, as Rigney further elaborated on “the sin of empathy,” he began to explicitly tie it to Piper’s language of “emotional blackmail.” In a January 2020 post on DesiringGod “Dangerous Compassion: How to Make any Love a Demon” Rigney analyzes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and includes a section under the heading “Emotional Blackmail.” One of Rigney’s “takeaways” is that we don’t always recognize 

“when our compassion ceases to be compassion and instead becomes a subtle tool of emotional blackmail. But if Lewis is right that the highest and best things become demoniac when they begin to be gods, then we ought to be aware that compassion — which is one of the highest and best things — can also fall into this trap.”

In May 2020, Rigney published another article “Do You Feel My Pain? Empathy, Sympathy, and Dangerous Virtues.” In this article, Rigney again puts an entire section under the heading “Emotional Blackmail” and this time explicitly references Piper: “Under the influence of empathy, we may open ourselves up to what John Piper calls ’emotional blackmail.’” He then includes a block quote from Piper’s 2008 speculation regarding Ada Tozer.

Others began to weigh in on the discussion, including Kevin DeYoung. In a March 2020 blog post on TGC (“Sympathy Is Not the Point”), DeYoung used the language of “emotional blackmail” to make his point: 

“feelings are not infallible. Sensitivity is one thing, sacrosanct is another. I am always responsible for what I do; I am not always responsible for how you feel. If emotional ineptitude is a problem for some, then emotional blackmail is for others.

In a May 2020 blogpost, Bethlehem College & Seminary professor Andy Naselli published a post summarizing Rigney’s articles on the sin of empathy (“How Empathy Can Be Sinful”). In this post, Naselli explicitly connected the dots between Piper’s “emotional blackmail” (quoting his comments on Ada Tozer) and our “emotionally fragile age” (quoting from What Jesus Demands from the World) and Rigney’s “The Sin of Empathy.” Naselli, too, affirms this as a “thought-provoking, insightful, and wise way to apply the Bible.”

“Empathy Blackmail” and “Ethnic Harmony”

Later that year, Naselli would apply this concept to the issues of race, or what Piper has termed “ethnic harmony.” Naselli taught a seminar at Bethlehem Baptist Church’s campus on “Ethnic Harmony” (“Ethnic Harmony 2020 North Campus Seminar”), and then published a journal article “What the Bible Teaches about Ethnic Harmony,” in the Midwestern Journal of Theology (2020). In the article, Naselli includes this point: “iv. Christians who are victims of ethnic partiality must not nurture resentment or show ethnic partiality in return.” He notes that:

“This statement might sound insensitive—the opposite of showing compassion. But that is not my intent. My intent is to show compassion by lovingly sharing the truth and by not withholding the truth” (38).

He then applies the concept of “empathy blackmail” to minorities who claim to have been on the receiving end of actual “or perceived” racism:

“here I am addressing Christians who are at the receiving end of actual or perceived ethnic partiality. With love I want to gently warn against adopting the mindset of a victim that is so common in our culture now. I am warning against empathy blackmail: “You must completely agree with me and share my perspective, or else you don’t love me.” I am warning against weaponizing empathy and manipulating others with it. I am warning against being oversensitive about what you perceive as micro-aggressions with the result that you are so easily “triggered” that you cannot live out what the NT says about loving your neighbor” (39–40).

To support his point in his article, he footnotes four of Joe Rigney’s blogposts on “the sin of empathy.”

2021

In April 2021, Joe Rigney published yet another article on empathy (“Where Do We Disagree?: Golden Rule Reading and the Call for Empathy”), and again explicitly tied the two concepts (“empathy” and “emotional blackmail”) together: 

If you’ve seen or experienced emotional blackmail in the name of empathy, or if you’ve seen Christians divided because some have adopted the logic that “I’m hurt; therefore you sinned,” then you’re more likely to be aware of that danger and thus emphasize the need for a deep respect for objective truth and goodness in our efforts to help.

And in May 2021, John Piper used the phrase again, this time to describe unbelievers (“Can Joy Come in Sorrow?”)

The enemies of Christ cannot succeed with emotional blackmail against Paul — that is, they cannot manipulate him by demanding the ruin of his joy because of their unbelief.

Conclusion

“Emotional blackmail” and “the sin of empathy” appear to be essentially the same thing. In what Piper thinks is an “emotionally fragile age,” he and those who have been influenced by him are concerned that we, especially fathers, pastors, and husbands, are not manipulated by the emotions of others, including children, women, and racial minorities.

To me, it is striking that one of the most important moments for the development of this concept, the discussion of Ada Tozer, was based on such flimsy evidence, from both the Tozer’s lives, or from Scripture. Without even having read the biography, while acknowledging that perhaps all of it was true, Piper felt “jealous” to expound on the danger of “emotional blackmail.” Though all of Jesus’s “hard words” were directed toward His heard-hearted disciples, Pharisees, or unbelievers, Piper directed this idea toward women. Once articulated in this way and in this context, the phrase spread broadly through conservative reformed evangelicalism.

Sometimes when you find yourself in a mess, you need to backtrack and figure out how you got there. What if we went back revisited this particular point? What if the warning about “emotional blackmail” was the wrong take then, and that’s what led us to “the sin of empathy” now? What if instead of “jealous to raise a warning against emotional blackmail” we were jealous for the flourishing of everyone in our communities? What if we stopped defending pastors and institutions at the expense of the sheep? Doing so may require going further back than we imagined, in order to untangle and undo years of harm.

4 thoughts on ““Emotional Blackmail” and “The Sin of Empathy””

  1. Did you see this from David French?
    https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/the-american-crisis-of-selective

    Sorry to hear about your difficulties at Bethlehem regarding Doug Wilson etc. I have tried raising these issues with an ACCS school here in Boise, ID and have had a similar experience.

    A word of encouragement for you: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1

    Like

  2. Daniel, I appreciate your take on this. While some of what Rigney and Wilson talk about when they go deeper is actually pretty fair in my opinion I am not a fan of the “Empathy is Sin” video. However, as I mentioned in a tweet recently, their intention to shock jock it into popularity is why I don’t appreciate it. It’s a little misleading even if they had different intenions–which Doug Wilson relishes I think at times.

    But I’m not following you a 100% on Piper and equating his sentiments “Emotional Blackmail” to equal “The Sin of Empathy”. He has been very upfront about his own marriage and struggles with loving his wife well (Noel). He took a sabbatical years back from ministry to focus on that. So even if he is using women as examples of using that against their husbands, that doesn’t mean those aren’t factual either, but it doesn’t mean he’s condoning it or he’s excusing ever situation like this. I don’t know about you, but he’s been one of the more open pastors about repenting of his own wicked heart more than most I’ve ever heard.

    I came from a home where my dad was a local pastor and in other ministries and at times just like you and me they have a passsion and zeal for their vocation and put their heart & soul into it with seemingly sacrificing some time with the family at times. There is a human side to all of us, pastors or not, that stumble at times or get priorities mixed up so I can understand that. That to me is not abnormal. No one is going to be perfect at that.

    John Piper is not perfect. He has shown overall to be completely sold out to Jesus over the course of his ministry. I just don’t see where he’s using this as an excuse for abuse. I really believe in this culture where everything is an offense and if you don’t agree with someone you are labeled unloving, needs some reminding to stand firm in the gospel and truth, and that means truth in love. I don’t think Piper is saying anything other than that. Whether one disagrees with some of his theology or not is fine. We are never supposed to hold on a pedestal or worship these well-known pastors and speakers because we don’t really know them and we see men fall from grace all the time. And Piper is the first to say that. But hopefully we can appreciate the kingdom impact Piper has certainly made. I respect your take but would be cautious to lump him in to this.

    Thanks for letting me weigh in — appreciate ya, Jeff

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    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for reading and writing. Without getting into the weeds of the debate, I do stand by the connection between “emotional blackmail” and “the sin of empathy.” I think it’s important to note that John Piper and Joe Rigney are close, John has 100% endorsed Joe as president of Bethlehem College & Seminary, and it has been DesiringGod that has published all of the “sin of empathy” articles that Joe has written. So in terms of “lumping him in with this” — John is publishing these things on his own site, including the articles that explicitly make the connection between “emotional blackmail” and “the sin of empathy.” I assume that if John didn’t agree with it, the articles wouldn’t be on his site under the endorsement of his ministry.

      Like

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