Chapter 1

The Meaning of Compassion

I watched from the corner and squeaked a smile through the vise that had been squeezing my head all day. Wrapping paper and new toys cluttered the living room floor. “Do you like my train book, Grandma?” My son was busy making sure everyone saw and adequately appreciated his birthday presents. Having turned the last page of his new train book for her, it was time to show another gift.

“It’s time for cake!” The phrase turned him around with the speed only an excited 4-year-old can manage. The hurried 180 caused his socked feet to slip on the smooth flooring. Face met floor. Teeth met lip. Liquids flowed. Clear from his eyes, red from his mouth.

Scooping him in my arms, I rubbed his back. His tears and blood damping my shirt and the party. With his head buried in my shoulder, we sat down in the rocking chair, his wailing loud and strong.

The teeth of my day-long gnawing headache were quickly blunted by fear and concern. “I want it to be better! I want it to go away!” With each sob, my own physical pain changed, sinking from my head to my heart. The next hours were spent in intermittent sobs with cold cloths held against a continuously swelling, but thankfully clotting, lip.

I wanted desperately to take it away. The best I could do was try to comfort. My son was injured and I hurt with him.

Experts differ over the precise meaning of terms like pity, sympathy, mercy, and empathy, but these are all aspects of compassion, which we’ll define as “love in action.”

Pity and sympathy are everyday words. They express how we feel when we observe another person experiencing pain in body, mind, or heart. If our connection with the sufferer is strong enough, we call it empathy. It’s as if we somehow crawl inside the sufferer’s skin, and the two of us merge into a sort of emotional oneness. Aroused by an encounter with need and distress, an empathic reaction elicits a heartfelt sense of concern. We see with their eyes and feel with their hearts. That sense of identification comes from the innermost center of our being.

In Colossians 3:12, the apostle Paul used a Greek term for internal organs to refer to a “heart of compassion” (nasb). By focusing our attention, we receive insight different from any knowledge provided by logic or science; we experience a profound and intimate perception.