The Compassion of Jesus: A Model for Health Care Workers

medical team discussing results
Compassionate Health Care

Jesus: An Educator in being Human

Jesus shows health care workers the way to fulfilling their humanity and, thus, functioning at their best. By his humanity, then, he reveals to them their humanity, showing them how to feel and act in ennobling ways. Consequently, health care workers discover their genuinely human traits, what it truly means to be human, by studying the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. What makes his teaching impressive is that he is what he teaches. Thus, he not only speaks about being compassionate, he is compassionate.1

“In Touch” with His Feelings

In the account of Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 7, especially verse 13, the author reveals the humanity of Jesus, for he is “in touch” with his feelings, allowing himself to experience human emotions, especially grief and compassion. Jesus, then, does not repress his feelings. Rather, he appropriately expresses them.

By his example, Jesus teaches that human beings are not merely brains covered with flesh, cognitive machines or walking computers. Rather, they are persons, consisting of brains and emotions. The teaching and example of Jesus in the Gospels are addressed to both dimensions of the human person, that is, to the head (intellect) and the heart (emotions).

The Feeling of Compassion

In Luke, Chapter 7, the woman’s grief, at her son’s funeral, must have been overwhelming, having, first, suffered the loss of her husband and, now, her only son. Upon seeing her grief, Jesus “had compassion on her” (Luke 7:13, ESV). According to ethicist Michael Panicola, the primary virtues of the psychological and emotional dimension of the human person are “love, empathy, and compassion.”2 Jesus possesses all three virtues.

The phrase in verse 13 may also be translated “his heart went out to her” (NIV) or “he felt compassion for her (NASB). In the Jewish Scriptures, the Hebrew word rachamim, translated “pity” or “compassion” is related to the word rechem, which refers to a mother’s womb. In other words, compassion is similar to the feeling a “mother has for her child.”3

The First Aspect of Compassion

There are, fundamentally, two aspects to compassion. First, it is a feeling of sorrow, which is evoked, called forth or drawn out, from within a person, by seeing someone suffering.4 In the Gospels, Jesus often has compassion on the sick (cf. Matthew 14:14); the hungry (cf. Matthew 15:32); the disabled (cf. Matthew 20:30, 34); the outcasts of society, such as persons with leprosy (cf. Matthew 8:1-4). Sickness, hunger, bodily or emotional disabilities and leprosy are different forms of suffering.

The Second Aspect of Compassion

The second aspect to compassion is doing something to alleviate another person’s suffering or misfortune.5 In Luke, Chapter 7, the grieving woman probably experienced an overwhelming sense of loneliness. So Jesus, as the story goes, consoled the widow in the greatest way possible, namely, by giving her only son back to her from death (cf. vv.12-14).

Compassion as a Genuinely Human Emotion

Christianity does not reject anything that is genuinely human in the thoughts (i.e., being rational, thinking critically), feelings (i.e., being compassionate, merciful) and behavior (i.e., being just and loving) of human beings. Rather, Christianity builds on the genuinely human, affirming, strengthening and perfecting it. To move away from being and behaving in genuinely human ways is, at the same time, to move away from being like God, for human beings, according to the Christian tradition, are made “in the image of God” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27).

Acting Compassionately

The opposite of compassion is insensitivity or apathy, having no feelings and, thus, not caring about those who are suffering or experiencing some kind of misfortune. If, however, a person cannot feel his or her way into acting compassionately, then he or she may need to act his or her way into feeling compassionate. That can happen, because compassion is a virtue and, as with other virtues, by repeatedly acting compassionately for someone’s suffering and misfortune, compassionate feelings are inculcated in a person.

Therefore, the right human acts usually (not, of course, always) inculcate or “etch” into the emotions the feelings that are appropriate to human persons. For example, God tells Cain, who is angry and depressed, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (cf. Genesis 4:6-7). The literal translation is “If you do right, will there not be a lifting up [i.e., of Cain’s face, which had ‘fallen’]?”6 In other words, do what is right and the feelings will, sooner or later, follow from the action.

Since God describes his very nature as “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious (Exodus 34: 6, NASB); and since human beings are made in “the image of God; then in human expressions of compassion, something of God’s presence is revealed and experienced in a world of tragedy, suffering and death.

Endnotes

  1. William T. Weyerhaeuser, “Jesus Christ,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, ed. David G. Benner (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 610.
  2. Michael R. Panicola, “The Bases for Our Decisions and the Role of Discernment,” in Health Care Ethics: Theological Foundations, Contemporary Issues, and Controversial Cases, Michael R. Panicola et al., rev. ed (Winona, MN.: Anselm Academic, 2011), p. 54.
  3. Donald DeMarco, The Many Faces of Virtue (Steubenville, OH.: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2000), p. 107.
  4. Timothy J. Runkel, “Empathy,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, op. cit., p. 358.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jay E. Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House, 1973, 10th printing 1979), p. 377, note 3.

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