By Ps Lee Kok Wah
No, it is not a South Asian staple. And no, it need not come in the form of unleavened flatbread, although at times it may. In Latin, cum or com means “with” or “together” and pati means “to suffer”. The English word “compassion” has its roots in a combination of com and pati. It means “to suffer with.” Try to recall a personal experience of benefitting from another’s compassion.
There is a difference between mercy and compassion. Mercy is usually understood as an act in response to another’s need, such as offering help, forgiveness or cancelling debts. It means being kind to someone who could be treated harshly. If one is in a position of power over another, there is sometimes a call for mercy – a call to offer greater kindness than what justice demands.
Compassion is a sympathetic awareness of other people’s suffering, coupled with a longing to alleviate it. It is a longing “to suffer with.” It compels us to feel the pain of someone else and by doing so, we join his or her journey. We do not stand apart from the other person’s sufferings and misfortunes. By our presence, we enter his or her sorrow and pain.
Although these two words are sometimes interchangeable, mercy and compassion do not always go together. It is possible to show mercy without feeling empathy. Mercy can be shown by someone who has the upper hand, but he may not feel the pain of the one needing mercy. At the same time, one can feel empathy without showing mercy. This happens when we witness someone’s suffering and feel bad but do nothing to help. Compassion is a feeling of empathy that results in an act of mercy.
God is compassionate. He has revealed this through Jesus Christ. Examples include our Lord’s healing of the leper (Mk. 1:40-45), the resurrection of the son of the widow at Nain (Lk. 7:11-17), the teaching of the crowd who were like sheep without a shepherd (Mt. 9:35-37), the feeding of the 5,000 (Mt. 14:13-21; Mk. 6:30-44; Lk. 9:10-17; Jn. 6:1-13), the feeding of the 4,000 (Mt. 15:29-39; Mk. 8:1-13) and the restoration of sight to the two blind men at Jericho (Mt. 20:29-34). At each of these encounters, Jesus came near the people, saw their condition, felt compassion and acted to alleviate their suffering.
To escape the Japanese invasion of China, my late mother came to Singapore in 1937 at the age of 19, with just one luggage and a hundred dollars in her purse. Without any source of income, Mum needed and was provided food and shelter by her cousin, even though the latter and her husband were renting just a room at Tiong Bahru. They partitioned the small room with a curtain, so that Mum could have sufficient space for a mattress. After the Japanese occupied Singapore, Mum moved to Taiping and was given food and shelter by her sister who had moved there earlier. Mum received compassion and never forgot it. She would recount her story to my brother, my sister and to me. I remember her saying, “when you have a home of your own, you should also show hospitality.”
Do we realize that we are recipients of God’s compassion and mercy? Our God has chosen to be Immanuel, “God-with-us” (Phil.2:6-11). We will only know, in our minds and with our hearts, that God is a compassionate God when we grasp the significance of the phrase “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John1:14).
The Lord Jesus Christ wants to care for others through us. His Spirit indwells each one who belongs to him. With the Holy Spirit leading us, let us go, see, feel and act on behalf of Jesus for those who have needs – be these physical, financial, technical, emotional, intellectual, vocational, social or spiritual. Let us follow Jesus in caring because we have tasted his mercy and compassion.