Confirmation Conversations: Christian Compassion
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What is the meaning of Compassion?
The meaning of compassion is to recognize the suffering of others and then take action to help. Compassion embodies a tangible expression of love for those who are suffering.
What is the definition of Compassion
The definition of compassion, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
And the New Oxford American Dictionary defines compassion as “a sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”
Different aspects of compassion’s meaning are emphasized by each dictionary.
Merriam-Webster mentions a “desire to alleviate” the distress of others, whereas the New Oxford American dictionary simply refers to the broad sympathetic feelings associated with compassion. It does not connect those feelings of sympathy and pity to any action or thoughts of action, which is really an incomplete definition.
compassion vs. empathy
The Latin root for the word compassion is pati, which means to suffer, and the prefix com- means with. Compassion, originating from compati, literally means to suffer with. The connection of suffering with another person brings compassion beyond sympathy into the realm of empathy. However, compassion is much more than empathy.
Empathy is an ability to relate to another person’s pain as if it’s your own. Empathy, like sympathy, is grounded in emotion and feeling, but empathy doesn’t have an active component to it.
What does it mean to have compassion?
The component of action is what separates compassion from empathy, sympathy, pity, concern, condolence, sensitivity, tenderness, commiseration or any other compassion synonym.
Compassion gets involved. When others keep their distance from those who are suffering, compassion prompts us to act on their behalf.
Author Fredrick Buechner describes what it means to have compassion in this way:
“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
To have compassion means to empathize with someone who is suffering and to feel compelled to reduce the suffering. It’s a fuller, truer definition than feelings alone, and it’s a very biblical understanding.
What is the biblical definition of compassion?
The Bible doesn’t explain compassion like a dictionary does, simply telling us what the word means. Instead, the Bible defines compassion by showing us what compassion looks like and what is involved with being compassionate.
“Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.[a]
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:8-9, NRSV
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” – 1 John 3:18, NRSV
“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” – 1 Peter 4:10, NRSV
What is the spiritual definition of compassion?
The spirit of the word compassion is synonymous with doing. Compassion is not concerned with material or physical things. It’s concerned with the human spirit and soul. The spiritual definition of compassion involves acting to alleviate the suffering, of others.
What is the difference between mercy and compassion?
Mercy is the compassionate treatment of those in distress. Mercy is the fruit of compassion. It’s the gift given to the suffering by those living out their compassion.
In the New Testament, Jesus is often moved to mercy through compassion.
“There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.” – Matthew 20:30-34, NRSV
Jesus’ compassion prompts Him to act and He mercifully loves, heals and rescues.
Jesus’ very presence in the world is the ultimate act of compassion. We did not deserve His sacrifice, but because of God’s great love, we were treated with mercy and are called to live lives of compassion and mercy.
“and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” – Ephesians 4:32, NRSV
[From compassion.com. Excerpts changed to NRSV.]