A week or so ago, I had an argument with some family members about politics, a subject I generally take a hard pass on. But I love and trust the people I was speaking with or maybe it was the wine. It was just outside the bar where we had gathered to celebrate a milestone birthday. During the disagreement about the need for social programs, a man walked by and asked for money. We said no, but he was invited into our conversation. His name was José. He shared a little about his situation, and then one of my cousins handed him some cash. He politely thanked us and walked on. I really don’t make this stuff up…
The following day, I asked a friend to help examine my actions since I was feeling uneasy about the situation. Rather than offering cash myself, I had opted for kindness and a smile of encouragement. I had prayed for José on the way home. But was that enough? Did my beliefs require additional action? And if so, what did that look like?
Where Does Sympathy End and Compassion Begin?
As we discussed the evening’s events, one of the topics that came up was the difference between sympathy and compassion. A Merriam-Webster definition of each is provided below. But as a Christian (someone who has put their faith in Christ for my salvation), I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and the source of all wisdom and truth so I’ve included some scriptural references as well.
Sympathy is defined as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.” We have sympathy for the poor, and offer our sympathies to those who are grieving. A friend who offers their sympathy often encourages us in difficult times. And in Jesus, we have a High Priest who can “sympathize” with us during our weaknesses because He was tempted in every way as a man and yet did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Compassion goes further. It is a “sympathetic consciousness of the other’s distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is such a strong force that it propels us into action. Compassion has founded many a non-profit; it rights wrongs and works for social justice. In the face of people in need, Jesus was moved by compassion to meet their needs (Mark 6:34-44, Mark 8:2-8 and Matthew 14:14). Compassion also moves us to pray, and we are told that “prayer is powerful and effective” (James 5:16b). And when we pray, we “must believe and not doubt” (James 1:6).
As I reflect more on this now, I realize that compassion can be expressed in so many different ways- a charitable donation, a heartfelt prayer, or an encouraging word- to name a few. But compassion starts with Spirit-led motivation and purpose and genuine love for others. Isn’t it our privilege as Jesus’ hands and feet to pray for insight, discernment and wisdom before joyfully and obediently taking action?
And sometimes we learn that it might not be about the other person, but about how God is working in our own lives. After all, like José, aren’t we all beggars in need of mercy and a miracle before a holy, all powerful God? Yet, God chooses to show compassion and to have mercy on us if we put our trust in His Son (John 11:25).