So What is Compassion Anyway?

I’ve spent this week focused on one word from the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, compassion.  Compassion is, however, one of those words that gets a lot of use in the church and even in the wider culture, but like love, charity, hope, and narthex, I’m not sure we really know what it means.  Ask the average Joe and Sally on the street to define compassion, and you’ll probably hear something like, “caring for people” or perhaps more pointedly, “responding to someone’s hurt.”  This are both good definitions, but as my friend Evan Garner noted in his blog post on Tuesday, this word has much deeper meanings (pun intended).

“The Greek word for ‘have compassion on’ (in the case of Sunday’s gospel lesson it’s “ἐσπλαγχνίσθη”) and its various forms literally mean ‘disturbed in one’s guts.’ It shares the same root as the word ‘spleen’ because people believed that emotion came from one’s bowels… The word ‘compassion’ in its Latin roots means ‘to suffer with.’ Suffer, in that sense, has to do with feeling something or to be affected by something—not just to endure the pain and trial of a situation. If I suffer with you, it means I am touched by your circumstance. I cry when you cry. I rejoice when you rejoice.”

It seems as though having compassion means more than just responding to someone else’s hurts, but actually to enter into them, to feel them in your being, to take their pain upon yourself in order to more fully understand and be able to minister to the other.  My friend Candyce found a Fredrick Buechner quote that sums this idea up rather well and shared it on my Facebook wall.

Curiously, the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms doesn’t define “compassion.”  It seems that this emotion that is so closely associated with one of Jesus’ most recognizable miracles would find its way into that go-to resource.  Instead, they saved it for the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, which has a definition that takes up nearly a quarter of the page.  In it, James Childress quotes Lawrence Blum, Professor of Philosophy at UMass-Boston.  “‘Compassion is not a simple feeling-state but a complex emotional attitude toward another, characteristically involving imaginative dwelling on the condition of the other person, an active regard for his good, a view of him as a fellow human being, and emotional responses of a certain degree of intensity’ and duration” (109, emphasis mine).

All of this to say that after the Haiti Earthquake, when you sent a text message to the Red Cross to donate $10, you may having been doing a good thing, but you weren’t really feeling compassion.  Compassion is hard.  It requires us to give of ourselves beyond our normal capacity, and encourages us to act in ways that are self-sacrificial.  Compassion is the by-product of agape love, which Jesus was able to offer to the whole world, but which I have to work hard to give to even my closest loved-ones some days, but compassion is a hallmark of Kingdom Living.  When Paul attempts to describe new life in Jesus Christ to the Church in Colossae, he invites them them “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, [to] clothe [them]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (NRSV).  Or, more to the point of today’s post from Young’s Literal Translation, “Put on, therefore, as choice ones of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies [compassion], kindness, humble-mindedness, meekness, long-suffering…”

Perhaps this would be a good prayer for this weekend, from Proper 6, “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”


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