Character Traits of the Spiritual Life: Compassion and Mercy
Do you have an attitude of compassion when you see a person who wallows in the degradation of sin? Do you want to have mercy on those who are lost and without Christ? Does your heart melt with compassion when you see a friend or anyone else who is hurting physically or emotionally? Do you have compassion for the sick, the disabled, the poor, the rejected, and those who suffer abuse?
Compassion is a virtue often demonstrated by the Lord Jesus and one that we, as Christians, are to manifest as well. This term may derive from the Greek verb splanchnizomai which means to be moved as to ones inwards, to be moved with compassion, to yearn with compassion. Another verb is sumpatheo, meaning to suffer with another, to be affected similarly. The verb eleeo means to have mercy, to show kindness, by beneficence, or assistance. Oikteiro means to have pity, a feeling of distress through the ills of others.[i]
The Lord Jesus was filled with compassion. Matthew tells us, Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd (9:36; cf. Mark 6:34). Luke tells us of a widow whose son had just died: When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, Do not weep (7:13). He proceeded to raise the son to life. Our Lord also was merciful to those with physical needs. When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14). He then fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind men cried out, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us! (Matthew 20:30). The record then says, Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes and healed them (v. 34). When a leper approached the Lord for healing, Jesus was moved with compassion and made the man whole (Mark 1:41).
Although there are shades of difference between these different Greek words that are translated as mercy or compassion, they do convey the idea of the loving heart reaching out with care and concern in view of the needs of another. God Himself had mercy toward us through Christ. Paul explains, God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5). In another place, the apostle says that God saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy (Titus 3:5).
In light of Gods mercy, we also should manifest mercy. In light of the fact that He has been compassionate toward us, we should be compassionate toward others. The king in Jesus parable said to the unforgiving slave, Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you (Matthew 18:33). We have received mercy and we should give it to others. The Good Samaritan came to the man who had been robbed, and when he saw him, he felt compassion (Luke 10:33). Jesus tells the lawyer to whom he gave the parable that he should go and show mercy to others (v. 37). Our lifestyle should be one of outgoing compassion to those in spiritual, physical, and emotional need.
God commands us to be merciful toward others. Paul the apostle encourages us, As those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion (Colossians 3:12). Do we have such a heart? James tells us that the wisdom from above is full of mercy (James 3:17). Because God is a God of mercy (Romans 12:1) and the Father of mercies (2 Corinthians 1:3), we are able to reach out and comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (v. 4). We are to have compassionate hearts that bless the lives of those in need.
Jesus gave a parable to a Jewish lawyer that we usually call, The Good Samaritan. He tells of a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell to robbers who wounded him and took all he had. A priest walked by and left the wounded man lying, then a Levite came by and left the man alone. Finally, a Samaritan (whom the Jews rejected) came by, and felt compassion, and took him to an inn to be cared for. Jesus asked his hearer who proved to be a neighbor to the wounded man. The lawyer answered, The one who showed mercy toward him (Luke 10:30-37). This is a beautiful demonstration of compassion or mercy. Someone has updated the parable in this way:
A certain woman went down from Washington to Richmond and ran over a spike which punctured her tire and left her stranded by the side of the road. After raising the hood of her car and tying a scarf to her radio antenna, she locked the door handles and sat in the car, praying for the Lord to send help!
By chance, there came a limousine that way with a bumper sticker that read, Smile, God Loves You! When the occupants saw the stranded woman, they passed by in the far lanewithout smiling.
And likewise, there came a sports car with a CB radio and a bumper sticker saying, Honk If You Love Jesus! The man who was driving passed by in the far lane without honking and without using his CB to tell the Highway Patrol about the womans dilemma.
But a certain working man, as he traveled to his job, came to the spot where the woman was and, when he saw her raised hood, white scarf, and flat tire, he had compassion on her. He stopped his old beat-up pickupwhich had no bumper stickerand crossed the four-lane highway, and offered to change the tire. The woman opened the door and gave him the key to the trunk. The man took out the spare tire, jacked up the car, removed the flat tire, and replaced it with the spare.
When he had finished, the woman tried to pay him. He refused the money, saying, If my wife were stranded on the highway with a flat tire, Id want some Good Samaritan to stop and help her out. He returned to his bumper-stickerless truck, smiled, honked at her, and went his way. Which of these three was neighbor unto her who had a flat tire?[ii]
We may have questions arise in our minds: Was it safe for a woman to seek help in this way? What if the stranded person were a man? Why didnt someone at least call the police? Was it safe for the woman to open the door to a stranger? Didnt the writer question the rightfulness of using a Christian bumper sticker? But regardless of the questions, the point is clear: Do we go out of our way to help those in need? Are we compassionate people?
When we fail to meet peoples needs when we have the ability to do so, we lack compassion. John charges his readers, Whoever has the worlds goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:17). The NET Bible renders the verse, But whoever has the worlds possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? If we lack compassion, we dont have Gods love in us.
This compassionate spirit may be mentioned in other ways. Jude says that a merciful spirit motivates us to reach out to those who are perishing in sin: Have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh (vv. 22-23). We may not realize how horrible sin is and the eternal consequences of it, but here Jude urges us to compassionately reach out to those trapped in iniquity. The object of compassion is those who doubt. Thus, in this passage, Jude urges Christians to respond to both the intellectual and the moral doubts of those affected by false teachers. . . . The Christian attitude is one of mercy towards the sinner, coupled with abhorrence of his sin.[iii]
[i] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary.
[ii] Ted Kyle and John Todd, A Treasury of Bible Illustrations (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1995), pp. 92-93.
[iii] The Wycliffe Bible Commentary.