By Peter Amsterdam
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When we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, something that becomes abundantly clear is that Jesus showed compassion to others and taught that His followers should be compassionate as well. We read the parable of the Samaritan showing compassion to the beaten Jewish man by nursing his wounds, taking him to an inn to be cared for, and paying the expenses out of his own pocket.1
In the parable of the lost son, a young man demanded his inheritance from his father, which was the equivalent of saying, “I wish you were dead,” and left home only to deplete his inheritance. Upon his return home, we read that “his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”2
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He saw situations where people were in need, was moved with compassion, and took action to help them. The Gospel of Matthew recounts:
Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.”
He then took seven loaves of bread and a few small fish and multiplied them so that four thousand people ate and were satisfied.3 In another instance, upon seeing a young boy falling down and convulsing, Jesus asked his father: “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. … If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus showed compassion by delivering the boy from the spirit which was afflicting him.4
During His time on Earth, Jesus embodied His Father’s attributes, one of which was compassion. Throughout the Old Testament we read of God’s compassion:
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.5
“For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer.6
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.7
So what exactly is compassion? Dictionaries define it as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for someone who is in some kind of distress, combined with the desire to do something to alleviate it.”
There are five Hebrew words in the Old Testament which are translated as compassion, and there are four Greek words in the New Testament translated as such. In the Old Testament, the words translated as compassion have the following meanings: to be sorry for; to pity; to spare someone; to sympathize; and to comfort or console (with the will to change the situation).
One of the Hebrew words, racham, is related to the Hebrew word for “womb” and expresses a mother’s (or a parent’s) compassion for a helpless child—a deep emotion which expresses itself in acts of selfless service. This is a protective compassion, and this word is generally used in reference to God’s compassion. Some translations translate it as merciful, but most as compassionate.
Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.”8
In the New Testament, there are four Greek words translated as compassion. The one used most often is related to the Greek word for “inward parts,” referring to the seat of human emotions. The term means “to be moved in one’s bowels,” conveying the idea of being moved in the core of one’s inner feelings, leading to acts of kindness and mercy. Another word, sumpathes, conveys the meaning of “to suffer with” or “to suffer alongside of.”
Compassion is having a strong feeling about someone else’s situation or state, and doing something to change it. It’s about making things better for someone in need. It’s not compassion if there isn’t some action taken. In some cases that might mean holding or hugging someone, praying for them, gently speaking with them, and conveying your sorrow or concern.
It can also mean taking action which aims to change the situation or circumstances. It might mean standing up for someone. Perhaps it calls for protesting in order to change laws and bring about social justice. It can mean putting in time and effort to feed the hungry, help orphans, visit the sick or those in mourning, share the gospel with others, or other ways of helping those in need.
Compassion is closely aligned with empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and to put yourself in their shoes so that you understand what they are going through from their perspective. Having empathy can move you to compassion.
In short, compassion is part of love. But how do we cultivate this aspect of love? How do we become more compassionate? Something which can help is giving thought to Jesus’ instruction: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”9 If we are kind to ourselves, even when we recognize that we have brought some of our problems upon ourselves, we can recognize that when others are in need, we should help. When we have walked in their shoes, being compassionate to others comes more easily.
It also helps to ponder Jesus’ ministry. He saw people in need—the blind, the hungry, the mourning, the sick, the social outcasts—and instead of looking the other way and passing by, He noticed, stopped, and took action. It’s easy in our busy lives to not notice others who are struggling and in need, and to be preoccupied with our personal needs, problems, worries, and fears.
Something else that can help us be more compassionate is cultivating our awareness of the Lord’s love for us—remembering that though we are undeserving, full of faults, and sinful, God took action on our behalf, even at a deep cost. He sacrificed His beloved Son so that He could rescue us in our time of need. God has shown us costly compassion, and if we regularly remind ourselves of this fact by praising and thanking Him for doing so, we may find it easier to respond to others with His love and compassion.
Jesus had compassion for the suffering, the outcasts, the poor and needy. We may find ourselves thinking that we are impotent in our abilities to help others by comparison, since He was God incarnate and could perform mighty miracles. But while we may not be able to do miracles as great as Jesus did, showing compassion to others can feel like a miracle to someone in need. A little compassion can make a major difference in their lives.
Receiving Jesus in our hearts and being filled with God’s Spirit is the key to having compassion for others. Experiencing His love through close communion and fellowship with Him, as a result of spending time communicating through prayer, reading His Word, listening to Him, and seeking and receiving His guidance causes us to be aware of His love for us personally. When we experience His kindness, mercy, generosity, compassion, and deep love, we are better able to let His love flow through us to others.
If we truly wish to imitate Jesus, we will seek to cultivate a keen awareness of the needs of others, and also be willing to take steps to help and comfort them. Jesus compassionately served others, and as His followers we are called to be compassionate as well.
Originally published October 2017. Adapted and republished October 2022.
Read by Simon Peterson.