Sympathy and empathy are God-given emotions that help us help one another. And it’s paramount to understand how these feelings relate to compassion.
Sympathy – I’ve never lost my job before. I can’t image how hard this is for you.
Empathy – I remember when I lost my job. This must be really hard for you.
Feeling these emotions and relating to anothers' challenges are only part of the equation. We need to act on them in the following equation:
Compassion = empathy/sympathy + action
When the New Testament describes stories of Christ healing or blessing, it often uses the word compassion:
• Jesus went forth…and was moved with compassion (Matt 14:14)
• I have compassion on the multitude (Mark 8:2)
• So Jesus had compassion on them (Matt 20:34)
• When the Lord saw her, he had compassion (Luke 7:13)
• When he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion (Matt 9:36)
• And Jesus…was moved with compassion… (Mark 6:34)
Because of His atonement, Christ could perfectly empathize with people. And every time, there was action on Christ’s part. Shortly after my mother committed suicide by setting our house on fire, I noticed some people were amazing at showing compassion and others were not. It was through this I learned compassion is action and not a passive offer.
I feel compassion can be hard to develop sometimes because it requires us to show emotion and to be vulnerable. Vulnerability allows us to both say & show I hurt because you hurt.
I believe it’s not only the vulnerability that stops us from showing compassion. It’s fear.
Fear of offending – Don't bring up the topic. It might offend! I'm not advocating a tactless conversation. I'm advocating it’s okay to acknowledge another person’s suffering. I've never heard anyone say I'm offended because you showed me compassion. Or I’m mad you would ask how I’m dealing considering the situation. I loved when people busted down my walls and said, Josh, how are you really doing? Or I heard about your mother suicide, will you tell me a little bit about what happened?
Fear of awkwardness – Showing compassion takes practice so don’t be surprised if it’s awkward at first. I have been the recipient and the giver of awkward compassion. But an awkward $100 bill is still worth $100. Acknowledge the fear of awkwardness, and then move right through it. The more compassion is practiced, the easier and more organic it becomes. Remember, Satan will even use the fear of awkwardness to prevent us from help each other.
Fear of not knowing what to say - A simple I'm sorry you're having a hard time is great way to start. No need to pull an awkward face of Wow, that's crazy, I can't image. Don't make it about the event, make it about the person. Wow, how have you been holding up? Hear the difference? We really don't need to say much. Sometimes we just need to ask a few questions that allow the person to vent. Usually a person just person needs to know they are loved and we are present with them in their suffering.
Fear of “I don’t know them very well” - Let's settle this: It's completely okay, socially acceptable and even God sanctified for a stranger to show compassion for someone they've never met or barely know. We can say, I don't know you very well and I can't image what you’re going through. How are you holding up? In our lives, we don't have to be someone’s best friend, church associate, or coworker to show them compassion. Again, we need to walk/move/run if necessary through that fear of awkwardness. One of the greatest blessings in being human is our capacity to connect with others.
Fear of “It’s not manly” - When a woman shows another woman compassion, it's sometimes followed by a gift basket, a nice note, and some hugs and tears. It can be difficult for us men to know how to show compassion to other men. Why? I believe it’s because us men were robbed by our culture about what it means to be a man and how a man can and should show compassion. Our culture has taught us men that we don't show weakness or emotion. That we have to appear strong and that we have everything figured out. And the only compassion we are allowed or socially acceptable show another man is helping them move something heavy like a refrigerator. This needs to change. Surely we men are living far below our potential as men if we limit our compassion to moving heavy objects.
How do we start to show compassion? I'm sure we've all tried at different moments only to fail. It boils down to small choices and the conversations with ourselves:
Conversations we might need to change:
• Looks like Stacey isn’t her happy self. I should go talk to her, but I barely know her. I’ll talk to her next week at church instead.
• Looks like Stacey isn’t her happy self. Hi Stacey. Can I sit by you? How was your weekend? What did you do?
• Ben from work sure is a different duck. I’d invite him to lunch but that would be weird and awkward.
• Ben from work sure is a different duck. Ben. You have any free lunch plans this week? There’s a new lunch place we should go try out.
• Katie, thanks for trusting me with that. I think your church leaders should be able to give you some counsel.
• Katie, thanks for trusting me with that. Tell me, what’s going on? How can I help?
• That’s too bad Mike’s marriage is going down the tube. What’s on TV?
• That’s too bad Mike’s marriage is going down the tube. Via text: Mike, I need to go jogging for my exercising. Want to join later this week?
• Megan, you just need self-control to stop eating so much.
• Megan, this eating problem must be hard. (Arm around shoulder and silence)
• It’s a good thing Brad has family to help him out after losing his job.
• Brad, I heard you lost your job. That sucks. (Arm around shoulder). Why don’t you, the wife, and kids come over for a barbeque this weekend?
Compassion has boundaries and limits. It does not:
• Rob justice
• Abuse mercy
• Tolerate sin when it affects us or children
• Doesn't allow manipulation
• Saying through actions or words I hurt because you hurt.
• Not weakness, but the pure love of Christ with action.
• Holding healthy boundaries
• Seeking to understand what one is going through.
• Bearing others’ burdens
• Brining awareness to a situation and speaking your mind if needs be
• When spirit speaks to spirit
• Sometimes just being in someone’s presence sitting in silence. Sometimes it’s a quantitative service like moving something heavy. Other times is sharing a good cry or hug or arm around someone’s shoulder or just laughing together.
Showing compassion for the sinner:
Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve shared:
When a battered, weary swimmer tries valiantly to get back to shore, after having fought strong winds and rough waves which he should never have challenged in the first place, those of us who might have had better judgment, or perhaps just better luck, ought not to row out to his side, beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater. That’s not what boats were made for. But some of us do that to each other. (A Robe, a Ring, and a Fatted Calf, BYU Devotional, Jan 31, 1984)
I once was that swimmer, who had not made good judgments in my past, who was swimming in waves I should have never been and as a result was disfellowshipped from my church. I can attest to the difficulty of such a swim. It's exhausting and can be lonely and will cause you to fall to your knees and sob.
As painful as the disfellowshipment was, some individuals, thankfully a very small number of individuals in essence rowed their boats by me and shoved my head back under water or just as bad, rowed past me as if I wasn't there struggling. Almost as a snub to remind me of my poor choices.
Trust me, my gasping for air and worn out arms and legs from treading deep water were reminders enough of my actions. But I'm not here to talk about them. There were also other boats that came to my side. They rowed by me and said, Keep going Josh. You can do this. We see the shore ahead. Some sat next to me in my church. Some included me in their activities, put their arms around me and just loved me. I have talked to God many times about these individuals by name and thanked him for putting such good men and women in my life that showed me, a sinner, compassion.
We need to move past our fear of showing compassion. It’s going to take some awkward practice but it will become easier as we strive to understand with action another’s burden.
John 4:18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear…