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Compassion as a Spiritual Discipline

compassion written in stone

The world is a competitive place. We compete over resources, opportunities, education, jobs, relationships and the basic necessities of life. In the process is becomes patently obvious that life in this world can be a cutthroat business that inflicts an incredible amount of pain.

Daily we rub shoulders with the “walking wounded.” Sometimes these wounds come from others; sometimes they are self-inflicted; sometimes they come from abusive and competitive systems. No matter how the injuries occur, suffering people need to meet the compassion of Jesus.

Jesus Showed Compassion

Jesus showed compassion to outcasts, prostitutes, IRS agents, crowds, beggars, women, foreigners, societal outcasts as well as those with communicable diseases. He saw the people that others overlooked. And he was quick to feel for them rather than label them as lazy, promiscuous, self-destructive or a “piece of work.” When a neglectful religious leader passed judgement on a women he didn’t know, Jesus said to him, “Simon, do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44).

Simon saw only appearances. He didn’t feel for the woman because he did not see her. Jesus really sees the hungry, the poor, the grieving, the physically impaired, the mentally deranged, the demonically oppressed and the culturally marginalized. And what he sees moves him to compassion. But it doesn’t stop there. For Jesus, compassion was a call to action, to healing and to restoration.

Example of the Early Church

The early church took Jesus’ example of compassion very seriously. History recounts how the infant church shocked the Roman world with its compassion for others in the midst of plagues, war and persecution. Some historians claim that the compassion of Christians was one reason why Roman religion gave way to Christianity within a space of three hundred years.

Christ is still longing to touch this suffering world through the compassion of his church, and his apprentices are people of compassion. They know how to look for pain in the eyes of others. They know that labels don’t help people change. And they believe that love always has hands and feet.

It is our choices that will reveal whether the church today becomes known as a wellspring of compassion or a place where no one particularly cares.

Reflection Questions

  1. When is compassion deserved or undeserved?
  2. What attitudes and emotions surface when you relate to emotionally needy or dysfunctional people?
  3. What experiences in your past make it easy or difficult to be compassionate with yourself?
  4. Do you think the attitude that “people just need to work harder and show more initiative in order to get on in life” affects relationships? How?
  5. What is it like for you when people are compassionate toward you?

Spiritual Exercises


      1. Become quiet and still. Get in touch with your desire to see Jesus. Read the crucifixion account in one of the Gospels. As you read, become one of the watchers: Mary, a disciple, a soldier, or a thief. What did you see from this person’s perspective? What is it like for Jesus to be abandoned by those he counted on? What is it like for Jesus to find that God is silent? What is it like for him to submit to the aloneness, the pain, the nakedness? What desire drives Jesus to the cross? Let Jesus summon you into prayer.

      1. Construct a timeline of your losses. At each point record how you responded (e.g., anger, denial, blame, withdrawal, depression, etc.). How did moments of compassion come or not come into these moments? Dialogue with Jesus about what you see.

      1. Choose one way you can show compassion to someone this week. After you have done so, talk to someone about what it was like for you to do this.

      1. Draw up a list of the people whose services you receive: teachers, pastors, caretakers, and so on. Next to each name write down any needs you know they have (e.g., personal, financial, physical, etc.). What is God calling you to do? Listen, journal, act.

      1. Consider who the outsiders and disenfranchised are in your community. Choose one of these groups and find out something about them. What do they need? What do they have to give? Where if God calling you to walk in his compassion?

      1. Ask three people who are close to you if they will honestly answer some questions: “How do I come across?” “What is it like to be with me?” “Do I show an interest in others?” “Do I mostly talk about myself?” What do you learn about the way you come across?

    From Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Copyright (c) 2005, 2015 by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

    About the Author


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    Bret Eckelberry

    Yeah, these are good too…

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    Join the Movement!

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    Please enter your area code, followed by your phone number, mobile phone preferred. Please use numbers only, no dashes or other separators.

    *By signing this form I am acknowledging that I am 13 or older.