Recently during discussions with a group of people from church, the topic of compassion came up. There were differing views on what is means, whether it’s something that’s more for women than men and whether it is a special gift for the select few. Given it was not the focus of our conversation for the evening (and possibly because it became too uncomfortable) we didn’t get as far as debating whether it is something we should all have or at least desire.
Anyway, it started me thinking….what is compassion, how does it differ from sympathy, empathy or concern? My views have been challenged and I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone and thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of the journey with you.
What is the meaning of compassion?
The definition of compassion, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” It connects those feelings of sympathy and pity to action or thoughts of action.
The Latin root for the word compassion is pati, which means to suffer, and the prefix com- means with. Compassion, originating from compati, literally means to suffer with. The connection of suffering with another person brings compassion beyond sympathy into the realm of empathy. However, compassion is much more than empathy.
Empathy is an ability to relate to another person’s pain as if it’s your own. Empathy, like sympathy, is grounded in emotion and feeling, but empathy doesn’t have an active component to it.
The component of action is what separates compassion from empathy, sympathy, pity, concern, condolence, sensitivity, tenderness, commiseration or any other compassion synonym. Compassion gets involved. When others keep their distance from those who are suffering, compassion prompts us to act on their behalf.
Author Fredrick Buechner describes what it means to have compassion in this way:
“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
To have compassion means to empathise with someone who is suffering and to feel compelled to reduce the suffering. It’s a fuller, truer definition than feelings alone. The meaning of compassion is to recognise the suffering of others and then take action to help. Compassion embodies a tangible expression of love for those who are suffering.
Moving from concern to compassion….
We read the statistics of the number of children in Australia who are homeless. A report I came across from March 2018, stated that more than 100,000 children are homeless. Most household Australians would not realise that there are thousands of children aged 12 years and less on our streets – exposed to violence and sexual predation.
I am shocked by the statistics, as I’m sure you are. We are shocked and concerned about the large numbers, but do we care….I mean really care? Do we share in their suffering? Do we even have a vague understanding of what they are dealing with let alone able to feel their pain and share in their suffering? I’m not talking about giving out money – don’t get me wrong, financial generosity is admirable (you can read Walter’s thoughts on that) – but it’s easy to give and walk away thinking our job is done, disconnecting ourselves from the humanness of the situation. How can we come alongside these people if we haven’t ever seen them. How many of us know, personally, any of these homeless children? We are concerned, but are any of us personally acquainted with any of those “statistics” on a first name basis?
In such so-called “people problems” we may be concerned. But we have no personal relationship with any of these people and therefore no compassion for them. Jim Wallis writes , “A very wise old man told me the difference between concern and compassion. Being concerned is seeing something awful happening to somebody and feeling ‘Hey, that’s really too bad.’ “Having compassion’, he said, is seeing the same thing and saying, ‘I just can’t let that happen to my brother.” (Wallis, Call to Conversion, p. 49-50)
Compassion grows out of a feeling of relationship—this is my brother, my sister; this is a child of God, and I must act, not just feel badly for them.
Our lives and our cities are so structured that we seldom come face to face with poverty and suffering. Doing so is perhaps necessary to trigger a response of compassion in our hearts. The freeways of our cities take us over and away from the places where the poor live. Our suburbs isolate us from the poverty of the inner-city. We don’t see or smell or hear the poverty— we don’t see the victims of drugs and alcohol that are homeless in the “dodgy” parts of our cities.
I believe what Wallis says is true, at least to some degree. “Proximity to poor people is crucial to our capacity for compassion. Only through proximity do we begin to see, touch, and feel the experience of poverty. When affluent people find genuine friendships among the poor, some revolutionary changes in our consciousness can begin to take place.” (Call to Conversion, p. 51).
What does this mean for me / us?
I grew up in South Africa, visiting and helping out at orphanages, hospitals & shanty towns where rooms are overcrowded and beds are few. Fixed in my memory is eating a meal at the dinner table in a home in the mountains of Peru with guinea pigs at our feet whilst the homeowners nibbled on boiled potatoes by the fire. These are just a few of the experiences and images that have brought me to this point in my life. As I work through the idea of compassion, I realise how privileged I am to have been exposed to poverty and suffering at this level, to sit alongside, to eat with, to pray with people that are leading lives that are challenging. I’m not going to go into my thoughts on whether many of these people are more happy and content than the wealthy around me– that may be a topic for another day. What I am going to say is that I am truly grateful that I have been exposed to some level of poverty first hand. I believe it’s given me a greater appreciation for what I have and helped me be more content. What I’m grappling with now is whether it has in fact made me any more compassionate than others that have not done so, that have not felt the pain of the needy first hand. What has my response been to the needs of the poor, those that don’t have the choices I have?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to watch movies or read novels where injustice has taken place, particularly where people have been wrongly accused or treated. In all honesty, it’s not limited to movies, but I’ve had similar difficulty when watching the TV news, reading newspapers or in real life situations whether at the supermarket or at work. It’s difficult to describe, but I have a physical reaction, a tensing of the body, an ache in my heart. The feeling is so strong that I feel a desperate urge to do something, to talk to someone, to fix the problem (or what I perceive to be the problem).
As I’ve been exploring this topic of compassion, I feel as though I’m having a glimpse of understanding of why I respond as I do. Has God planted a seed of compassion in my heart? Have I watered it diligently and helped it to grow? I have been both encouraged by the desire planted in me and convicted to go back to what the Bible says about compassion.
What does the Bible tell us about compassion?
The Bible doesn’t explain compassion like a dictionary does, simply telling us what the word means. Instead, the Bible defines compassion by showing us what compassion looks like and what is involved with being compassionate.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” — Proverbs 31:8-9, NIV
“Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:18, NIV
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'” — Zechariah 7:9-10, NIV
The spirit of the word compassion is synonymous with doing. Compassion is not concerned with material or physical things. It’s concerned with the human spirit and soul. Compassion involves acting to alleviate the suffering of others.
Jesus acted out of compassion many times in his ministry. For example, in Mark 1:40-41 we read that “a leper came to him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
In the New Testament, Jesus is often moved to mercy through compassion.
“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!’ . . . 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, NIV
Mercy is the compassionate treatment of those in distress. Mercy is the fruit of compassion. It’s the gift given to the suffering by those living out their compassion.
Jesus’ compassion prompts Him to act and He mercifully loves, heals and rescues.
Jesus’ very presence in the world is the ultimate act of compassion. We did not deserve His sacrifice, but because of God’s great love, we were treated with mercy and are called to live lives of compassion and mercy.
“Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness & patience”. (Col 3:12)