Do you see yourself as a compassionate person?
I’ve been asking myself this question routinely this year. The self-assessment began in connection to work I was doing in therapy, but the avalanche of complex issues and suffering that have gripped our country and world in the months since have pushed my probe to deeper levels.
Of course, in order to determine if we have compassion, we must know exactly what compassion is. According to my trusty dictionary, compassion may be defined as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” Compassion is a compound response to pain: it simultaneously notices, feels and responds.
Empathy is often mistook for compassion (and vice versa) so let’s distinguish the two before we return to our self-assessment. When exhibiting empathy, we assume the perspective of those suffering and feel their sorrow, but stop short of actually helping or changing the situation at hand. When we show compassion, we take a step back from the emotions of empathy, ask ourselves how we can help and are satisfied only when we have determined an effective answer. Empathy is inert, compassion is active.
Have you ever cried during the final scenes of a good movie? That was an empathetic response. Have you noticed someone holding up a sign asking for food and bought them a meal? That response was compassion in motion.
Now that we’re mindful of the definition, again I pose the question: Do you see yourself as a compassionate person?
Am I a compassionate person?
Of course, none of us are wholly one attribute or another. The most generous person you know also acts selfishly on many occasions. Those you think of as patient have days where frustration and anger rise to the top and boil over. We are imperfect humans — none of us are inherently any good thing (Rom. 7:18) — but our words and actions mark each of us with dominant character traits, for better or for worse.
Do your words and actions tend to mark you with compassion? Would those close to you easily agree with your answer?
It’s hard to pick a favorite characteristic of Jesus (He’s literally perfect so obviously there’s no shortage of goodness to choose from), but if you pressed me on it, I think I would choose His compassion. Of course, coming to earth to pursue doomed sinners and die the death we deserve is the ultimate act of compassion. That is not lost on me, but the compassion demonstrated in His everyday ministry — compassion I can emulate — profoundly awes and convicts me.
Jesus didn’t see hurt and look away — even though the suffering He witnessed was brought on by the sin of sinners. There was no qualifier to deserve and receive His compassion. He looked directly — and kindly — into everyone’s eyes. He entered callous sinners’ homes as readily as He did a synagogue. He buoyed the spirits of the outcasts and those of low social status by boldly keeping their company in public places despite the fact that doing so would prompt murmuring from snooty religious leaders and, at times, His own disciples. His words never shamed; He spoke gently to the lost and hurting without compromising God’s truth. He addressed physical needs immediately but never lost sight of the spiritual root cause of all trouble and suffering.
Think about these compassionate interactions:
When Jesus walked past Zacchaeus — a corrupt tax collector who intentionally cheated his neighbors and increased poverty for his own financial gain — Jesus stopped, looked at Zacchaeus and announced they would dine together. In the eyes of the Jews, this was basically volunteering to have dinner with a criminal. They would have viewed Zacchaeus as an enemy and probably also as one too far gone, but Jesus’ compassionate act upended Zacchaeus’ life in the best possible way (Luke 19:2-10).
When Jesus saw a grief-stricken widow from Nain walking in a funeral procession for her only son, He was moved with compassion. He didn’t wait for her tearful request for help — He restored her son to life and in doing so certainly spared her both loneliness and financial destitution (Luke 7:11-17).
When Jesus met an arrogant young man searching for fulfillment and joy, claiming to always keep all the commandments and also refusing to yield his idolized wealth to follow Jesus, Jesus “looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:17-22).
When Jesus encountered a woman found guilty of adultery, He exposed the hypocrisy of those demanding her public humiliation and death, forgave her sin and gently instructed her to use her second chance to turn her life around.
The list could go on.
Jesus repeatedly drew criticism and contempt from Pharisees and other religious leaders for His compassionate acts (Luke 7:34, 15:2). Those whose very life – and occupational – mission was to teach and influence the people’s hearts towards God and care for their needs were so entangled in rules and pride they missed the boat entirely. It strikes me how close I often come to making the same mistake — of elevating myself to a position where I falsely believe I am entitled to judge who is deserving of my compassion rather than offering it freely.
Jesus’ compassion embodied His mission: He came not to condemn but to liberate — to allow us access to fuller, better life (John 3:16-17). If you read closely, you’ll notice that after nearly every act of compassion, sinners were drawn to Jesus’ acts of love and then changed by the gospel He spoke.
Jesus knew the compelling power of compassion and He wielded it.
As believers, we are recipients of His compassion and our calling is to respond to that gift by showing His compassion to others (Eph. 4:32). In fact, Jesus gave this exact charge to His disciples:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35
By this love — by this compassion — all will know we follow Jesus.
Not by condemnation or judgement, not by righteous airs or acts. Not by religious affiliation or traditions.
By love, manifested in compassionate deeds, given unconditionally all will know we follow Jesus and many others will want to know Him too.
In a year where suffering exists exponentially around us, insulating ourselves from the pain of others can be both easy and desirable but that’s not our commandment.
Seeing and feeling all the sorrow and massive nature of our world’s problems can overwhelm and immobilize us, but that’s not our calling.
Understanding all that is hard and heartbreaking in our world can leave us just desperate to just see Jesus. Here’s the good news: we can look into the eyes of any hurting neighbor or stranger and see Him.
They are each made in His image. He lives in each of them as He lives in us. As we love them, we love Him.
May we faithfully act with compassion toward both neighbors and strangers and be bold testimonies of the transformative love of Christ.
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” – Matt. 25:38-40