Compassion or pity is one of God’s virtues made evident through His mighty acts in history on behalf of the covenant people. In both Hebrew and Greek compassion is literally a “gut feeling” for the needs of others. The compassionate God is one of the essential marks of the Christian faith (
רָחַם, H8163, to love; חָמַל, H2798, to pity, spare, σπλαγχνίζομαι, G5072, bowels of concern.
Both racham and splagchnizomai are examples of the physical origin of spiritual terms, the bowels being regarded as the seat of the warm, tender emotions or feelings. But, while racham applied to the lower viscera as well as the higher, splagchnon denoted chiefly the higher viscera, the heart, lungs, liver.
Compassion as a Virtue
The basic principle of Christian personal ethics is that those virtues which have characterized God’s dealings with mankind are to be internalized and become descriptive of the life of the believer. Therefore, compassion or pity should characterize the life of the Christian.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is the classic presentation of this truth (
How does compassion work? It begins with the cultivation of a sensitivity to human need—material, psychological, social, and spiritual. The compassionate Christian is committed to using his resources to meet these needs. He acts instinctively, not stopping to count the cost, not questioning if the one in need is “deserving.” However, he is realistic enough to know he will often misinterpret the need, be rebuffed by the object of his compassion, be rebuked by a secular society, and never attain the goals of his culture.
It is evident that compassion, like other Christian virtues, is a high goal. Few consistently attain it.
Interestingly, the primary indictment brought against the Church by its contemporary young critics is its failure to display compassion toward the poor and the different. Modern urbanization has resulted in homogenization of neighborhoods, insulating many from confrontation with human need. The goals of materialism are seldom compatible with those of compassion. The Church is learning once again the impossibility of successfully institutionalizing compassion. Certainly one of the essential tasks of contemporary Christianity is to reappraise the meaning and application of compassion for today.
God and Compassion
Compassion lay at the foundation of Israel’s faith in Yahweh. For it was out of His compassion that He, by a marvelous act of power, delivered them from Egyptian bondage and called them to be His own people. Nothing, therefore, is more prominent in the than the ascription of compassion, pity, mercy, etc., to God; the people may be said to have gloried in it.
Jesus and Compassion
The God of the cross in order to save us from the worst bondage of sin, with its consequences; seeking thereby to gain a new, wider people for Himself, still more devoted, more filled with and expressive of His own Spirit. Therefore all who know the God and Father of Christ, and who call themselves His children, must necessarily cultivate compassion and show mercy, "even as he is merciful." Hence, the many apostolic injunctions to that effect (