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Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life

Compassion is a work of three priests: Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison. Originally published in 1982, I choose to read the revised 2005 edition, which was a tribute to the passed Henri Nouwen by his two coauthors. The main revision between this and the early version is the more gender sensitive language of God.

Many people view compassion as a gift of the Spirit. Some people have it, some people don’t. This book, however, argues that all true believers are to be compassionate. Compassion is derived from the latin, pati and cum, which together means to suffer with. Compassion is not a simple kindness or a tenderheartedness, but it’s going into places of pain, brokenness, hurt, loneliness, and being with people—suffering with them. Of course this is our last inclination as humans—to enter into uncomfortable situations and emotions with people, but that’s what makes this a very God-like characteristic that only true believers, who have the Holy Spirit working in them and changing them, can exhibit on a consistent basis.

The authors start by showing how God is a compassionate God, how through the life of Jesus Christ, we see that He is Immanuel, God with us, a suffering servant, and an obedient God. They then go on to explain what a compassionate life looks like- one spent in community with others- both being willing to be “displaced” in community, and together. Finally, they answer the question: “How can we practice the compassionate way?,” and give three disciplines- patience, prayer and action.

Each chapter was really good, filled with profound, gentle and convincing things about the topic of compassion.

One of the big things he talks about is that competitiveness is one of the biggest barriers to compassion. Competition, not compassion, is the chief motivation of our lives. When you choose your college, did you think of others or of the opportunities that was going to get you? What about your spiritual gifts—were you excited to learn them so that you could be a blessing by them, or did you want to find out how God uniquely gifted YOU and made you DIFFERENT from anyone else? Often times we define ourselves by how we’re different from other people, and this competitiveness often stands between us entering into true solidarity with others. I feel like I’m not doing it justice, but it was quite convincing. In fact, it seems like many things I’ve read and listened to lately have been discussing competitiveness, and how this is one of the core values of our culture…and how we as Christians—Christ-followers- need to look outside ourselves and honestly evaluate if this characteristic has any place in the life of a Christian. Does competition make us more like Jesus Christ?

Another thing I wanted to highlight is a small section that struck me. On page 59, the priests write: “
Without a sense of being sent by a caring community, a compassionate life cannot last long and quickly degenerates into a life marked by numbness and anger. This is not simply a
psychological observation, but a theological truth, because apart from a vital relationship
with a caring community a vital relationship with Christ is not possible.”

If we meet someone who is not a real part of a caring community of Christ-followers, then you can pretty much expect that their relationship with Christ is not as vital as it should be. Not because of a fault of their own, but because living in a caring community is simply how God created us to work. It puts a whole new insight into the big surveys that many people do on Christianity in America. A huge percentage of Americans claim to know Jesus Christ, but a much, much smaller percentage are an active member of a local body of believers. What does this say?

I think every single Christian should read this book. In education, teachers have benchmarks, or standards, by which they teach. In 3rd grade, a student should be able to… blah blah blah. As Jake and I have been discussing creating a sort of “Christian life benchmark set” to be used in local churches, this is one topic that I think should be developed fairly early on. Compassion equals godliness. And not the empathetic, fuzzy compassion. But the suffering with compassion.