Compassion and Empathy

As this new year started, I began pursuing a personal Bible study on the topic of compassion. Professional counselors have always emphasized the need for empathy. But what was the difference between the two terms? What did the word “compassion” truly mean? Webster told me that compassion referred to “suffering with another, having sympathy or pity for another.” But what did the scriptures have to say on the topic? And how would knowing more on this topic impact my counseling with clients?


The very first reference I found was in Exodus 2:6, where pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses in the Nile. I was intrigued: the first mention of compassion was not from God or from a believer but from an Egyptian. She looked at this helpless child and had compassion (some translations use “pity”). We all know that her compassion led to action. She looked for someone to care for the child until he could be weaned. But for the first time, it occurred to me that her compassion was more than a mere whim. How easily she could have rejected Moses when his mother brought the child back years later. “That? Oh it was just a spur of the moment thought. No, I don’t really want anything more to do with the child.” After all, he was no longer a cute little 3-month-old infant, cooing and blowing bubbles. This young woman impressed me: she was in this story for the long haul. How different our Bible history would be had she not had true compassion.  I had to ask myself, does my compassion lead to action? Am I in this for the long haul?


Now it was time to be surprised. I found verses that clearly explained circumstances when God commanded His people NOT to have compassion! We are not to pity false prophets and “men who entice people to follow other gods.” We are not to pity them. They face God’s wrath and are under the sentence of death. Why do these people not receive compassion? Scripture is very clear. In Deut 13:12-17 these are people who refuse to listen to the voice of God, they disobey His commands, and they do not do what is right in the sight of God. But while we are not to offer them compassion, God holds out a promise. If they will return to God “with all your heart and soul” then the Lord will restore them and have compassion on them. Now I had to examine my own life. Am I listening to God’s voice? Am I obeying His commands? Am I seeking Him with all my heart and soul?


God’s compassion does not stem from who or what other people do.  It has its origin in His character. In Deut. 4:31 and 2 Kings 13:2,3, I found that He has compassion on His people because of His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His compassion is rooted in His graciousness and faithfulness to His own promises. Neh. 9:16,17 told me that though our forefathers acted arrogantly, “they became stubborn and would not listen … and did not remember God’s wondrous deeds.” But God was a “God of forgiveness, gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness.” He did not forsake them  Now I asked, have I thanked God for His compassion? Have I remembered all His wondrous deeds?


Finally, I had to ask myself again, how did empathy differ from the topic of my study? Empathy isn’t even in the concordance. Over and over in the New Testament, verses mentioned how Jesus was “moved with compassion” when he saw the leper, the blind, a widow with a dead son, the father of an epileptic child, a demoniac. Each and every time His compassion led to action, intervening in the lives of the people before Him. To understand the difference in meaning, I used an old technique I used to teach my Bible students. Go back and substitute the word empathy for compassion and see if it fits in each place. When I did this, the difference was dramatic. It is hard even to say “he was moved with empathy.”Can you  imagine Lam. 3:23, “His empathy never fails, it is new every morning”?


The word empathy comes across as objective, clinical, professionally distant. The person with empathy is more likely “unmoved.”


So how does this impact those I interact with when counseling? From here on, empathy is no longer sufficient. I want to be moved with compassion to serve each individual God sends through my doors.


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