compassion, noun The English word compassion comes almost directly from late Latin: com, with + passion, suffering. The word is used in two distinct ways. The first is a spontaneous reaction to the suffering of another person, an emotion generated by the other’s distress. The second is a decision to grant mercy or to take pity, as in the phrase “to have compassion.” No Greek or Hebrew word corresponds very closely to the English sense of compassion with its double meaning. The biblical words that are translated as compassion are often translated by English words that seem far removed from compassion. For example the Hebrew racham, which may have evolved from a root associated with cuddling a baby or little child, is frequently rendered compassion but has a variety of other meanings.
racham as compassion
Do not let anything devoted to destruction stick to your hand, so that the Lord may turn from his fierce anger and show you compassion, and in his compassion multiply you, as he swore to your ancestors. [Deuteronomy 13:17] — decision
But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—“Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” [I Kings 3:26] — emotion
For as you return to the Lord, your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him. [II Chronicles 30:9] — decision
Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. [Psalm 79:8] —emotion or decision
other translations of racham
Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.” [II Samuel 24:14] — decision
I will have pity
on the house of
Joseph hurried out, because he was overcome with affection for his brother, and he was about to weep. So he went into a private room and wept there. [Genesis 43:30] — emotion
I love you, O Lord, my strength. [Psalm 18:1] — emotion
Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house
Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?-- A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil? [Judges 5:30]
These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard, the kite of any kind; every raven of any kind; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the water hen, the desert owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat. [Leviticus 11:13-19]
Other Hebrew words, with different connotations, are sometimes translated as compassion. One of the most frequent of these is chamal, which originally may have meant commiserate. The difference between chamal and racham is that chamal never seems to be connected with emotions but always suggests a decision about how to treat people.
chamal as compassion
You must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. [Deuteronomy 13:8]
Saul said, “May you be blessed by the Lord for showing me compassion!” [I Samuel 23:21]
The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. [II Chronicles 36:15]
No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. [Ezekiel 16:5]
other translations of chamal
When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. [Exodus 2:6]
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. [I Samuel 15:3]
God slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy; he pours out my gall on the ground. [Job 16:13]
For jealousy arouses a husband's fury, and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge. [Proverbs 6:34]
I had concern for
my holy name, which the house of
I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the
Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. — chesed [Daniel 1:9]
The word that usually appears as compassion in the gospels must always be accompanied by a verb because the word in Greek, splagchnizomai, is a verb. It is based on splagchnon which means intestines, bowels, guts, or viscera. When a people today talk about having a visceral reaction to someone, like the authors and editors of the gospels they are acknowledging that intense emotions are experienced in the digestive tract. A crude but accurate translation of splagchnizomai would be torn up in the gut. In the gospels splagchnizomai usually describes a reaction of Jesus to the suffering or distress of other people. Occasionally the translators use the word pity instead of compassion.
Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. [Matthew 20:34]
As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. [Mark 6:34]
As Jesus approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.
When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” [Luke 7:12-13]
According to the gospels, Jesus used splagchnizomai in his parables.
When he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. [Luke 15:17-20]
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. [Luke 10:33]
So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. [Matthew 18:26-27]
Although the verb splagchnizomai does not appear in the biblical writings that follow the gospels, sometimes the noun splagchnon does. It is not always translated as compassion, and once (in the Acts of the Apostles), it is meant to be taken literally and not as a metaphor.
For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. [Philippians 1:8]
As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. [Colossians 3:12]
There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. [II Corinthians 6:12]
I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. [Philemon 1:7]
How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? — literally, shuts his bowels [see King James Version, I John 3:17]
Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. [Acts 1:18]
Two other Greek words are also translated compassion. Unlike splagchnon and splagchnizomai, the word oikteiro does not suggest emotion but rather a decision to take seriously the plight of another person. Oikteiro meant literally to exercise pity. Much closer to the words related to intestines, sympatheo, from which we get our English word sympathy, meant to feel with or suffer with someone.
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” — oikteiro [Romans 9:14-15]
For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. — sympatheo [Hebrews 10:34]
The two distinct meanings of compassion in the Bible have created a problem for Jesus’s followers who would like to make a virtue of compassion. If compassion is a gut feeling, you either experience it or you do not. It does not make ethical sense to make a virtue out of a feeling over which a person has limited control. Yet early Christians passed on a tradition that Jesus had visceral reactions to human suffering and distress and that he told stories about people who were moved to action by similar feelings. Although limited control over intense feelings does not include the ability to turn them on, it does cover the learned capacity to ignore them. In order to be effective, physicians and nurses working in emergency rooms must learn to be guided by their knowledge and observations rather than by their feelings. Medical personnel on an ER staff, however, can become so skillful at setting aside their compassion that they no longer see their patients as individual human beings but rather as defective objects. The same sort of dehumanizing process may be at work in circumstances far removed from hospitals. Anyone who does not want to be upset by another person’s pain or misfortune can learn to suppress feelings of sympathy. This seems to be what the author of I John (see above) had in mind when castigating those who see their sisters or brothers in need and shut up their bowels.
So those who would follow Jesus do have ethical choices to make with regard to compassion. They can decide to acknowledge the feelings stirred up when they are confronted by suffering or they can train themselves to ignore these emotions. When they admit their feelings of compassion, they then can decide what would be the most loving and merciful response of which they are capable given the constraints of the circumstances.