Is compassion an emotion? Or an action? Or is it both? What can we learn about compassion in the Bible? Why is compassion important, and what does it look like in our modern lives?
The word “compassion” comprises the Latin root “pati”, meaning “to suffer”, and the prefix “com-”, meaning “with”. Compassion literally means “to suffer with”. Or as defined by Merriam Webster, “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”
Is compassion an emotion?
A strong desire to alleviate another’s suffering and taking action to do so are not the same thing. As Christians, we are called to deeds over words, actions over gestures.
We may inwardly bristle at the hollow-sounding “thoughts and prayers”, ubiquitously offered in response to suffering, but how often are we compelled to act on our feelings of compassion? To go beyond merely shaking our heads in sympathy?
How often am I willing to follow compassion out of my comfort zone and into a place that feels distinctly uncomfortable?
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We are uncomfortable with the suffering of others. It’s easier to keep suffering at an arm’s length, or to feel sympathy or contemplate suffering in theory, than it is to act on the compassion we feel.
Yet acting on compassion is precisely what the Bible shows us again and again: tangible expressions of God’s love for his children who suffer.
Compassionate figures are telling us a lot about compassion in the Bible
We encounter many characters in the Bible who act with compassion and sympathy when faced with the suffering of others.
Consider Ruth and her deep love for her mother-in-law Naomi, which compelled Ruth to settle with Naomi in Bethlehem after her husband and sons had died. We see Boaz, in an act of compassion, instruct his workers to allow Ruth to collect grain from his fields so that she may survive.
Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer a lawyer’s question: Who is my neighbor? A Jewish traveler, beaten and left for dead along the roadside is ignored by a priest and a Levite. Though Jews and Samaritans are known to despise one another at this time, it’s the Samaritan who shows the man mercy and tends to him.
Though his brothers sold him into slavery, Joseph shows great compassion toward them years later when they arrive poor and starving in Egypt.
God’s Infinite Compassion
“But you Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness.”Psalms 86:15
God sees our suffering and he does more than simply observe it with pity or sympathy. He acts with immeasurable compassion, showing us infinite patience, mercy, grace and forgiveness.
“But the steadfast love of the Lord is everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him and his righteousness to children’s children.”Psalm 103:13
He feels our pain, and in an astonishing act, his greatest act of compassion, gives us the gift of his son as a sacrifice for our sins.
“I will tell of the kindness of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us–yes, the many good things he has done for Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses.”Isaiah 63:7
Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.” Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.Matthew 20:30-34
During his earthly ministry, we see Jesus moved by compassion again and again, offering comfort, healing and guidance to those around him.
He deeply feels the grief of his friends and weeps with them at the grave of Lazarus, before raising him from the dead.
In the gospel of Mark, we’re told “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34)
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In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus says to his disciples of the crowd of 4,000 who had gathered to listen and learn, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me three days now, and have nothing to eat.” (Mark 8:2) Jesus then feeds them all, with baskets of food to spare, out of love and compassion.
And on and on it goes throughout the gospels. We see Jesus acting with love and compassion as he heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, defends those unjustly accused.
His ultimate act of compassion of course is his own Passion and sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
Why compassion is important
If compassion is defined as sharing in another’s suffering with a wish to alleviate that suffering, mercy can be defined as the kind and forgiving treatment of another. Mercy is the fruit of compassion, or compassion in action.
We can treat the examples of Jesus as he mercifully heals, restores, comforts and forgives as personal calls to action, to follow him in this practice of compassion through mercy.
What tends to keep us from showing true compassion and mercy towards those who desperately need it most in our daily lives? Fear of getting too close to someone else’s suffering? As if their suffering may be contagious? Or do we judge the suffering of others or compare it to our own, deciding whose misery is most deserving of our mercy?
God’s mercy and compassion for us is infinite, renewed and restored each day. It never runs out. Compassion in the Bible offers us a roadmap for daily living. Imagine how we might heal ourselves and the world if we practice that same mercy and compassion with those who need it the most.