Learning to Be Compassionate People Day 1: Compassion and Sympathy
“When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, ESV).
Do you want to be a compassionate person? There’s almost no point in asking that question, because I think all of us do. Perhaps the more important question is this: Am I a compassionate person?
If we want to be more like Jesus, we must be compassionate people. While it’s not always easy for us, it’s what characterized the Lord Jesus and, by God’s grace, can be something that characterizes us. So what does it mean to be compassionate? And what about sympathy—is there a difference between the two?
In the Bible, we find the word “compassion” in both the Old and New Testaments. In the OT, it is most often used as an attribute of God. The Hebrew word racham means “to love, love deeply, have mercy, be compassionate, have tender affection, have compassion.” This verse helps us understand it well: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).
In the New Testament, the meaning of compassion is much more complex. The Greek word oiktirmos is defined as “pity, mercy; bowels in which compassion resides, a heart of compassion, emotions, longings, manifestations of pity.” As the definition makes clear, the word is closely associated with “pity” and even comes from the word which means “to pity,” oiktiro. It’s also very closely linked with the word for “merciful,” oiktirmon. (It’s helpful to recognize connections to other English words with which we are familiar.)
The verb form of “compassion,” splagchnizomai, is defined as this: “to be moved as to one’s bowels; to have the bowels yearn, i.e., to feel sympathy, to pity, to have (be moved with) compassion.” This word comes directly from the Greek word that is used for bowels and intestines (heart, lungs, liver, etc.). It’s interesting that this word has so much to do with our inner organs; it helps us understand the depth of what true compassion is. It’s clearly meant to be a very “whole-body” emotion. In understanding this, we get a glimpse into the depth of Christ’s compassion for each person, just like the opening verse describes.
Here are other examples of His compassion: “A man with leprosy came to Jesus, imploring Him and kneeling down, and saying to Him, ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out with His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed’” (Mark 1:40-41, NASB). “When He came ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14, NASB).
Now that we (hopefully) understand compassion a little better, let’s look at “sympathy.” These words are actually very similar in their definitions and have even been used interchangeably in translation, though they do have some differences.
The verb “to sympathize with,” sympatheo, is defined as “to be affected with the same feeling as another, to sympathize with; to feel for, have compassion on.” This comes from the word for sympathetic, sympathes, which means “suffering or feeling the like with another; having a fellow-feeling.” Another way this has been translated is in the Greek word sympascho, which means “to suffer or feel pain together; to suffer evils in the like manner with another; to experience pain jointly or of the same kind.” As you can see, this word carries with it the idea of suffering right alongside someone.
Just as our Savior had compassion, we also read that He has sympathy for each of us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
To put it very simply: Compassion is more of a feeling toward someone, and it often causes us to be moved by that feeling into action. Sympathy additionally captures the idea of suffering with someone. However, neither one requires that you fully understand what someone else is going through; they simply indicate that we are aware of what others are facing (we’ll talk about that more tomorrow). God, through His Spirit, may prompt us to have compassion for someone in one situation, and in another, He may call us to draw right alongside someone in their suffering.
So is compassion (or even sympathy) just an emotion, or is it a choice? To be honest, I’m not sure the answer is clear-cut. Maybe it’s both. But the point is this: it’s about knowing Christ. The more we know Him, the more we’ll be able to reflect these attributes of His. And that is the best part of it all: whether it’s compassion or sympathy, Jesus is our ultimate example.
“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12, NASB).
“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, loving, compassionate, and humble” (1 Peter 3:8, NASB).
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).