Compassion is an essential quality of our religious life. It is the means by which we enter into the suffering of others, and by that participation are able to bring healing and comfort. Developing a compassionate heart is what we are meant to be about, for as we risk forgetting ourselves and our own safety we enter into the heart of God through those we serve. Compassion is an expression of the stupendous love of God which we are privileged to share.
The Psalmist says that compassion is a characteristic of God’s nature. “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is loving to everyone, and his compassion is over all his works.” (Psalm 145:8-9)
We know that Jesus had a compassionate heart. He fed the hungry and showed mercy to those who were sick, troubled, or grieved because of their separation from God. His first response to people in trouble was not to condemn but to enter into their suffering to relieve pain and to give them hope. He invited the weary and those with heavy burdens to rest in him. As he said, “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
I can’t imagine any of us disagreeing with this endeavor to live compassionate lives. We do this in our church life and in personal responses to natural disasters and tragedies near and throughout the world. But being compassionate is not always easy. One can become so distressed by seeing the suffering of others that one turns a blind eye. We might think, “If I don’t see it, it won’t bother me — and perhaps it will go away on its own.” It is particularly difficult to show compassion to those whose suffering is self-inflicted. We are likely to blame the victim. If, for example, one were not addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, or crime, one wouldn’t need to suffer the consequences of those poor choices. That attitude, of course, holds some truth. We often put ourselves into the predicaments from which we suffer. Sometimes we do this willfully, and at other times it is the result of our ignorance. Most of us don’t intend to be bad people. We were created as good people, but in our weakness and lack of wisdom we do destructive things.
The question then becomes, “Is it enough to condemn bad behavior and the person who does it? Is it enough to condemn those who are poor because they haven’t found jobs? Is it enough to maintain prejudices because our stereotypes of other races may on occasion be true? Do I, for example, need to care for the cancer patient who smoked cigarettes for years? Don’t people with AIDS deserve what they got?”
It is not enough to blame the victim. If that were the proper response, God would not have gone to the trouble to express compassion for us in the person of Jesus, even to death on a cross for the sake of love. God in Christ knows our weakness and would rather suffer with us than discard us. We are precious to God even when we don’t know what we are doing.
An alternative to compassion is to point the finger at those who fail because of poor choices or who live in ways contrary to one’s own values. In conflict situations in particular we tend to get satisfaction rallying people around us who agree with us. It makes us feel as if we are right and the others wrong. The problem with this kind of thinking is that we become “absorbed with our own self-image” and fail to empathize with others. Being right replaces being loving. Whether we are right or wrong, this kind of thinking can be dangerous because it hardens our hearts.
Compassion is not concerned with protecting one’s self-image. It is the ability to act with selfless love responding spontaneously to the needs of others. It is not a matter of being right. Jesus didn’t require holiness before he acted. In fact he said that the prostitutes, tax-collectors, and sinners would enter the kingdom of God before those who patted themselves on the back for offering pious prayers in the temple. One did not have to sign a statement of orthodoxy or recite a creed before receiving the gift of healing. To be made whole one simply needed to put one’s trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness. Love happens in relationship, not in a dogmatism that rejects or ignores the suffering of others.
Our challenge is to learn to embrace rather than to strike back – “to be slow to anger and of great kindness.”
Give us compassionate hearts, O God, that we may love you in all persons and in all things. Help us to act and speak only out of your love, and leave the judging to your mercy.