The True Meaning of Compassion

For a long time, when I thought of "compassion," I thought of a child sitting in a slum in India (and he's probably in black and white). Most people associate compassion with those who are disconnected from them: overseas, living in poverty, in dire need of help. A lot of us have been missing the true meaning of compassion.
Camden McAfee

Camden McAfee


For a long time, when I thought of “compassion,” I thought of a child sitting in a slum in India (and he’s probably in black and white). Most people associate compassion with those who are disconnected from them: overseas, living in poverty, in dire need of help. What’s your picture?

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard via Compfight cc

A lot of us have been missing the true meaning of compassion. Sponsoring a child or helping an elderly man in India is right, but not exclusive.

True compassion requires two things:

1. Stepping out of your world
2. Stepping into someone else’s world

To step out of your world, you must invest physical, time-bound energy. More than that, compassion requires stepping into someone else’s world, exerting emotional energy. Literally, “compassion” means, “to suffer with.”

Compassion is intentionally shouldering someone else’s burden, expecting nothing in return. Compassion is nothing short of one-way love.

Compassion > love

Compared to compassion, reciprocal love is easy. It’s easy to love those who love us. We’re far more willing to sacrifice if we know what the outcome will be.

But that isn’t compassion.

I wish relationships were like business. The goals of business are to be both effective and efficient. Business is simple – you put a certain amount in, and you get a certain amount back. But that’s not how people work, and compassion is exclusively personal. Effective personal relationships often aren’t efficient.

Love may be a natural reaction, but compassion is always an action.

Giving for Gain

So far I’ve said “suffer with people” and, “give while getting nothing back.” I’d say I’m making a pretty poor sales-pitch for compassion.

But what we tend to forget – what I tend to forget – is that the true value of compassion is not in the virtue of what you give but in the reward of what you gain. 

Take listening, for example. Most people wouldn’t think of listening as an act of compassion. But if you’re truly listening – striving to understand another – the you’re giving both physical time and emotional energy.

When we listen to someone, our act of listening doesn’t make them love us, and it doesn’t make us feel loved. Yet the reward of listening isn’t love, it’s trust. Affection may come and go, but trust is an established foundation that takes time. Building trust takes compassion.

Echoes of Eternity

A couple weeks ago, I was explaining the Gospel to a girl over email. After I explained the cross, she wrote back to me with a surprised question:

“Why would [Jesus] die for somebody knowing they might never love him back?”

Her question caught me off guard. I had always known that – yes – Jesus died for all people, but only some will believe in Him. But I had never heard the question phrased that directly.

Romans 5:8 is one of the clearest verses explaining the Gospel:

God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus died for us, knowing He might not get anything in return. God’s greatest act of love for us was compassion. What an incredible reason to trust Him!

In fact, the promise of our trust is the reason Christ died with joy. He went to the cross “for the joy that was set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2) – that is, us.

No one has a better example, experience, or motivation of compassion than Christians. We’re called to reflect that love by giving of our time and emotion to those who may not return our love. Our example is Christ, our experience is redemption, and our motivation is hope in future trust.

Sacrifice today – toward a family, friend, or  stranger. Show compassion, and your actions will echo the heart of God for all eternity.


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