What is the meaning of Compassion?

The meaning of compassion is to recognize the suffering of others and then take action to help. Compassion embodies a tangible expression of love for those who are suffering.

What is the definition of Compassion

The definition of compassion, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

And the New Oxford American Dictionary defines compassion as "a sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others."

Different aspects of compassion's meaning are emphasized by each dictionary.

Merriam-Webster mentions a "desire to alleviate" the distress of others, whereas the New Oxford American dictionary simply refers to the broad sympathetic feelings associated with compassion. It does not connect those feelings of sympathy and pity to any action or thoughts of action, which is really an incomplete definition.

compassion vs. empathy

The Latin root for the word compassion is pati, which means to suffer, and the prefix com- means with. Compassion, originating from compati, literally means to suffer with. The connection of suffering with another person brings compassion beyond sympathy into the realm of empathy. However, compassion is much more than empathy.

Empathy is an ability to relate to another person's pain as if it's your own. Empathy, like sympathy, is grounded in emotion and feeling, but empathy doesn't have an active component to it.

A boy and a woman wearing a black head press their foreheads against one another

What does it mean to have compassion?

The component of action is what separates compassion from empathy, sympathy, pity, concern, condolence, sensitivity, tenderness, commiseration or any other compassion synonym.

Compassion gets involved. When others keep their distance from those who are suffering, compassion prompts us to act on their behalf.

Author Fredrick Buechner describes what it means to have compassion in this way:

"Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."

To have compassion means to empathize with someone who is suffering and to feel compelled to reduce the suffering. It’s a fuller, truer definition than feelings alone, and it’s a very biblical understanding.

What is the biblical definition of compassion?

The Bible doesn’t explain compassion like a dictionary does, simply telling us what the word means. Instead, the Bible defines compassion by showing us what compassion looks like and what is involved with being compassionate.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." — Proverbs 31:8-9, NIV

"Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." — 1 John 3:18, NIV

"Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms." — 1 Peter 4:10, NIV

"This is what the Lord Almighty said: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'" — Zechariah 7:9-10, NIV

"Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind." — Philippians 2:1-2, NIV

What is the spiritual definition of compassion?

The spirit of the word compassion is synonymous with doing. Compassion is not concerned with material or physical things. It's concerned with the human spirit and soul. The spiritual definition of compassion involves acting to alleviate the suffering, of others.

An older woman received a hug from another woman

What is the difference between mercy and compassion?

Mercy is the compassionate treatment of those in distress. Mercy is the fruit of compassion. It’s the gift given to the suffering by those living out their compassion.

In the New Testament, Jesus is often moved to mercy through compassion.

"Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, 'Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!' . . . Jesus stopped and called them. 'What do you want me to do for you?' he asked. 'Lord,' they answered, 'we want our sight.' Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him." — Matthew 20:30-34, NIV

Jesus' compassion prompts Him to act and He mercifully loves, heals and rescues.

Jesus' very presence in the world is the ultimate act of compassion. We did not deserve His sacrifice, but because of God's great love, we were treated with mercy and are called to live lives of compassion and mercy.

"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." — Ephesians 4:32, NIV

How does the word "compassion" reveal God's character?

In this video, the BibleProject delves into the meaning of the compassion and what it reveals about the character of God. For example, the word’s Hebrew root ("rakhamim") is closely related to the Hebrew word for "womb." The video takes you on a beautifully illustrated journey of how the Old Testament uses the word to reveal that “God is full of motherly compassion” and will rescue his people "by entering into the suffering of humanity."

How does Compassion International act compassionately?

Every day, millions of children living in poverty around the world experience compassion as they participate in our Child Sponsorship Program. Thousands of local churches in low- and middle-income countries tailor our holistic child development model to the contextualized needs of the children in their communities to best deliver the care that the children need most.

Each child assisted by our frontline church partners receives whole-life care that is personal, individualized, relational, and tailored to the child's age, gender, health, culture and family situation. Whole-life care means we begin, in some cases, with prenatal care and go all the way through young adulthood.

It means we take a long-term approach to child development and provide opportunities that encourage healthy spiritual, physical, social and economic development to help each child fully mature in every facet of life.

The benefits of our Child Sponsorship Program include:

  • Better health
  • Better nutrition
  • Educational and vocational support
  • Safety and protection
  • Socio-emotional development
  • The opportunity to hear the Gospel and learn about Jesus
Rev. Everett Swanson holding a Korean orphan

More than 70 years ago, our founder, Rev. Everett Swanson, flew from Chicago to South Korea to minister to American troops fighting in the Korean War. He was increasingly troubled by the war orphans he saw living on the streets, abandoned by society. Rev. Swanson could not turn his back on the suffering of the children he saw, and he vowed to find a way to help them.

Today, you can experience the meaning of compassion by sponsoring a child and discover how your compassion can save lives and rescue those in need.
"There are so many kids around the world in need! Through Compassion sponsorship, you can meet not only the basic needs of a child, but you can give a child hope ... most importantly, you can introduce that child to eternal hope through Jesus." — Christian recording artist Jeremy Camp


When you sponsor a child you are personally connected with a boy or girl who will know your name and cherish the thought that you care for them. Sponsoring a child allows you to share the meaning of compassion through your prayers, letters, and financial support and show the child how loved and cherished he or she is by God.

Your act of compassion will profoundly change the future for your child, and will change your life as well.

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Please call us at 800-336-7676, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. MT, to speak with a Compassion representative.