In a recent post, I mentioned a Christian who claimed that his “heart hurt” as he read an account written by a non-Christian. I realized that I’d encountered a lot of Christians talking just like him. In fact, Christians often sound downright sorrowful about non-Christians. By remarkable coincidence, I’d just had some Christians say something similar to and about me. So I dove into this form of Christian posturing. Now that I’ve unlocked its secrets, let me show you what I found.
New Christianese Unlocked!
My Heart Hurts: A virtue-signaling phrase. It’s employed by Christians who want to express condescension, judgment, tribal wrath, superiority, and paternalism in an appropriately Jesus-y way. The goal is to express some witheringly unpleasant sentiments in a way that cannot (they hope) be criticized.
- Natasha Crain, “Progressive Christianity is as Much of a Threat to Your Kids’ Faith as Atheism“: “The whole article [she’d read] literally made my heart hurt.” (Plus a bonus Bob Seidensticker in the comments!)
- Nathan Baxter, “In Pennsylvania it’s the year of the Bible“: “As I listened to the angry, bitter representative of American Atheists, my heart hurt for the pain he felt, the betrayal he clearly experienced and his estrangement from the God with whom he continues to invest his life’s energy to deny and debase.”
- Frank Sontag, “LA rock legend goes from New Age guru to Christian“: “A handful of years later, after I came to Christ, we had Steven Tyler on. . . he went into great detail about all of his wealth, and my heart hurt. So I went from being envious and jealous, to after I came to Christ, my heart really hurt for him.”
- Carolyn M. Berghuis, “Faith in Jesus“: “The Atheist, in particular, was a very unhappy man who I would describe as angry and bitter. My heart hurt when he referred to the stories of the Bible as ‘fairy tales’.”
We also see it expressed as I felt very sad and variants thereof. The sentiment remains the same. (We’ll discuss these examples further in a moment.)
You know how I talk about toxic Christians thinking we’re all idiots? This is one of those times.
As with a lot of Christianese employed by passive-aggressive people, context means a lot here.
Sometimes people talk about their hearts hurting at some terrible situation. For example, my heart really does hurt when I see Christians beating themselves up over not measuring up to their religion’s excessive, unreasonable demands. I know how it feels because I’ve been there myself. Remembering my own pain, I can easily sympathize with Christians. I know why they beat themselves up because I did the same thing once. What makes their agony even worse for me is knowing that they’re largely emotionally torturing themselves over something that isn’t even true. Yes, that pains me.
And in the same way, I can easily imagine that some Christians talking like this might legitimately feel sadness over situations like food insecurity, addictions, homelessness, and other ills. Our world contains some legitimately horrifying and terrible things–many of them caused by tribalism of the same sort that Christianity creates and fosters.
The sentiment becomes paternalistic condescension and a thinly-disguised sneer when the Christians expressing it do so over situations that they don’t understand or that fall outside of their approved party line. They act sad because the person they’re talking about seems perfectly content without their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game. And that is the ultimate Big Problem Here for these Christians.
Nobody asked them for sympathy, and nobody actually requires their sympathy. They’re shoving sympathy coins at people who patently don’t need them.
That’s where my heart hurts becomes nasty.
The Power Dynamic.
My heart hurts, at its heart, functions as an expression of a desired power dynamic.
Ultimately, this expression relates to pity and sorrow. We don’t pity and sorrow for people who are doing well. Instead, we offer these sentiments (when we’re being kind and not nasty) to people who suffer. We see them as laboring and unfortunate–ultimately, as doing worse than we are. The expression in these cases amounts to trying to equalize the burden by assuming some of it. We offer our hand to them: Yes, this is terrible. It’s not your imagination. You’ve been hard-done-by. I perceive your pain and would like to carry some of it for you.
We lower ourselves a little to raise the other up.
But that’s not what’s going on with this Christianese.
When a Christian uses this phrase toward someone who is doing perfectly fine, they’re deliberately trying to knock that person down to lift themselves up higher. Instead of offering their hand to someone, they’re whapping them across the back side of their heads. They’re saying, in essence, Yes, yes, you sound like you’re happy. But you’re not. You poor little deluded thing; you don’t even realize how bad you have it. But I do, because I know better than you do. You should be sad, even if you think you’re on top of the world.
The Christians talking like this seek to re-balance a threat to their own sense of superiority.
Look Again At Those Examples Up There.
The blog post that made Natasha Crain’s poor widdle heart hurt? A Christian over at Unfundamentalist Parenting criticized fundagelical Easter torture-porn. (OMG STOP THE PRESSES! Some Christian, somewhere, doesn’t believe exactly the same things fundagelicals do!) The post celebrates life, creativity, and discovery. It encourages appreciation for the here-and-now. To Natasha Crain, those sentiments become a reason to express pity for the writer, who doesn’t even remotely sound like she needs or wants any.
The incident that made Nathan Baxter’s poor widdle heart hurt? He watched an interview wherein an atheist talked about the way the Bible condoned all sorts of things that we know now are deeply immoral. Nothing about the atheist sounds particularly pitiable, but Baxter decides that the atheist was “angry” and “bitter.” For good measure, he also decides that this atheist obviously got turned off from Christianity through the pain of loss (like Professor Radisson!) and bad Christians. In reality, the interview concerned church-state separation, which Christians like Baxter have sought for decades to destroy. But he tries super-hard to shout out the atheist’s actual argument by focusing on how pitiful he thinks he was.
The interview that made Frank Sontag’s poor widdle heart hurt? He interviewed Steven Tyler, yes, that Steven Tyler, who talked about his wealth. Given the context of the writing, it’s entirely possible that Tyler was answering direct questions about the topic. Before he converted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, Sontag says he’d been super-jealous of rock stars. Now, however, he felt pity for the lead singer of Aerosmith. Poor little rich boy, lugging gold bars and C-notes everywhere and suffocating under a pile of supermodels and stewardesses every night—but he doesn’t believe in Christians’ imaginary friend, so really, lezbereal, who’s the pitiful one here? HAW HAW!
The vacation that made Carolyn M. Berghuis’ poor widdle heart hurt? While traveling, she ran into an atheist who (somewhat inaccurately) referred to the Bible’s mythological stories as “fairy tales.” Though she insists that this atheist was “very unhappy” as well as “angry and bitter,” she provides no examples of these qualities. It comes off as Christian projection. (Reading between the lines, I suspect she offended him with a sales pitch.) Whatever his situation was, this atheist had no need of her “fairy tales,” and that’s all she needed to look upon him with barely-veiled passive-aggressive condescension.
Does anything here sound like genuine sympathy? Because it shouldn’t. It isn’t. It’s just Christian control-lust animating a battering-ram of emotional manipulation.
What’s Going On Here.
Of all people, ex-Christians know better than anybody that “Christian joy” is, for the most part, a pretense. Of all people, we know that Christian salespeople must act happy. It’s part of their sales pitch. Gloomy-Gus salespeople don’t move product. Nobody wants to join a tribe of sad sacks.
Competing against this false narrative of happiness runs another, equally false narrative: that of the unhappy non-believer. In Christian-Land, just as Christians are the only people who can be happy, all non-Christians become by definition unhappy. It becomes a bizarre Argument from X attempt, just like all the other ones we’ve encountered: the Argument from Happiness. And it goes like this:
Gosh, Jesus makes Christians super-happy! Without Jesus, people aren’t happy at all. That must mean Jesus is real because obviously all those Christians would be unhappy too if their god existed only in their imaginations. Thus, people should choose to believe in Jesus, because that is totally a possible action that people can choose to do or not do, so they will be happy all the time. Don’t you want to be happy..? You don’t? What on earth is wrong with you?
Of course, should someone mention they were deeply unhappy as Christians, they will be told they Jesus-ed all wrong. The fix to that problem is to Jesus just like the Christian making the sales pitch. Then the ex-Christian will be totally happy again.
(The Christians chirping like this reeeeeeally have no idea how to react to people who were fairly happy as Christians, but discovered that its claims weren’t real and so lost belief.)
I’ve totally lost track of how many times I’ve told Christians to stop making huge blubbery displays on my behalf. Cuz yeah, I get this routine all the time too. If you firmly reject some major plank of their culture wars, or unequivocally reject their sales pitches, they’ll start weeping their crocodile tears on the spot.
When it happens, recognize that the Christians involved are dimly aware that they lost that engagement. They need to restore their equilibrium. But they expended all their weapons already. To achieve victory, then, they utilize emotional manipulation. They set you beneath them. From their new vantage, they look down on you. The crocodile tears speak to their need for dominance. They aren’t expressing genuine sympathy for you. Hell, they likely wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.
They consider you their tribal enemy. That means that they must neutralize the threat you represent. They will take whatever measures they must to ensure flawless victory. And if the victory only lives in their own minds, just like their god does, then that’s fine too.
To avoid looking like Bad Christians, they cloak their contempt in the form of pity. They try to make their retaliation look like a charitable act of compassion.
Just imagine being so delusional that you think you’re fooling people like that.
What Else Is Happening.
At the same time, the Christians trying to decimate their tribal enemies seek to achieve another goal, as well. This one might well be more important–and more essential.
They also need to reassure themselves that they play for the winning team.
For all their more than conquerors rhetoric, they know well the truth looks nothing like their daydreams. This world grows increasingly rough for TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like them. More and more, they find their tribe losing ground in many parts of our culture. Even political power begins to falter, and over time (barring some extreme measure or other) their failure there is assured as well. Culturally, their power–expressed as control over others–has declined for over a decade. As for their beliefs, it seems like every week brings some new and devastating evisceration of some key point they mistakenly believe to be true.
But think for a moment about the kind of Christian whose heart hurts over non-believers just going about their day. People like that need to feel like an authority figure. They need control over others. They need to be the most correct, wise, and knowledgeable person in the room. These Christians’ entire lives revolve around clawing their way up the ziggurat of power–while at the same time achieving immunity from control.
The Winning Team.
The hardline, overzealous Christians who look down their noses at prosperity gospel tend to buy 100% into the doctrine in other ways. They might accept that no gods desperately want them to be fabulously wealthy, but they’re Christian largely because they want to be on the winning team.
Christians love this idea of being on the winning team. One Christian site declares this belief explicitly: “While the world might look impressive, there’s nothing better than being on God’s side.” The writer sets up two teams: that of non-Christian people, and that of his god’s followers. Then, he assures his readers that even if “the world” (the Christianese phrase means anything that isn’t specifically Christian) looks like it might win the battle for hearts, ultimately it will and must lose. Even if Christians do in fact lose this or that culture war battle, they know that “Jesus” will ensure that they totally win the war.
I tell you this: If the
Book of Revelation Bible ended with Team Jesus losing, Christianity never would have taken off in the 2nd-3rd centuries. If in Revelation 20, Satan got out of the bottomless pit, assembled the armies of the world, obliterated the forces of Jesus, and then instituted his own rule over the planet forever more, only the most niche-oriented and nerdy of Classical-era scholars would even know what Christianity was today.
But the situation gets worse than that, even.
Opposite Day in Christian-Land.
The Christians acting this way also need to reinforce their own beliefs. They need their fellow members to know that their team is the winning one so they don’t get discouraged and wander away.
Having built their tribe on the notion of their team always winning, they can’t be seen as losing now. They’ve decided as a group that “Jesus” shows approval of them by helping them win the fights they keep picking. If they do nothing but lose those fights, then obviously that says some powerful things about just where their tin-idol’s approval might not be.
So these false shows of Christian sympathy do more than trying to level an alarming power differential. Ultimately, they reassure the Christians doing it that yes, this person they pretend to pity might seem happy. This person might even seem to have their act together. Maybe their families, finances, situations, and love lives look way better than those of the Christians judging them.
But through fake sympathy, Christians can not only regain some sense of superiority over their enemies, but they can also remind themselves and anybody watching their displays that ultimately, “Jesus” will have his revenge on those enemies.
It’s not loving at all for Christians to tear others down to make themselves feel better. But something far greater is at stake for these folks than obeying their so-called Savior, and that is victory over their tribal enemies.
With “friends” like these, Christianity doesn’t need enemies.
NEXT UP: We’re wrapping up Cult Week with a look at a growing (and scary) cult infesting one American city. Then, we plunge into Spooky Week with a atmospheric gothic-horror story about fundagelicals’ version of marriage. See you next time!
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ETA NOTICE: I edited the paragraph about Revelation slightly. ORigel is right: the compilers/editors of the Bible just would have chosen to exclude Revelation. Sometimes I forget just how much fiddling-with that whole book’s seen over the centuries.