The virtue of compassion runs throughout the storyline of Scripture. When God called His people out of Egypt, He revealed Himself as One who is merciful (Ex. 34:6). During the divided monarchy in Israel, fraught with idol worship and turning away from Yahweh, we are told, “But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (2 Kings 13:23).
The psalmists frequently note God’s compassion (e.g., Pss. 78:38; 86:15; 103:4). Psalm 103:13, perhaps a favorite passage for many of us, declares,
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
The prophet Isaiah speaks often of God’s compassion, noting that “with great compassion I will gather you” (Isa. 54:7) and “with everlasting love I will have compassion on you” (Isa. 54:8). As we near the close of the Old Testament, the prophet Micah speaks of the hope that “[God] will again have compassion on us” (Micah 7:19).
Compassion is prevalent in the New Testament as well. The four Gospels testify that the incarnate Son of God and image of God par excellence, Jesus Christ, is characterized by deep compassion. He frequently showed compassion when He saw the crowds, responding with acts of healing (Matt. 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41), provision of food (Matt. 15:32), and teaching the word of God (Mark 6:34). Jesus not only modeled compassion; He also taught on the virtue of compassion, including the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23–35), the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37), and the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). In these ways, Jesus made clear that compassion is a distinguishing mark of those who belong to the God of all compassion.
How might we define compassion? The Hebrew and Greek words translated into English as “compassion” include the ideas of feeling distress over another’s ills, being moved in our innermost being (i.e., “heart of compassion,” or “bowels of mercy”), suffering with and being inwardly affected in a similar manner as the object of our compassion, and beneficence and assistance. One way we might try to capture these concepts is to define compassion as follows: Compassion is being moved in the affections of our inner being when we see the distress of others, coupled with a subsequent outer movement of action in which we seek to alleviate that distress out of love for God and love for neighbor.
Let’s note two specific facets of this definition as we seek to better understand this virtue: seeing and movement. In a sense, godly compassion is like a three-legged stool. All three legs must be present if the stool is to serve its intended function. Likewise, there are three elements of true, godly compassion. First, compassion starts with seeing. Over and over in the Gospels, we read something to the effect of “And Jesus saw . . .”. His compassion was always preceded by seeing someone in distress. This may seem obvious, but it raises an important point as we seek to become more compassionate people: We can’t have compassion on people when we don’t see them in the first place.
Second, compassion involves an inner movement of our hearts in which we take on the grief of others, weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). As Christians, we of all people understand how radically sin has impacted the world and how far we are from the shalom of Eden. And so, we groan as we witness the suffering that sin has produced in the lives of those around us (see Rom. 8:18–23). To be sure, we are varied in our emotional makeups and won’t experience or express that inner movement in the same ways as one another, but as we grow into the image of Christ, our emotional lives will grow into conformity with His.
And finally, compassion comes to fruition in an outer movement in which we act on behalf of people in need. It can be all too easy to see someone in need, feel an inner movement of sadness or concern over his or her predicament, and stop there, patting ourselves on the back because we noticed and felt badly for someone else. But this “compassion” doesn’t actually benefit the other person, thus making it not really compassion at all. When speaking of Jesus’ compassion, the Gospel authors typically use language to the effect of, “And Jesus, moved with compassion,” followed by an action He performed that benefited the object of His compassion.
As we look at the virtue of compassion, it’s also important to point out some misconceptions we might have. First, godly compassion isn’t merely a personality trait that some people possess and others lack. It is true that in His common grace, God enables even unbelievers to display some measure of compassion for the preservation of society. It’s also true that some people, both believers and unbelievers, seem more naturally geared toward compassion than others. But although both these points may be true, it’s crucial to understand that compassion is a virtue that should increasingly characterize all believers in Christ, regardless of personality, because the Holy Spirit is at work in us to conform every aspect of who we are to the image of the perfect person with the perfect personality, our Lord Jesus Christ. No Christian, therefore, can rightly say, “I’m just not a very compassionate person,” thinking that their self-assessment frees them from pursuing this virtue.
It's also important to note that compassion does not invalidate or overshadow other godly virtues and practices, such as seeking justice or practicing church discipline. In other words, compassion doesn’t mean that sin is swept under the rug, that discipline or punishment is always withheld, or that people always get “one more chance,” regardless of the destruction their behavior produces in the lives of those around them.
How might we seek to grow in the virtue of compassion? One way is to read through the Gospels, meditating on compassion in the life and teaching of our Lord Jesus. As we do so, we might put ourselves in the shoes of those in distress. What would it have been like to be them? What might life be like if we were in their circumstances? We can also ask ourselves, How did Jesus’ compassion change their lives? In particular, we can read and meditate on the parable of the good Samaritan, noting the difference between a false religious piety that justifies neglecting those in need and the true love of neighbor commanded by God. And as the Holy Spirit works through the Word, we go out, seeking to truly see the people around us in our churches and communities, obeying our Lord as He calls us to “go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.