As we have seen throughout theses posts, no virtue stands on it’s own. Peaceableness and justice are necessary, and even foundational for glimpses of shalom to be seen on this side of redemption, but they imply many unspoken virtues to be seen and lived out. Compassion is one of those virtues that seeps through the cracks of a peaceable and just life, but compassion just might be one of the least desired virtues once it is fully realized.
Most of us hear the word compassion and we are filled with good feelings and thoughts of love and joy by the mention of it. We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people, after all who wouldn’t have compassion on a poor old man who’s body has broken down, a malnourished child, a women who has been sold into sex slavery, or a family on the streets.
The problem we have here is that compassion isn’t the same as having sad feelings for someone’s situation, or thoughts of pity for those who are poor or oppressed. Those thoughts are just that; thoughts of pity. This is not compassion. For many of us, when real opportunities of compassion present themselves, we are too gripped by fear of loss and pain to enter into compassion.
To have compassion means to allow your love to meet someone’s suffering, brokenness. At the root of the word compassion, are two Latin words, pati (with) and cum (to suffer); meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion is when love intentionally moves you into the suffering and brokenness of others. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts… to be weak with those who are weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.” Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, 3-4.
Feelings and thoughts of sadness and pity is not compassion, but they can be the beginnings of us moving into compassion.
This is fully seen and realized in the New Testament account of Jesus’ last week before he was crucified. Many people call the week before the crucifixion, “Passion Week.” We learn in the narrative that Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, the very place where he would suffer intentionally, where he would move into our place of sin and brokenness, so that we would receive the fruits of his compassion; forgiveness and reconciliation. Maybe we should call that week, “Compassion Week,” since he suffered for our sake.
Thus, compassion is not a natural human virtue as is sometimes understood to be. If compassion were to be seen as a front and center virtue of the Christ followers life, we might begin to question the fruitfulness of compassion because of the cost it would place on our lives. A society governed by compassion may very well be seen as a foolish and weak society, and indeed, Christ was seen as foolish and weak.
Many people may even say or think to themselves, “Our world will not survive if compassion is a chief virtue.” This thinking would be especially true in a society like ours today, where our greatest ideals are to maximize our satisfaction and limit the amount of loss and pain we experience. We see this is in our business ventures, in start up ministries/churches, in the way we raise our children, and in the laws we legislate.
This is not all bad. In fact, much good comes out of limiting loss and pain, but in the process of longing for a better society, we forget that there is stilling suffering and those who are on the margins that do not have the ability to “regulate” their pain and loss. In our pursuit of our own “right” to happiness, we lost sight of those who have been robbed of theirs. Thus, on this side of redemption, compassion is a necessary and central virtue among God’s people.
We would do well to turn our ears on to the moment Jesus calls us to compassion: You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. Luke 6:36, NLT. This, in the context of real compassion, is a daunting call to sacrifice. This is a call to renewal in a society that seeks to protect number one as first priority. This is a call that we ought not to take lightly.
As Jesus has first died to renew our death filled lives, he is now our model and leader (our older brother) in sacrificial living. Salvation for the Christ follower is not merely a cognitive belief that places them in security in the heavenly realms with no earthly commitment to good. Salvation is a call to a whole new way of being human, a call to living out the upside down economy of God’s kingdom on earth, a call to be willing to lose it all for the sake of God’s kingdom being realized and embraced by those who are in darkness.
To the Christ follower, Jesus’ life is not the exception, but the norm. My prayer is that Christ followers would begin to take seriously the implications of the life of Jesus and allow God’s Spirit, who lives in his people, to move them into compassion, not for approval’s sake, but for obedience’s sake. After all, Christ, our savior and leader, learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and we are not exempt from this learning method. Renewal of cities is dependent on the compassion of others. No compassion, no true renewal.
“In a poem entitled ‘The Good Samaritan,’ Mark Littleton captures the essence of compassion”:
The stoop of a listening father.
The touch and wink of a passing nurse.
The gnarled fingers of a grandmother steadying a swing.
The clench of a surgeon’s teeth as he begins his cut.
The open hand and pocketbook of a traveling Samaritan.
The dew of heaven on dry lips.
–Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Prediger and Walsh, 221.