Compassion has to do with both an emotional response at the sight of suffering as well as a desire to take action towards relieving that suffering.
In this post, we will delve into both a secular and biblical definition of compassion.
What is the definition of compassion
The English word compassion comes from the combination of two Latin words: com which means with and pati which means to bear or suffer.
Taken together, compassion means simply to suffer with.
The online Oxford English dictionary puts it this way: Suffering together with another, or participation in suffering.
However, there is another element to compassion not included in this definition.
The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines compassion simply as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
Notice the last few words that indicate taking action along with the emotional response.
Biblical meaning of compassion
The English definition of the word compassion captures a basic idea of what it means to be compassionate.
The concept of compassion is all over Scripture. But we don’t really get a good picture of what it means by studying the English dictionary only.
The Greek and Hebrew definitions give us the true meaning of compassion in a deeper, more meaningful way.
How does the Bible describe compassion?
You will discover that compassion is beyond just an emotional or even a “take action” response.
What is the biblical Hebrew word for compassion?
There are more than one words for compassion in the Old Testament.
One Hebrew word for compassion is racham. It means to have deep, tender love and affection for another person.
The picture of racham is that these emotions are so deep that it is as if there is a physical or biological bond between the person expressing compassion and the person who is receiving compassion.
Racham in Hebrew is connected to the word womb.
Racham therefore carries the idea of feeling the pain of another so deeply and so personally that one is compelled to do something about it.
Like a mother (who carries a womb) would not give a second thought to helping her distressed child.
God’s attribute of compassion
Here is a Bible verse to drive home the meaning of racham:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion [racham] on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15 ESV)
Because of how compassion drives someone to take action, sometimes racham is also used to mean mercy in the Bible.
…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy [racham] on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:3 ESV)
Compassion is a deep emotional experience that makes you want to take action to relieve suffering.
Mercy is that action you take to actually relieve the suffering.
In the Old Testament, compassion is mostly shown by God to His chosen people.
What is the biblical Greek word for compassion?
In the New Testament, there are multiple words used for compassion. Let’s look at them briefly.
The compassion of Jesus
The first Greek word for compassion is splanchnon. It means deep affection and tenderness. This word carries a vivid picture of being so emotionally moved that it affects you physically.
When you hear someone say “I feel it in the pit of my stomach”, or “that was gut wrenching”, or “it made me sick to my stomach”….all that is splanchnon.
Splanchnon actually literally refers to the inner parts of the body. The bowels, intestines, heart, lungs, and liver.
In the gospels, this is the word that is used mostly to describe how Jesus felt when he met people who were in pain and suffering.
When Jesus saw the grieving widow of Nain, Luke reports:
And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion [splanchnon] on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” (Luke 10:33 ESV)
When Jesus looked at the hungry people, Matthew reports:
Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion [splanchnon] on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. Matthew 16:32 ESV
When we experience suffering and pain, Jesus feels it in a way that is deep personal and intensely physical, as though it is happening to Him.
His stomach gets all weak and knotted.
Compassion in Greek
Another Greek word for compassion is oiktirmos. It refers to inward sympathetic feelings that rise up in us when we see someone in difficulty.
It describes the pity and sorrow that we express when we see someone suffer.
It does not necessarily reach as far as taking action like in the case of splanchnon but with it comes the desire to want to do something.
Believers are encouraged to have this kind of compassion towards each other.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate [oiktirmos] hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, (Colossians 3:12 ESV)
In fact, oiktirmos can also mean mercy, grace, and favor.
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful [oiktirmos]. (Luke 6:36 ESV)
Best of all, our God is described as compassionate using this word:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies [oiktirmos] and God of all comfort, (2 Corinthians 1:3 ESV)
What is the spiritual meaning of compassionate?
The spirit of compassion is one that stirs up a person to take action. It is not a passive emotional experience in which we feel sorrow, shed a few tears and then move along.
Earlier I mentioned how Jesus showed compassion to the hungry crowd and the widow of Nain. Jesus solved the problems that caused distress to the people.
Jesus taught this principle too. Here are a few more examples.
Examples of compassion in the Bible
When Jesus told of the parable of the good Samaritan, He said this:
But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion [splanchnon]. Luke 10:33 ESV
If you read the parable again you will notice that following this sentence, Jesus described exactly what the Samaritan did to ease the burden and solve the problem.
In the parable of the prodigal son, we see Jesus teaching the same truth again. He said:
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion [splanchnon], and ran and embraced him and kissed him. Luke 15:20 ESV
Do you remember what happened after this scene?
Yes…There was a grand party!
Compassion is more than feelings and talk. Compassion is putting legs on those feelings and words.
Final words on the meaning of compassion in the Bible
I hope you have gotten a deeper understanding of what it means to be compassionate according to the standards of Scripture.
Compassion reaches beyond the emotional to the physical. The best example of compassion is what Jesus did for us.
He didn’t just feel our pain. He left heaven to come to earth to join us in it and then he made a way for us to escape it.
How will you show compassion to someone today? Where will you begin?