The Anatomy of Compassion

Compassion is a powerful force. Stories of compassion are often found in places of tragedy and suffering. These are the locations of wounded and broken people.

Members of a small Baptist Church in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon know about compassion. They saw over a million Syrian refugees pour into their country – desperate people who were fleeing the bloodshed and violence of their country. Most Lebanese citizens did not want Syrians in their communities. They remembered the brutality of Syrian soldiers during the occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. The massive influx of refugees posed a threat to the stability of Lebanon and strained the capacity of social services, housing, and employment.

There is a connection between a congregation’s demonstration of compassion for wounded people and the manifestation of God’s presence among them.

The pastor and members of the church responded in a different manner. They felt compassion for the victims of the civil conflict. The small congregation of 60 opened their church doors to refugees. A school and a safe place to play was established in the church for children traumatized by bullets and bombs. A weekly clinic attended to medical needs. With the assistance of CBM and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, our Lebanese church partner provided food aid to over 4,500 people each month. The church also looked to help refugees with housing and employment opportunities.

This was not a program that was subcontracted to paid professionals; it was a ministry that many members of their church selflessly gave their time to as they visited the families and helped in any way they could, both physically and spiritually. They were unashamed of their faith as they shared about the God of compassion, and as they prayed with those who sought help. Assistance was provided without conditions or manipulation to get people to believe.

Reflecting on the transformation of his church, the pastor said, “We had been praying for years for revival and nothing happened. But when we as a congregation started helping the desperately poor and needy refugees, and shared the love of God with both hands, in words and in action, revival came and changed our church.” They were seeing people from different faiths choosing to follow Christ, prisoners in jail transformed, and dramatic answers to prayer.

This is not a formula or a template for church renewal. But the testimony of this Baptist Church in Lebanon bears out the promise of Isaiah 58:7-9 where God’s word addresses the social needs in post-exilic Israel. The prophet compares pious public presentations of fasting with the authentic spirituality of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. The concluding words are: Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

There is a connection between a congregation’s demonstration of compassion for wounded people and the manifestation of God’s presence among them. In the remainder of this article we will consider scriptures, give attention to two modern theologians, and offer suggestions on ways in which we can nurture compassion as a virtue in our own lives. We are very aware that our words are only a limited introduction to this important theme of our faith.

The Biblical Perspective

The Psalms were the hymnbook of Israel. People learned about God and faithfulness through the poetry that touched on theme of joy, loss, blessings, and suffering. In Psalm 10:14 the psalmist’s description of God is intimate and tender. He describes God taking human trouble and grief into his own hands and becoming the helper of the vulnerable people who turn to him. The character of God becomes the basis for social actions of justice and compassion.

In Psalm 80 God speaks from his place in the divine council:

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
Maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
Deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

The New Testament celebrates Jesus as the visible image of the invisible God. Compassion motivated Jesus in his mission. The first gospel records that when Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion upon them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). He had compassion on people who were hungry (Mark 8:2) and a widow whose only child had died (Luke 7:13). He was moved by compassion when two blind men called out for mercy (Matthew 20:34). Compassion is the turning point in two of the parables. The Good Samaritan, in contrast to the priest and Levite, feels compassion for the man left dying on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:33). The waiting father is filled with compassion when he sees the prodigal son on the road home (Luke 15:20). The Greek word is splanchnizomai and literally means, “to be moved in the inward parts.” D. Preman Niles, a Sri Lankan Christian leader, describes the term as a strong physical and emotional reaction, “a gut-wrenching response.” It is unfortunate that “compassion” has become diluted to mean simply feeling pity at someone’s misfortune.

Compassion speaks to our hearts about concrete actions of mercy and justice.

One of the more intriguing passages in the Bible is Galatians 2, which describes the controversy between Paul and Peter in the city of Antioch sometime before AD 49. The disagreement was on whether Gentiles could become followers of Jesus Christ without also keeping the Jewish laws. The decision was made in Jerusalem that Paul and Barnabas would go to the Gentiles, while Peter and others would devote themselves to the mission to the Jews (Gal. 2:9). The following verse seems almost out of place in light of what precedes it. Verse 10 states, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.”

We need to be attentive. This early church council determined that the Jewish law that carried over to Gentile believers would give priority to caring for the poor. It seems clear that being compassionate was a fundamental part of what it meant to be a Christian. That is why James, who was part of the Jerusalem Council, later wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

It is unfortunate that “compassion” has become diluted to mean simply feeling pity at someone’s misfortune.

A Call for Deeper Engagement Today

Two modern theologians that help us think more deeply about compassion are Jürgen Moltmann, who shapes our understanding of the compassion of God; and Jon Sobrino, who reminds us of the dimensions of human compassion.

Jürgen Moltmann was a high school student and reserve soldier in Germany during World War II. He was taken to Scotland as a prisoner of war and became a Christian through the compassionate witness of local believers. Moltmann’s book The Crucified God makes reference to the Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s concept of the pathos of God. This pathos is not “irrational human emotions,” but rather the deep feelings of God who is affected by events, human actions and suffering in history. Moltmann writes, “He is affected by them because he is interested in his creation, his people . . .” The pathos of God is contrasted with the apatheia of the gods of other religions in the ancient world that were unable to feel or be influenced by human events. Centuries later this apatheia is encountered in the beliefs of some other religions and in the secular ideologies of consumerism and wealth generation. For most people today, the powers that sway the universe remain distant and uncaring. We agree with Moltmann that compassion is a divine attribute fundamental to God’s nature. We cannot think of the God of the Christian faith apart from his compassion for people and his creation.

Jon Sobrino is a Jesuit priest from El Salvador. He wrote about “the mercy principle” after his country was shaken by
two major earthquakes. Sobrino observes that compassion is a profound emotional reaction to human suffering. Compassion compels us to personally identify with people who are strangers. We are willing to cross cultural boundaries in order to enter into their lives. Compassion speaks to our hearts about concrete actions of mercy and justice. Through compassion we work to preserve the dignity and well-being of those who suffer from life’s wounds. Moved by compassion, people may make extraordinary sacrifices to serve others in need. It is our life’s calling, as followers of Christ.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love other; let us show the truth by our actions. (1 John 3:16-18)

The Nurture of Compassion

How can compassion be nurtured in our hearts? Expressed in life-giving ways as part of our witness in a broken world? The following are some suggestions.

  • Practice spiritual disciplines. Read the scriptures with a heightened awareness of the compassion of God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Be attentive to the Bible’s teaching on human mercy as a virtue. Pray for the Spirit’s quiet work in your heart and direction in your actions. Support in prayer those who represent God’s love and grace in difficult places. Ask God to act on behalf of those people who suffer from violence, poverty, discrimination, or natural disasters.
  • Be sensitive to your personal experiences of suffering, pain, and consolation. St. Paul wrote about a time when he felt crushed beyond endurance and despaired of life. This difficult period eventually became a resource for understanding affliction, God’s mercy, and the role of a restorative community. (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
  • Listen attentively to the stories of men and women who have different and difficult life experiences. Allow the heart to feel first and the mind to analyze second. Attempt to understand how background and events play a role in giving shape to people’s attitudes and decisions.
  • Do not stifle compassion. Give yourself the freedom to become emotionally involved with a person or an issue without losing perspective. Find ways to be informed about promising practices that are helping people.
  • Express your compassion in concrete actions with the support of others in your church or community. Remember that you do not have to solve the world’s problems. Leave the big picture to God. Find inspiration in Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 8: 8-15: (1) God’s love is extravagant. Jesus, being rich, became poor so that we might become rich. (2) We need to be realistic about what we can accomplish. (3) We work toward a fair balance that is concerned for people at the margins.