It’s safe to say few folks—the Ebenezer Scrooges of the world, perhaps—would be content to live without ever being thought of as compassionate. It is an almost universally appreciated virtue, yet one that seems to be in short supply. A scan of the news (or any social media feed) typically leaves one with the sense that the world could do with a bit more of it. But why the gap? Why would something that could so obviously help our chaotic world be hard to come by?
It might be helpful to first define compassion, which is harder than it sounds. Although compassion and empathy are cousins of a sort, they aren’t precisely the same thing. In fact, the gap between the need for compassion and the world’s lack of it lies within the difference in how we understand these two terms.
To start, we should look at what Scripture has to say, and there’s no better example than Jesus. When confronted with crowds of people—poor and sick, weary sinners and the brokenhearted—He responds gently time and again.
Consider Matthew 9. The chapter begins with Jesus encountering a paralyzed man and telling him, “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2). This, of course, rattles the scribes, to whom Jesus replies, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, and walk’?” (Matt. 9:5). Then, in the next verse, to show He has authority to forgive sins, Jesus tells the paralytic to take up his mat and walk. And the man does just that, leaving the crowd in awe.
Later, the Pharisees harass Jesus. They ask His followers, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11). Jesus responds with this oft-quoted aphorism, a tiny poetic treatise on compassion: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12-13).
In these first two examples, we see the compassion of Jesus is concerned primarily with the souls of the brokenhearted and weary. He begins by forgiving the paralytic’s sins, and when He refers to the tax collectors and sinners, He calls them “sick.” He’s deeply aware of the brokenness of our hearts and souls.
There’s a danger in assuming this posture to be a foundation of judgment, as if compassion came from seeing others primarily as sinners. But Jesus’ perspective is, I believe, broader than this. He sees them for the creatures they were meant to be. Humanity is made in the image of God—meant for glory, for flourishing, for life in a world that is harmonious and beautiful. The compassion of Jesus is the compassion of the Creator, looking upon a creation that has been ravaged and diminished by sin’s presence in the world. We were not meant for sin and disease. We were not meant to suffer the indignity of paralyzation. We were not meant for the humiliation of prostitution, alcoholism, greed, or idolatry. As C. S. Lewis said, if you ever saw a human being as he was meant to be, you would be tempted to worship him. But how far we are from these origins.
Jesus sees sinners for the creatures they were meant to be.
Jesus looks upon the paralytic and the prostitute with the same eyes and says, This is not the way the world was meant to be. It breaks His heart and—more importantly—moves Him to act. He forgives and heals the paralytic. He draws close to the sinner.
And here we can start to define compassion. More than empathy, it is a movement of our emotions and thoughts that recognizes, or identifies with, the suffering of another. Or perhaps it’s better to say that compassion is a deeper kind of empathy—one that is not content to sit at the margins and merely observe, even if in a feeling way, the pain of others. Compassion does. It cannot sit by. It heals. It moves toward those who are suffering. It puts itself at risk on behalf of others. Look again at Jesus’ example: In both stories, He forsakes His reputation, offending the sensibilities of the religious leaders, first by having the audacity to forgive sins and second, by offending their sense of propriety when He eats with “sinners.”
Matthew 9 goes on to show several more moments of miraculous healing. Jesus raises a girl from the dead. He heals a woman of a hemorrhage she’s suffered for 12 years. He restores sight for two blind men and casts a demon out of a man who has been mute. And as the chapter nears its end, we see this passage:
The crowds were amazed, and were saying, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”
But the Pharisees were saying, “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.”
Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.
Compassion is a deeper kind of empathy—one that is not content to merely observe the pain of others.
Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:33-38).
It is Jesus’ compassion that leads Him to heal the sick, raise the dead, and bless sinners with His presence. It’s His compassion that leads Him to risk reputation with the religious crowd in order to be amongst the sick and broken. And this compassion is part of the announcement of “the gospel of the kingdom.”
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus proclaims the same message: the good news of the kingdom. The kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven. It is not some far-off place where we go to play the harp when we die. It is here, now, among us. Here in the world of sinners, the sick, and yes, even the Pharisees. It’s a kingdom that can be welcomed or scorned but in Jesus is made manifest in profound ways.
If you want to know what heaven is like, just look at what happens when Jesus shows up. It’s a kingdom where the clock gets rolled back on death, where disease itself withers, where darkness flees. It’s a kingdom where all are welcome, no matter how outcast, poor, sick, or sinful they might be. This is the hand of God at work in the world—a touch that begins to restore the world.
And as Matthew 9 shows us, it’s a kingdom whose impulses are drawn out of God’s compassion: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Allow yourself to think for a moment about that phrase: “distressed and dispirited.” It’s a sobering image, and one that runs counter to the way we’d like to think about ourselves. Most of us wouldn’t describe ourselves this way. Rather, when given the opportunity, we put our best foot forward and present ourselves as competent and courageous, whether that’s in a classroom, in a boardroom, or on social media.
The world around us says we should hide weakness and perform for the crowd. But Jesus sees through all of this and knows that in our more honest moments, we’d describe ourselves as He might—distressed by a world that tells us we should be competent and courageous, and yet at every turn makes us feel insignificant. We should be younger, thinner, smarter, healthier. Our children should be better behaved. Our marriages should be more exciting. Our jobs should be more fulfilling. At every corner of our ordinary life, we find a harassing voice, telling us that whatever we have, we aren’t enough.
If we’re honest, though, maybe we would describe ourselves as dispirited. Because so much of life is out of our control. Taking on any one of these issues can feel overwhelming, and the harassers’ voices can be crippling. When confronted with these challenges, we have only two options for how to respond: We can pretend, or we can surrender.
We simply cannot be compassionate to others if we haven’t dealt with the brokenness and sorrow that marks our own life.
By pretending, I mean that we can put on some kind of social veneer. We can act as if we have it all together, and dress up our families and careers so the watching world looks at us and sees what it demands to see: a life that is (to borrow a phrase from Radiohead) fitter, happier, and more productive. We can put on happiness and togetherness like a mask and march around in it all day long. This in fact is the way of the Pharisees—meticulous obedience to a set of externalized demands. While theirs were a set of religious rules and regulations, ours are more social, but both are equally performance-based.
The flaw in this approach is clear in Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees. He called them “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27), clean on the outside but filled with death and rot. The path of external obedience is a path of hidden misery. It’s also a path that closes us off from compassion. We simply cannot be compassionate to others if we haven’t dealt with the brokenness and sorrow that marks our own life.
Look at Matthew chapter 9 again. Throughout, there’s a crowd of nay-saying onlookers. They are horrified at Jesus’ forgiveness, His audacity to heal, His ease with sinners. This isn’t just caustic judgment—it’s also deep personal unease. It is fear made manifest in anger and contempt. It is a poison that keeps the world at odds with itself and crowds out compassion and empathy. It is an unease that makes us fear the stranger, the refugee, the person of a different color, the sick, the poor, the sinner, the broken.
If you want to know why the world lacks compassion, look no further than the Pharisees. Look no further than those whose externalized code of conduct shapes their world, and believe it should shape yours. If compassion is empathy driven to do, its opposite is contempt at the sight of something foreign or frightful. Contempt at anything that doesn’t conform with our comfortable, rule-shaped world.
To become people of compassion, we must first recognize our own status as people of tremendous need. To love the sick, I must know that I am sick. To love the broken, I must know that I am broken. To love those in need, I must know the near-bottomless depths of my own need.
Only then can we look to Jesus—whose walk through the world was punctuated by eruptions of light, life, and healing—and make sense of what He did, make sense of the deep goodness of the kingdom of God. Only then can we move towards those who are most hurting and broken. Only then can we truly know the meaning of the word compassion.