What does compassion mean? Dictionaries define it as a deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it. It is a noun which implies action taken as opposed to pity (a noun) which is a strong feeling of sympathy for someone or something. I can feel pity, but it is not compassion.
So too, empathy (noun) is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experience and emotions, or to share in someone’s feelings. I can understand what it is like to walk in their shoes and feel what it feels like for you, but it is still not compassion.
Perhaps we can understand compassion, by looking at what it is not: coldheartedness, heartlessness, hardheartedness etc. Perhaps we are not like this, but it also includes such subtle attitudes like indifference, insensitivity, unconcern, dislike, hatred, hostility and harshness.
“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”
He also had compassion for those who were ministering alongside him in Mark 6:30, the disciples had gone out and ministered and had not even had a chance to eat. Jesus senses their weariness and their lack of rest and solitude and calls them aside to rest in verse 31.
Jesus was himself tired in Mark 6:30-35, but looked upon the crowd and had compassion, ministering to them until it was “already very late.”
Notice that Jesus does not fall apart because he has worked so hard and had no rest, He is not short, frustrated or upset with the people, he is not irritated by the fact that there were so many, he is focused on meeting their needs. His compassion had kicked in and he moved to help. Compassion cares deeply and moves into action.
The story of the Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:30-37), gives us a good picture of what compassion looks like. Both the priest and the Levite, who you would expect to help by nature of their profession, probably felt pity for the man. Travelling that road and knowing the dangers of the road, they probably felt empathy for the man. But neither felt compassion. Compassion moved the good Samaritan to action. His action involved:
- Putting aside his prejudices, he was a Samaritan and this man was a Jew, but he recognized that everyone deserves compassion, we are all human, all have red blood, all deserve salvation.
- He did what needed to be done in love: He bandaged his wounds and poured on oil and wine. We are called to “bind up those who are hurt” (Ezekiel 34:16) and disinfect their hearts (wine), soothing their pain with (oil) Holy Spirit and promote their healing. Sometimes we are required to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) in order to bring others to maturity.
- A cost to himself: he used his own donkey (cost him comfort) and had to walk the rest of the way (cost him convenience), he cared for the man at the inn (cost him time) and paid for the man to be nursed in the Inn (cost him money).
- He used his own circle of influence to meet a need. He knew people who could help and was willing to make arrangements for help to be given over a period of time, making sure to follow-up that the person had been helped.
In Colossians 3:12: Paul is telling believers to embrace attitudes that contribute to relationship building, he says:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
To clothe is to purposefully decide to put on a garment as opposed to walking around in your undergarment. It is a decision to put on an attitude which promotes our ability to build relationships with the world around us, with the ultimate purpose of showing them Jesus inside of us and leading them to Him.
It includes people who have needs as well as the people ministering to those needs. Our attitude is often “well, they signed up for this” they should be able to go the long haul, be strong enough. “What is the big deal if they are tired, we are all tired.” But to those who serve like this, our little acts of compassion are to them great gifts from God. We often forget that those ministering to the needs of others, have already made the decision to be compassionate.
What are our levels of compassion?
Father change my heart: to not just look upon the needs of others and feel empathy, or pity, but to be moved to do something about it. Everywhere I go Lord, there are needs around me. Help me to find creative ways to take action, to get involved and meet needs, even if it costs me. Help me to talk to my own circle of influence and together partner up to meet needs. Help me to have a heart of compassion that is moved to action.