Understanding the Meaning of Compassion

What is compassion? Originating from the Latin compati, compassion means to suffer with — to see the suffering of others and take action to stop it. Learn more about the meaning of compassion with Compassion International and the BibleProject.

One day, a man found himself naked and beaten on the side of the road somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho. Attacked by robbers, the man was left for dead.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw a priest coming toward him. After all, a priest would surely stop and help. However, that relief was short-lived when he watched the priest cross to the other side of the road.

A Levite soon passed by, too, ignoring the man’s need for immediate care. It wasn’t until a Samaritan — the Good Samaritan — saw the man’s pain and took pity on him that the man was rescued.

"He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him." —  Luke 10:34

In that moment, the Good Samaritan acted with compassion. He took it upon himself to not only see the man’s distress but to stop it. We’re called to do the same for our own neighbors in need of help.

In the words of Jesus, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:37, NIV)

Before we can be compassionate, we must understand what compassion is and how we can show it. That’s exactly what you’ll learn here.

What is Compassion?

Compassion means recognizing the suffering of others and then taking action to help. It’s a tangible expression of love for those who are suffering or in need.

The Definition of Compassion

There are many definitions of compassion. For example, the "New Oxford American Dictionary" defines compassion as "a sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others."

This definition doesn’t connect feelings of sympathy with a desire to take action, making it incomplete. For a better definition, we can turn to the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary," which defines compassion as the "sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

Compassion vs. Empathy

Compassion and empathy are often used interchangeably or confused with one another. However, there’s a clear difference.

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

The connection of suffering with another person brings compassion beyond sympathy into the realm of empathy. However, compassion is so much more than empathy. Compassion sees another person’s pain — and acts.

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

What is Compassion According to the Bible?

Let’s dive a bit deeper. The Bible doesn’t explain compassion like a dictionary does, simply telling us what the word means. Instead, the biblical definition of compassion illustrates what it looks like in action.

We get a full glimpse into how the Bible defines compassion by reading the parable of the Good Samaritan (found in Luke 10) and diving into these verses:

  • "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

Video: What the Bible Says About Compassion

In this video, the BibleProject explains the meaning of compassion and what it reveals about God's character by digging into the Hebrew root, rakhamim.

Watch this video to take a beautifully illustrated journey into the Old Testament, where you’ll discover that “God is full of motherly compassion” and will rescue his people “by entering into the suffering of humanity.”

Find answers to your questions such as “What is Compassion?” and more by checking out these other BibleProject videos and resources.

women sit and hold hands and pray together

What Does it Mean to Have Compassion?

To have compassion means to empathize with someone who is suffering and to feel compelled to reduce their suffering.

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

Even though the priest and the Levite kept their distance from the man in need of help, the Good Samaritan stopped to help.

Author Frederick 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."

Having Compassion for Others Leads to Mercy

As you learn more about compassion, you’ll likely also hear the word mercy. Compassion and mercy go hand in hand.

Mercy is the fruit of compassion or the compassionate treatment of those in distress. 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 on the cross, but because of God's great love, we received mercy. We’re now called to show compassion and mercy for others.

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

An older woman received a hug from another woman

Examples of How You Can Show Compassion

There are endless ways to show compassion for others. For example, having compassion may mean seeing someone grieving a loss and moving to share a hug or encouraging word.

It may mean seeing someone who’s hurt and stopping to lend a hand.

Or it can mean seeing a hungry child and providing the critical food and care they need to thrive.

How We Act Compassionately for Children in Poverty

We believe that every child should be known, loved and protected. But millions of children across the world live in poverty, suffering from a lack of basic resources, opportunities and hope that things will ever change.

That’s why we champion child sponsorship.

Every day, millions of these 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 specifically and uniquely care for children in their communities through our holistic child development model.

Each child helped by our Frontline Church Partners receives whole-life care that’s 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. We take a long-term, consistent approach to child development, providing opportunities that encourage healthy spiritual, physical, social and economic well-being. As a result, each child can fully mature in every facet of life.

The benefits of our Child Sponsorship Program include:

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

The Compassion Story

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 freezing on the streets, abandoned by society.

Fueled by compassion and unable to turn his back on the suffering children he saw, Rev. Swanson took action by creating Compassion’s sponsorship program.

Today, you can experience the meaning of compassion by sponsoring a child.

Live Out the True Meaning of Compassion by Sponsoring a Child Today!

When you sponsor a child, you’re personally connected with a boy or girl who will know your name and experience hope through your support.

Sponsoring a child allows you to share the meaning of compassion through your prayers, letters and financial support. You can show a child just how loved and cherished they are by God.

All it takes is one simple act of compassion to change the future for a child and your life too.

"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
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