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What does the Bible say about compassion?

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Chris Elkins: I’m Chris Elkins with Denison Forum, and we’re here today with Dr. Jim Denison to talk about what does the Bible say about compassion? You know, these are such hard days for so very many people for lots of reasons especially. And it would seem that compassion is probably the most relevant and practical way that believers can respond in this time period.

What is compassion?

Dr. Jim Denison: That’s a good place to start, isn’t it? Compassion comes from a Latin term, actually, that means to feel with, is the idea. Pity is to feel for somebody. If you feel pity for them, as we say, then you wish things were different in their lives. You would change things if you could, but you’re not necessarily experiencing what they’re experiencing. You’re not necessarily feeling their pain or their anguish, their sorrow, their loss. To have compassion is to feel with them. It’s to feel what they feel. It’s to go through what they’re going through.

You think about Jesus in John 11, standing at the grave of Lazarus and weeping, not just feeling sorry for the sisters or for Lazarus, but feeling what they’re feeling, sharing their pain, sharing their grief, and weeping as they weep. Well, that’s compassion. Compassion is feeling what somebody else feels. It’s feeling with them. And that’s the need and the gift of the day.

Why is compassion such a high priority for God’s people?

Well, the first answer obviously is that the Bible commands us to do this. In Galatians 6:2, we’re told to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Again and again Scripture calls us, commands us, to do this. Jesus called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, again and again. Jesus, in John 13, tells us that, as we wash the feet of others, we demonstrate the reality of God’s love in our love. So, again and again, Scripture calls us to this level of passion, compassion, of feeling with, and therefore responding appropriately.

But I think a second reason compassion is such an important biblical value is it demonstrates the reality of our biblical faith. It shows other people that our faith is real, that it’s genuine, that it’s relevant to people where they’re hurting and where they’re living.

I think of Ken Medema, blind singer and songwriter, a dear friend of mine over many, many years. In one of his very profound songs, he says, “Don’t tell me I have a friend in Jesus until you show me I have a friend in you.” A good friend of mine, Dr. Randel Everett, says you have no right to preach the gospel to a hungry person. If we won’t meet their felt need, we don’t have the right to meet their spiritual need. It’s when we demonstrate compassion, it’s when we show God’s love in our love and feel what they feel, that we demonstrate the reality of our faith in a way that is life changing.

And that leads to a third answer to your question, and that is, compassion in many ways is what people need the most today. Mother Teresa said, “Loneliness is the great epidemic of Western society.” The more connected we are through social media, the more we feel that others don’t know us as we really are. We can project the person we wish to be. We can claim to be anything we want to be. There’s an anonymity in our culture today. People pull into their garages and shut the door and they cocoon, as sociologists say. As you look around, our houses aren’t built with porches anymore. People don’t know their neighbors. They don’t even know their neighbors’ names. There’s this sense of loneliness, this existential sense of individualism, that is at such an epidemic today.

And when people feel that someone feels with them, not just pity for them, the compassion with them, that means something deeply rooted in the human soul. That’s meeting them at the place where they most need to be heard and felt and cared about. And so compassion becomes, in many ways, our most transforming, most powerful, and most gracious gift that Christians could offer.

In such a trying time, how do we find this kind of compassion that other people need to experience from us?

Thanks, Chris. That’s really, I think, in many ways, the practical question. The answer isn’t to try harder to do better. It’s not to muster up some feeling that you don’t necessarily have in your heart or act out something that isn’t really genuine inside your own soul, your own spirit. When I think of the fruit of the Spirit, love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, that’s a pretty good description of what it is to have compassion for somebody.

And it starts with love. That’s the Greek word agape. It’s the decision to place the other person first. It’s the commitment to value them first, to care about them and care with them and feel with them in a way that is selfless and self-giving. And that’s a fruit of the Spirit. It’s a result of the Spirit at work in our lives. It’s something God does in us and through us. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. So I think the answer to the question is to pray for God to give us his heart for them. It’s to pray the way that all missionaries pray, “Lord, break my heart for what breaks your heart.”

It’s starting every day with Ephesians 5:18, by being filled with the Spirit, submitting to the Spirit, surrendering to the Holy Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to give us his compassion for those that we meet today. Then when we meet somebody in need, somebody who’s hurting, it’s a quick prayer: “Lord, help me to feel what you feel for them. Give me the compassion that they need and that I can’t have otherwise.” It’s praying for God to do through us and in us what we cannot do apart from his grace.

So I can close this video by illustrating that prayer and the way that it works in our lives in a way that I think is really very powerful. It’s one of the most powerful stories that I’ve ever seen. It comes from Corrie ten Boom, the famous Holocaust camp survivor who, some years after her horrific Holocaust experience, had an experience as she was speaking in a particular church, that she recounted later. It’s an amazing story. So rather than just try to kind of recall it for you, I’d rather read it to you. I’d rather share her words with you so that you can experience what she did and perhaps pray what she prayed. So she writes these words:

“It was at a church service in Munich, Germany, that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck.” That’s the concentration camp where she and her sister Betsy had been confined. “He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. Suddenly, it was all there, the room full of mocking guards, the heaps of clothing, Betsy’s pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming. ‘How grateful I am for your message. Fraulein,’ he said. ‘To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away.’

“His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. ‘Lord Jesus,’ I prayed, ‘forgive me and help me to forgive him.’ I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. Again I breathed a silent prayer, ‘Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.’

“As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness, anymore than on our goodness, that the world’s healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Would you pray today for God to give you the compassion, his compassion, for someone in need and then show them God’s love in yours?

God bless you.

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