Genuine Biblical Compassion

By Allan Turner

Contrary to what we generally think, it is not sinful, in and of itself, to be a beggar. The Greek word translated “beggar” is ptochos, and it conveys the idea of being “destitute, helpless, and powerless.” The beggar Lazarus was all these things (cf. Luke 16:19-25). Nevertheless, when he died, he was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22). God has always made special provision for the poor (cf. Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 19:9-10; Acts 20:35; Mark 14:7; Matthew 25:35-36; Romans 12:13). Consequently, in order to be pleasing to God, we must never lose sight of our obligation to the powerless, helpless, and destitute of this world. In fact, where we will spend an eternity depends upon a proper understanding of our obligation to these people (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

Agape, the love the Lord requires of all His followers, is a self-sacrificing love that is not fulfilled apart from action (cf. 1 John 3:18). It is our contention that genuine biblical compassion is an integral part of this kind of love. Jesus, the sinless explicator of agape, demonstrated His genuine compassion on many occasions (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Luke 7:12-15). Consequently, as God's love is perfected in us (1 John 4:12), we will be “moved with compassion” by the various difficulties we see our neighbors experiencing. A good example of this is recorded in the book of Hebrews, where the writer informs us that his brethren's compassionate response to his “chains” compelled them to experience the “spoiling” or “plundering” of their goods for his sake (Hebrews 10:34). What this tells us, then, is that, materialistically speaking, compassion is “quite dangerous.” Allowing one's goods to be spoiled and plundered for “pie in the sky, by and by,” as the intellectually sophisticated or “wise and prudent” (Matthew 11:25; 1 Corinthians 1:19) are fond of saying, is considered to be “utter foolishness!” Yes, to the carnally minded, the Lord's people often appear to be “fools” (1 Corinthians 4:10). Even so,  it is as fools of Christ that we happily demonstrate to a lost and dying world “what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

In 1 John 3:18, the apostle adds yet another factor to love. Not only must we love in deed, but we must also love in truth. Love without truth is sweet, syrupy, and weak as sugar water. But, on the other hand, truth without love can often be quite destructive (cf. Ephesians 4:15). Therefore, compassion, in order to be authentic, functions somewhere between these two hurtful extremes. True compassion exhibits the love of the truth and the truth of love that are characteristics of New Testament Christianity.

Unfortunately, too many Christians tend to either naively think that compassion is always sugary sweet and never condemnatory or cynically believe that no one is a worthy candidate of it. The thesis of this article is that authentic biblical compassion is neither naive nor cynical. It is, instead, the glue that holds Christianity together, allowing it to be gentle and tender without deteriorating into trite sentimentality, and unpretentiously sacrificial without being melodramatic.

Compassion is not, as some seem to think, a public relations campaign. Neither is it simply an emotion. It is, instead, a divinely inspired action compelled by 1) knowledge, 2) moral outrage, and 3) the capacity to truly identify with the object of one's compassion. We believe that if these three elements were a part of current sentiment, then the modern welfare state, as we have come to know it, would not exist.

Those who pride themselves as combatants in the so-called “war on poverty” want us to believe that the difficulties people face today are somehow unique and much more complicated and perverse than at any other time in history. Although many in our society have been indoctrinated with this lie, it simply is not true! 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century America had it all: alcoholism, drug addiction, illegitimacy, crime, unemployment, spousal and child abuse, social upheaval, and grinding poverty. What then was and is the difference? Simply this: In the past, those involved in charity were individuals who had a frank, clear-headed, compassionate, but unsentimental, view of human nature. They believed there were some genuinely poor who were truly deserving of charity (i.e., compassion/love). These were beggarly (i.e., destitute, helpless, and powerless) through no fault of their own. On the other hand, these charitable individuals and organizations knew that much poverty resulted when individuals, of their own free wills, chose destructive paths (alcohol and vice); that such erring individuals should and could, with God's help, change course; that all able to work must do so (2 Thessalonians 3:10); that those who helped should freely give of their time and love; and that money alone, given indiscriminately, was poisonously destructive. Today, cut off from its religious moorings, the modern state sees itself as the engine of progress and the vehicle of man's salvation. The one-by-one, individual-by-individual, person-to-person work of the past is seen as too slow of a process. Relief needs to be universal and immediate. Disagreeing with the idea that most poverty is the resu lt of vice, freely chosen, the state believes people are basically good and that the elimination of poverty is possible through the “redistribution of wealth.” Furthermore, the modern state seems convinced that the sooner charitable work is rid of the bothersome claptrap of religion, the better everyone will be. As a result, true compassion is quite rare.

Currently, compassion is defined by the welfare elites as how much money can be spent each year on the “war on poverty.” To categorize certain individuals as “deserving” or “not deserving” is to “wrongly blame the victims,” we are told. Now, after thirty years' experience with this modern system, are the poor—entitled as they are to a government welfare check, food stamps, rent subsidies, and a host of other program benefits from the state bureaucracy—better off? Has poverty been eliminated? Has it even been reduced? Isn't it time, then, to return to genuine biblical compassion?

As we mentioned earlier, the three elements that comprise genuine compassion are demonstrated by the life of Jesus Christ, who was the complete and final revelation of God to man. We, therefore, turn our attention to an examination of these elements as they were manifested by our Lord.

True Understanding

The first element of true compassion is an understanding of the real world that is neither naive nor cynical. According to the Bible, Jesus “knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). What this means is that Jesus did not deal with people from a position of ignorance. He knew that not only was man made in the image of God and, therefore, of great value, but he also knew that man was sin-sick and fallen. But, understanding the general imperfections of a real world marred by sin, and knowing mankind's basic sinfulness, he was still open to others, reaching out to the lost all around Him.

Unlike Jesus, we, unfortunately, often try to interact with others from one or the other of two different extremes. The first extreme is naiveté. The naive man is both gullible and exploitable. He attempts to bestow his compassion on all men, believing that he will, in turn, be treated well by all who are the objects of his compassion. Eventually he learns that he is often, if not always, being taken for a ride or taken for granted. With his self-esteem hurt, and thinking himself to have ample reason, he swings to the opposite extreme of cynicism, which always expects the lowest of motives in the best of actions. Now, although it is true that we do not possess perfect understanding, as Jesus did, knowing who was trustworthy and who was not, we, like Him, can learn to trust our Father, not men, and remain open to those around us without being either naive or cynical.

When Jesus saw the multitude, “He was moved with compassion for them because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Understanding their real need, the Lord Himself, the Chief Shepherd, the One who had come to seek and save the lost, was “moved with compassion.” He was further moved to inform His disciples that: “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38).

Like Jesus, we, His disciples, must be compelled by compassion to seek and save the lost of a sin-sick, dying world. But this is not all! True compassion is born of real understanding. It knows the worth of men made in the image of God. It knows that man, contrary to the excellent specimen he could have been, is fallen and sin-sick. Consequently, the most excellent examples of true compassion will not always be well received. It's a fact that sinful men frequently do not act or react well. Those on whom Jesus had compassion crucified Him. Why should we expect anything less? Why should we allow the evil behavior of sin-sick men to prevent us from bestowing on them an informed compassion that seeks for them that which they have not yet understood they need? If God in the flesh had not so acted, all of us would be without any hope in this world. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Moral Outrage

A second element of true compassion is genuine moral outrage. In fact, spagkhnozomai, the Greek word translated “compassion” in Matthew 9:36, conveys the idea of “a yearning in the gut or bowels.” In other words, what the Lord was feeling for the multitude involved a visceral reaction (i.e., He was “moved with compassion”). Actually, this word has been translated too weakly in our modern Bibles. Spagkhnozomai is a very strong word conveying a powerful emotional feeling. It does more than describe plain pity or common compassion; it describes an emotion that moves one to the very depth of his being. This word describes the compassion the forgiving King had on the servant who was unable to pay his debt (Matthew 18:27), of the compassion that compelled the father to run to his prodigal son to welcome him home (Lu ke 15:20), and of the compassion of the Samaritan who rescued the wounded traveler on the Jericho road (Luke 10:33). As we have already mentioned, it is the same word used to describe the Lord's reaction upon seeing the multitude in the wilderness as being sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). It is the same word used to describe His reaction to the leper who came to Him for healing (Mark 1:41), the two blind men who cried out for mercy (Matthew 20:34), and the bereaved widow of Nain whose son had died (Luke 7:13). In each case we are confronted with the deep visceral reaction that is always characteristic of authentic compassion.

Spagkhnozomai also hints of a controlled, mature anger at the forces at work in a fallen world that seem to entrap men and women in the most unfortunate of circumstances. We must remember that Jesus, who was Himself the Creator (Colossians 1:16), originally created this world to be a paradise; but man, by sinning, messed everything up. Consequently, this world is definitely not what the Lord intended it to be, and when the One who knew what it ought to be experienced in the flesh how things really are, He was naturally and honestly moved with deep moral outrage at the devastating effect man's sinfulness was having on the nature of things. This is all  made even clearer when one considers another word used to describe Jesus. This word is embrimaomai, and is used twice by John to describe Jesus' reaction to the death of His friend Lazarus (John 11:33, 38). The NKJV says, “He groaned in the spirit” (verse 33) and “groaning in Himself” (verse 38). Normally, these verses are interpreted in view of verse 35, which says, “Jesus wept.” Of course, in lieu of what was happening, tears were certainly appropriate. Jesus was touched emotionally by the real sorrow of Martha and Mary, but there is much more here than mere sympathy. Embrimaomai, according to Vine, means “to have indignation: to snort with anger.” Standing at the tomb of Lazarus, a friend He knows He will soon raise from the dead, Jesus is seized with deep moral outrage and indignation. Why? Because all the order, beauty, harmony, and fulfillment the Lord had created into His creation was now nothing but fractured disorder, raw ugliness, and complete disarray. At this tomb of His friend, God in the flesh came face to face with a death that symbolized the evil, pain, sorrow, suffering, injustice, cruelty, and despair of a world lost in sin. Yes, there can be no doubt that He was moved to tears for His friends, but surely He was also moved by the outrageous abnormality of death. Man was not created to die. He was created, instead, to live. But sin had changed all that. Things are no longer like they ought to be, and Jesus is outraged by it all.

While in the flesh, God's Son experienced genuine moral outrage. It is informative to examine this same characteristic as it was exhibited in the lives of other individuals who are recorded in the Bible. For example, the newly appointed King Saul, before becoming corrupted by his position of power, was a man of principled character. When he heard about the outrageous thing that Nahash, the Ammonite king, had dictated to the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead (viz., he would permit them to surrender only if they permitted him to put out their right eyes), Saul became outraged with anger (1 Samuel 11:6). In examining this episode, there can be no mistaking the relationship between the inspiration of God's Spirit and Saul's anger or moral outrage—it was not just God approved, it was God-inspired as well. Later, as Israel's national decadence produced social injustice and inhumanity, the moral outrage of Amos is absolutely searing: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, Who oppress the poor, Who crush the needy, Who say to your husbands, `Bring wine, let us drink!'” (Amos 4:1). These ignoble recipients of the prophet's moral outrage were the people who sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes (Amos 2:6). They were the ones who turned justice into gall and righteousness into wormwood (Amos 6:12). They rightly deserved his righteous indignation. For Amos to have reacted any other way, would surely have been sinful!

Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that moral outrage is not something reserved for those in the flesh, but God, who is a Spirit, experiences outrage at man's injustices to his fellow man and that there was no one who felt compelled to set these injustices right. In Isaiah 59:15b-16a, the prophet says: “The Lord saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor.” The Hebrew word translated “wondered” in this passage conveys the idea of being stupefied and outraged. Therefore, genuine outrage is not just the reaction of one who is hard-pressed by the difficulties of living in a fallen world; but God Himself experiences it. And so should the Christian. In the midst of the pain, cruelty, violence, and injustice of this world, we ought to be moved with moral outrage and compelled, with God's help, to do something!

God, by virtue of the immutability of His moral character, is eternally opposed to evil and is, in turn, outraged by its dreadful effect. Consequently, the Christian, who is called upon to be like God (1 Peter 1:15-1 6), can never be neutral toward morality without betraying his faith. Once again, we see this truth demonstrated in the earthly life of the Son of God. Jesus, who came to do His Father's will, and, in doing so, is our perfect example, was so outraged by the effect of sin in regard to His Father's house, that He, on two different occasions, drove the money changers from the Temple (John 2:14-17; Luke 19:45-46). On seeing Jesus in action, His disciples, who were not as critical as some of His disciples might be today, remembered that it had been written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up” (John 2:17; Psalm 69:9). Without this same moral indignation, the outrage that wells up in the gut as a result of morally outrageous acts, the Christian remains a non-combatant in the moral battles currently raging on this planet between what is right and what is wrong. It is, indeed, unfortunate that many who call themselves Christians today no longer know how to be morally outraged. What spiritual life remains in them is being strangled by a society that has cut itself off from God. Ignorant of God's word and lacking discernment, these have not realized they are actually choking on the truths that they, themselves, have betrayed. They have seen the moral issues of our day reduced to political platforms and have ignorantly thought themselves free to choose one over another. What this generation desperately needs is the authentic compassion that is exhibited by knowledgeable Christians who are genuinely outraged at the horrendous injustices taking place all around them. Even so, in order for it to be authentic biblical compassion, there is yet another element that must be added.


The final element necessary for authentic compassion is the capacity to truly identify with the object of one's compassion. This is sometimes called bonding. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the Latin root of “compassion” and the Greek root of “sympathy” are parallel in that they both refer to deep feelings “with” or “alongside” another. Genuine compassion, then, is able to identify, empathize, or bond with the object of its compassion. This is exactly what God did in Jesus of Nazareth. As God became man and dwelt among us, He so identified with us that He actually bore our grief and carried upon Himself our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4a). In fact, in Jesus, God so clearly bonded with those He came to save that some who saw Him hanging on the cross mistakenly thought he was just a man who was being “smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4b). Nevertheless, Jesus was never just a man. In the person of Jesus, He was both fully man and fully God. When he suffered “with,” “alongside,” and “for” man, He did so not just as a man, but as God. When He experienced death, He did so not just as a man, but as God (Acts 20:28). Even so, Jesus was fully man and, as such, was in all points “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). This means that He was no Pentagon chief far removed from the battlefield. Instead, He experienced the warfare firsthand. He shared the foxholes, He knew the risks, and He even bore the scars of the battle in His body. Therefore, the Captain of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10) and great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14) is totally able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15) and aid those of us who are tempted (Hebrews 2:18).

Re: The God With Wounds

No other God has wounds. It was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, et al., God in the flesh, who laid down His life for us so that we, through obedience to Him, might have eternal life. The cry that pierced the darkness of history's blackest day, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?,” was the voice not just of a man, but of Immanuel, or “God with us.” We do not fully understand it, but, by faith, we know it's true. In fact, we are emboldened to trust Jesus like we do because of His willingness to come into this world and so fully identify with us. In the life of our magnificent Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we see all the warm compassion of a God who has so unashamedly proved His love for us.


Touched by our Lord's compassion and moved by His love, we “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).  Touched by His compassion and moved by His love,  we are determined to “let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind [we are ready to] esteem others better than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3). Touched by His compassion and moved by His love, we are willing to “ look out not only for our own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Finally, touched by His compassion and moved by His love, we reach out to the weak, the hurting, and the downtrodden  with compassion and love.