Compassion

Preaching and Worship Resources about Compassion

The biblical term for compassion comes from the Hebrew and Greek words for bowels. Compassion is, almost literally, a "gut feeling." Human beings, almost universally, "feel" for each other. When we see the fly-covered face of a starving child, most everyone feels some level of compassion. It may be momentary or fleeting, or it may stir us to action of some kind, but it's not situated in our minds, so much as in our emotions, or guts. While God does not have "guts" in the human sense, this nevertheless expresses the centrality and depth of God's compassion.

In Scripture

God's Compassion God is the "wholly other," and therefore it seems strange to think of God as being compassionate. Where is that essential connection that gives rise to God compassion?

God's compassion is born out of God's role as the Creator. The psalmist says, "[God's] compassion is over all that he has made" (Ps. 145:9). God is completely invested in the creation and wants it to thrive as it was intended. The destruction or brokenness of creation therefore "hurts" God and arouses compassion.

God is also depicted as having a parental relationship, especially with Israel, but by extension with all humanity. "Can a woman forget her nursing child and show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (Is. 49:15; see also Hosea 11:1-9).

The Compassion of Jesus The gospels often picture Jesus' compassion, especially for those who are suffering: the sick, the destitute, the powerless. Meeting two blind men, "Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him" (Matt. 20:34).

Jesus also has compassion on all those who do not yet know the love and salvation of God. "[Jesus] saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things" (Mark 6:34).

Jesus' compassion is also depicted in his human emotions, as when he weeps at Lazarus's tomb (John 11:28-35).

Christian Compassion Christians follow the example of their Lord by giving free rein to their compassion. So, like God, they are to have compassion on others in their weakness and failure, and on those who are suffering with hunger, disease, or injustice. "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience"(Col. 3:12).

Points to Ponder

Natural Human Compassion It's possible to turn off our natural human compassion, especially when we see the suffering of another as deserved punishment or just desserts. Or when we decide that the person is somehow sub-human and therefore does not deserve our compassion (such as the lynching of African Americans in the South, or the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany). Sometimes we override the feeling of compassion because we are too busy or distracted to act on it.

Compassion Fatigue People whose hearts are tender with compassion can sometimes suffer from what's called "compassion fatigue." It's endemic in the pastoral ministry, and in such vocations as medicine, social work, and counseling. It's important to recognize the symptoms (hard-heartedness, anxiety, anger, and cynicism) not as failure, but as a signal that one needs some time away for renewal and refreshment. People should also ask themselves whether they have taken on the weight of care that only God can sustain, calling for reexamination of motives and practice.

The Throbbing Heart of Church Ministry Christian compassion has often led to the creation of ministries to the sick and the oppressed and the ministry of evangelism toward the lost. It is the throbbing heart of the church's ministry in the world.

Edith Wharton "As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath."

Compassion Can Be Disordered Like all things, compassion can be disordered. Some people, for example, can be extraordinarily compassionate with their pet cat while totally ignoring the needs of their neighbor. Most tyrants have a soft spot for something. It's as if their inbuilt capacity for compassion has to be spent on something, and it's so much easier to spend it on an easily controlled pet than on the hordes of the poor or the lives of those who might stand in the way of their will.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.