Are you a compassionate person? Compassion is a character trait we need to develop (1 Peter 3:8).
Our greatest example of compassion is Jesus Christ. Matthew describes Christ’s compassion in four separate accounts.
In one of those accounts, Matthew records a time when Christ was followed by a large number of people into the desert. He “went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). He continued doing so into the night. When the disciples advised Him to send the multitude away, Christ didn’t. Instead, He fed 5,000 through a miracle. Only after they were fed did He leave (verses 15-21).
It is amazing that He could have compassion on all those sick people even though He never once was sick. For humans, it is hard to have compassion on people in situations we have not experienced. Yet Christ has perfect compassion on us, even in the troubles we cause ourselves due to our sins.
How can we have that same compassion in our lives and build it in our families? Remarkably, God actually designed us to be motivated to build compassion.
Compassion Is a Skill
A 2013 University of Wisconsin study demonstrated that our bodies actually reward us for having compassion and acting on it. When we see someone suffering, our brain stimulates hormone glands to release chemicals that slow down our heart rate. These hormones prepare our bodies not to fight or flee, but to approach and soothe. When we act on these chemical changes, the body releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that encourages bonding.
Of course, even though our brains are hardwired for compassion, that doesn’t mean it is always natural to act on it. We can ignore these signals, just as we can sear our conscience (1 Timothy 4:2). Like all aspects of character, compassion must be cultivated with God’s power, through experience and practice.
The 2013 study also gave insight into how we can cultivate compassion. It showed that compassion is a skill you can work on. The study’s lead author, Helen Weng, even compared learning this skill to exercise or learning to play a musical instrument.
Researchers had one group of participants meditate compassionately 30 minutes per day for two weeks, thinking about and extending feelings of compassion first toward a loved one, then to themselves, then to a stranger. Finally, they had participants practice compassionate thinking toward someone they had difficulty getting along with.
They then had them play a game as an experiment. Participants watched two anonymous players, one called “Dictator” who had $10 and one called “Victim” who had no money. They watched the dictator share only $1 with the victim, and then they decided how much of their own money out of $5 to give to the victim. The people who meditated compassionately gave nearly twice as much on average as those who did not receive the training.
This shows that compassionate thoughts lead to compassionate action. “It’s kind of like weight training,” Weng says. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”
God encourages His people to meditate (e.g. Psalm 1:2; 143:5; 1 Timothy 4:15). In the time you spend meditating, devote a portion to thinking about the suffering of others. This will make it easier to remember them in your intercessory prayers and to be more earnest and fervent in those prayers. Intercessory prayers are a powerful tool we can apply to using the compassion we have for others.
Train Your Children
It is also important to teach compassion to our children when the opportunity arises. Children will often cause harm to others through misbehavior. As parents, we can use these occasions to build compassion in our children by getting them to understand not only that what they did was wrong, but to think about what they did from the viewpoint of the person they harmed. If you do this consistently when opportunities arise, it will develop your children’s sensitivity to the suffering of others and a desire to remedy that suffering.
An older study by two sociologists, one of whom was a Polish Holocaust survivor, found that one of the strongest indicators of why a German would help rescue a Jew during the Holocaust was an individual’s memory of growing up in a family that prioritized compassion and altruism. We can build compassion in our families by prioritizing it.
Perspective on Trials
Finally, we can develop compassion by viewing our trials as compassion builders. One purpose for trials is to build compassion in us. God uses trials to create the common experiences we need to become a more compassionate family.
In the 2013 study, another participant group was forced to meditate—but only on their own stressful experiences. They looked at those experiences from a different viewpoint, but it was still their own trial. That group didn’t show as much compassion as the group that meditated on others.
When we have trials, we can cultivate compassion by thinking about those we know who are suffering trials, and then using that to motivate us to encourage one another with cards or encouraging fellowship. This works even if the trials are not similar. Any serious trial will bring us to our knees to God and show how powerless we are. It is that heart-wrenching experience that many of us share. And while it is easy to think only about our own suffering, if we use God’s help to think about others, then we can use our trials to build and unify God’s Family.
These studies show what can be achieved on a human level, but with God’s Spirit, we can elevate our compassion to that of Jesus Christ!