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.
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.
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