How to Have a Heart of Compassion

Three steps to help you follow Christ's example and love with a tender heart.

By Elizabeth Peale Allen, Pawling, New York

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The term compassion has its linguistic roots in the Latin terms com (with) and pati (suffering). Practically speaking, we have compassion when we set aside indifference and connect with those who are in pain. In a curious way, this seems to be a first step toward healing.

When Jesus saw the blind men, for example, he “had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34).

When he saw groups yearning for his teaching, “he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). Christ noted the confusion of the people in the crowd following him, and “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).

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All these examples of Christ’s compassion have two things in common. First, Jesus notices the people around him. This tells us that compassion is only possible when we are attuned to others.

If we’re absorbed in our own feelings, problems, worries and desires, we will overlook the needs of those God puts in our path and ignore the opportunity to help them.

Second, Jesus responds to people, instead of reacting to them. He listens to the ten lepers rather than being irritated that they’re interrupting his conversation (Luke 17:12-19). He takes time to speak with the woman who touches the hem of his garment, instead of simply chastising her for lacking appropriate boundaries (Matthew 9:20).

Like anything else, we get better at compassion when we practice. Here are three basic steps:

1. Build up your empathy.
Spend five minutes a day practicing putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Choose a news report, a neighbor or a member of your own family and really contemplate what it feels like to be that person. Don’t shy away as soon as you think, “That must be awful!” Delve deep into what it’s like to suffer in that way. This exercise can help you learn to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

2. Learn to pause before speaking.
Scripture tells us, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). To be compassionate toward others, we need to allow time for the Holy Spirit to override our tendency to judge. A simple prayer like, “Holy Spirit, guide my heart,” often provides enough space (and guidance!) to help us see why people are behaving the way they are.

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3. Recognize the barriers to compassion.
It’s impossible to be annoyed and compassionate at the same time. Frustration, suspicion, irritation, bitterness, dislike and anger are all signs that we may be looking at others without compassion. We can pray to the Father to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” that rules in our hearts (Ephesians 4:31).

Ask God to help you “be kind and tenderhearted” (Ephesians 4:32). Begin this very day to cultivate a spirit of compassion.