The word compassion is powerful. A dictionary definition includes "concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others." According to the Greater Good Magazine "compassion literally means to suffer together. Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering."
Notice that compassion is more than an emotion, it is an action word. When we say "I have compassion" the response is not just a thought or feeling but requires action where we get alongside others, we get our hands dirty, we get involved. You cannot have compassion without confronting suffering in a practical way, often by direct involvement in the life of those suffering.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor during the time of Nazi Germany. His father was Karl Bonhoeffer, a professor of psychiatry and neurology and one of the most prominent psychiatrists to oppose the T4 (euthanasia) Program initiated by Hitler in 1939.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the centre of the German Protestant resistance to the Nazi regime and became a voice speaking out against anti-semitism. He personally helped Jewish people move to neutral Switzerland.
He was executed by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp, three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany. He said:
“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.”
The christian church has a powerful opportunity to show compassion in the post-christian West. However the danger is that the church become insulated and isolated by believing it is a remnant rather than a rescue mission.
If the church is Jesus in the flesh, his body which means we practice incarnational mission then what did Jesus do? According to Matthew 9:39 "When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
The New Testament Greek word for compassion used in Matthew 9:39 is splanchnízomai. It literally means to be moved in our bowels. We talk about being hit in the guts like a punch and that is the force of this word. In other places in the gospels where this word is used, Jesus has three main responses.
1. He heals the sick (Matt 14:14)
2. He forgives what they owe (Matt 18:27), and
3. He calls people to follow him (Matt 20:34).
If we lack compassion, the solution is to mix with people who suffer and they are not hard to find. I work for a community hub that offers support to a number of people (those in debt, with anxiety, lonely, those that have addictions). I regularly meet people who stir up compassion in me, I feel moved to share a message of healing, forgiveness and an opportunity to follow Jesus. And it is often those who are suffering who are very aware of their need.
The challenge is that it costs to have compassion. Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have stayed quiet and towed the party line but he resisted the cultural pressure to conform.
Here are some practical ways to practice compassion. First of all mix with people who are suffering. That means getting out of our comfort zones. It is fairly easy to volunteer with groups who help others, it could be elderly people, single parents, or a food bank. Find a support group where you either connect with the issue or have practical skills to help (like a Mens Shed).
Secondly share your own story of God's involvement in your life. It is a good news story and encourages people that God is real and He is kind. Third if the opportunity is there, offer to pray for people. Jesus prayed at point of need. I find that people often react positively to an offer of prayer, it is an act of compassion, you are coming alongside the suffering of others with support.
Practicing compassion is a culture shift in a time when people are often isolated and don't know their neighbour. Compassion is loving our neighbour. I will speak more on this at a later date. If you are not sure what to do, look for one person to come alongside, you'll find it is a rewarding experience.