Compassion, Pity

See also Compassion

COMPASSION, PITY (רָחַם, H8163, to love; חָמַל, H2798, to pity, spare, σπλαγχνίζομαι, G5072, bowels of concern).

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 Heb. and Gr. compassion is literally a “gut feeling” for the needs of others. The compassionate God is one of the essential marks of the Christian faith (Exod 3:7; Deut 30:3; 2 Chron 36:15, 16; Ps 78:38; 86:13; Jer 12:15; Hos 11:4). God’s pity goes out toward both the good and the evil, the deserving and the wasteful. It is need alone which stirs Him.

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 (Luke 10:33, 34; see also the parable of the unforgiving steward Matt 18:23-35). The lesson is that Christians must respond compassionately to human need, not allowing their hearts to be hardened. Further, in Jesus’ description of the judgment (Matt 25:31-46) the prime criterion for division of the just from the unjust is whether or not their lives have been characterized by acts of compassion.

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, the black, 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.

See also Mercy, Merciful.

Bibliography W. L. Walker, “Compassion,” ISBE (1915), 695.