Welcome back to the second week of Lent! This week, Dave Meserve writes on the Deadly Virtue of COMPASSION. Dave focuses on the meaning of the word in English and Greek (and of its evil twin, the vice of ENVY) and offers thoughts on how to cultivate it in our lives. Be sure read his final paragraph as he confesses his struggle with the heart of compassion and his path forward. I playfully add something for fun at the end. Blessings to you on your Lenten journey.
“You never really understand a person until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
– Atticus Finch to Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird
“Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’ll be a mile from them, and you’ll have their shoes.”
– Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy
I’m a horrible Facebook friend. I dabble mainly to look in on my kid’s lives or my friend’s vacations. Most recently, it was to join a sweet family of four in Spain: beautiful landscapes and ancient churches older than my country. I really do enjoy seeing friend’s at play… mostly. There are those times when something within me exists alongside the enjoyment. And, it’s a little green…
We are described as “green with envy” (see Twain and Shakespeare) because the skin of those who are ill can literally take on a different hue. Envy makes us sick. More accurately, it is our sickness that makes us envy.
In the Bible, envy certainly breaks one of the “Big 10” Commandments about not coveting other people’s stuff. But it goes even further. Envy not only wants what they have but does not want them to have it, either. That is where it gets dark. Cain wanted the acceptance his little brother received and killed him. King Saul died violently obsessing over David’s popularity. The world’s spiritual storyline began when a fallen angel wanted what the Creator possessed so badly that he sought to destroy God and all the God loves—ultimate envy.
The Greek word used for “envy” is a comparative word. More than basic desire or covetousness, it is rooted in comparison. Envy is not present unless you are comparing yourself to another. And that is a particular problem for us today; we are becoming “green with comparison”.
It is well noted that social media can feed something dark in us. By constantly viewing only the wonderful highlight reels of others we might begin to feel sick inside about our own lives. We pale (turn a little green?) in comparison and it robs us of something. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” Teddy Roosevelt once said, and we have all experienced that.
There is a virtue we can cultivate that also arises from deep within us, something deadly to envy: Compassion. Here is a primary difference: with envy you want to remove the good fortune of another while with compassion you want to relieve the suffering of another.
Our English word for “compassion” parallels the Greek and literally means, “to suffer alongside.” A distinction between some other English words may be helpful:
Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling.
Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling.
Compassion feels the suffering of another and seeks to relieve it.
This leads us to the most common Greek word in our New Testament that gets translated “compassion”. It is a compound word joining “good” with “guts”. Famously, this word is used to describe the inner motivation for both the Good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son. “Good-guts” always results in compassionate movement toward someone in need.
While those two characters from Jesus’ parables display a compassion that seems extraordinary, being so moved from deep within can be cultivated. Compassion does not magically come out of nowhere: the Prodigal’s father did not suddenly become gracious and the Good Samaritan’s actions were not because of a good night’s sleep.
How do we cultivate compassion?
Be present to others. Compassion is a virtue of proximity. Envy is created in distance, but compassion is fostered in closeness. You cannot be compassionate from afar. (And, I suppose it is more difficult to envy up close.). We might begin by being physically present with those who suffer. This helps us refocus our eyes away from comparisons. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
Be honest with ourselves . We carry and often bury our own sufferings. Physical ailments may be the most obvious but hardly the most damaging when we consider the whole person. We are all “heart sick” and suffer for it. And, we may have a difficult time letting our internal suffering get the air it needs. Honesty invites the compassion of others (which may be a risk) and, most importantly, invites the compassion of God. Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 to see just how suffering and comfort and Christ all go together.
Know Christ in suffering. Our best hope to cultivate the Deadly Virtue of Compassion is to know Christ in His sufferings. Paul encourages us to participate in his sufferings (Philippians 3:19) and Peter says that joy is found in such participation (1 Peter 4:13). Having compassion for the sufferings of Christ is a way to enter into His Passion. To live an honest, present life in a fallen, suffering world is a powerful invitation to know Christ.
A final word. If you are like me, all this talk about suffering can be… insufferable. I don’t naturally gravitate toward the deep and dark in myself and others. But, if there is one time in my calendar to be brave about it, it is the reflective season of Lent. And Lent is a time to practice virtue, which is a route we all can take. The good news is that practice assumes we are not very good at it. This gives me hope. I’m not very good at compassion but, I can practice it this week. I invite you to do the same.
Week 2 PrayerLord, may this week of Lent help me shift from comparison to compassion. Please reveal Yourself as a gracious God who meets me and my friends in our sufferings. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
- Who has suffered alongside you in your past?
- If compassion is a virtue of proximity, who in your life may be comforted by your coming closer? What is one step you can make toward them this week?
- Where do you need compassion right now? Can you take that to Jesus? Will you take that to your community? How will you do that?
- Paul places two commands regarding compassion next to each other: “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans12:15). Which is more challenging for you? Can you think of a recent example of either?
- If you are one who posts online: consider posting something that does not invite comparison to your wonderful life but invites compassion toward those who suffer in some way.
- For further reading: The stories of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and Saul and David (1 Samuel 18-19) are great cautionary tales about the danger of choosing envy over compassion.
For Fun … The Talking Frog.
An 85 year-old retired military officer had one hobby—he loved to fish.
He was sitting in his boat one day when he heard a voice say, “Pick me up.” He looked around and couldn’t see anyone.
He thought he was dreaming when he heard the voice say again, ”Pick me up.”
He looked in the water and there, floating on the top, was a frog.
The retired officer said, “Are you talking to me?”
The frog said, “Yes, I’m talking to you. Pick me up, then kiss me. I’ll turn into the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. I’ll make sure that all your friends are envious because I will be your bride! I’ll adore you and kiss you every day.”
The retired military officer looked at the frog for a short time, reached over, picked it up carefully and placed it in his shirt pocket.
The frog said, “What, are you crazy? Didn’t you hear what I said? I said, ‘Kiss me, and I will be your beautiful bride. I’ll make sure that all your friends are envious. I’ll adore you and kiss you every day.’”
He opened his pocket, looked at the frog and said, “Nah. Honey, at my age, I’d rather have a talking frog.”