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Compassion Is a Moral Imperative

Updated on August 19, 2014

The Meaning of Compassion

Who can be compassionate? Under what circumstances? What is compassion? Can you compel other people to be compassionate? Does the government have a role in the issue of compassion? Do particular religions teach compassion? Do other religions teach against compassion? These are some of the questions I will examine.

What is compassion? Compassion is always directed toward a recipient. The recipient is any person who is the victim of violence or natural forces.

Violence is using physical force against another person without provocation. It is also using physical force against a person with insufficient provocation. For example, you don't have the moral right to kill a person who calls another person names, on behalf of the victim of the name-calling.

Compassion is always directed toward another person, never to the self. In order for there to be true compassion, you have to be aware of the existence of the recipient, specifically. You can't simply have compassion for a person who has never been defined, by pictures, names, or personal information. Compassion cannot be compelled. It comes from the heart. If people try to compel compassion, they destroy the essence of it.

Judaism and Christianity encourage compassion. Islam discourages compassion. I say this in spite of the fact that giving for the poor is a requirement. Why? Because teaching people to teach their children to commit suicide, and take the lives of innocent people, is the antithesis of compassion, and Islam teaches this. (And this is in spite of the fact that individual Muslims may not agree with this.) Hinduism is indifferent because whatever misfortune befalls a person was earned in a previous life and compassion interferes with his karma, and if you offer compassion, he may have to suffer another life to work out the karma. Compassion respects the free will of others. It is not compassionate to use mystical means to control the behavior of aggressors. It is compassionate to use whatever physical force is necessary to prevent physical harm to another. The physical force that is directed toward an innocent person who poses no threat is violence. Responsive force, intended to protect the victim of violence, is not itself violence, even if it is done with violent means.

I will examine why various religions take the view of compassion they do.

When a person spends part of his life doing the bidding of others for pay, so that he may live and feed his family, then taking his money from him is an act of aggression. This is why stealing is wrong. Stealing is absolutely morally wrong, no matter who does it or for what purpose. Sometimes taxation can be stealing. Sometimes it is morally justified. I will also talk about this.

The ultimate compassion is risking or giving your life for a friend or even more so, for an enemy.

Jesus is risking His life to rescue the lamb. This image is in widespread use and thus it is in the public domain.

Compassion in Christianity

I have had occasion to attempt to show compassion personally to someone I love very deeply. This person is the victim of fraud and terrorism. Because of this, she is unaware she is a victim, or if she is, she cannot acknowledge it. For this reason, I have given much thought to the Biblical basis for compassion. It starts with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Luke 10:30-37

30. And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

31. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

32. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

33. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

34. And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

35. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

36. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

37. And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

Notice that the word "compassion" is used specifically to refer to the Samaritan who took action to help the person who had been attacked by thieves. Notice also the following:

1. The parable does not discuss whether or not the victim was aware of his plight

2. The parable also does not discuss whether or not the victim consented to being helped.

3. The parable indicates that the decisions concerning which remedies to apply to help the man were made by the Samaritan, not the victim.

4. The parable does not discuss whether or not the Samaritan had specific expertise in helping such victims.

5. Finally, notice that Jesus COMMANDS His hearer to do likewise. Compassion with action is a moral imperative.

We are told elsewhere in Scripture that we are to obey Jesus, and emulate His life. Our salvation does not depend on obedience, but on faith alone. Good works are the consequence of faith, and always done in cooperation with the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Any allegedly good work done without the prompting and approval of the Holy Spirit is the kind of good work referred to as "filthy rags" and are not seen as good works by God. The role of compassion, then, is to show evidence to the world that we belong to Jesus by faith. They are not intended to help Jesus complete our salvation; they do not contribute in any way. Jesus is referred to as the vine, and we are the branches. This means that any fruit we bear (good works) are the result of God infusing the branches with nourishing liquids that come from the vine.

What about free will? We are free to think of good works, and of compassion, and decide to engage in them. We are free to accept the prompting of the Holy Spirit. We are free to reject it. A partnership with the Holy Spirit is a seamless thing. You should be unable to tell where the Holy Spirit's role ends and the role of the believer begins.

God is all powerful (omnipotent). He can do anything He wants to do. He can help all of the victims in the world without us lifting a finger. He can inform everyone of the Gospel without our help. In His wisdom, He has chosen to use us as His instruments. This is a wonderful opportunity for us! And in fact, the Bible tells us, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." One of the things that this means, though seldom thought about, I think, is that a person has an obligation to ALLOW another person to GIVE to him, and to receive graciously. I faced this question with one of my relatives, who was a compassionate giving person all her life. She would have given us the shirt off her back if we needed it, and very nearly actually did. When she, then, needed my help, she really didn't want me to give it to her. So I said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." I said, give me the opportunity to be blessed, by giving to you. She accepted, and there was never any question. She accepted graciously. I bless HER for that.

When a victim refuses your compassion, this is a terrible thwarting of God's blessing.

What this does NOT mean is that a person has an absolute right to come in there and force foolishness on another person. But what it DOES mean is that the victim isn't always aware of whether or not the help being offered is foolishness, or genuine help, a genuine rescue from whatever plight befell him. And a person's education is not an issue.

Let me give you an example. Let's assume you are a Christian and you understand the plan of salvation. This gives you the perspective to follow what I am about to say. Suppose a child comes to a man and says, "In order to be saved, you have to accept Jesus' sacrifice for your sins." If the man says, "You are just a child, and not a pastor, so I don't have to listen to you," what will the Christian think of such a response? The child spoke truth. The CONVEYOR of the message is irrelevant to whether or not the message is TRUE. Truth stands on its own, regardless of who says it. It also stands on its own regardless of the behavior of who says it. A hypocrite can rightly describe the plan of salvation. The mere fact the person is a hypocrite doesn't change the truth of the message. I have heard far too many people say, "Those Christians are despicable people. What they believe must be false." That's nonsense!

Here is a modern parable that will help to illustrate what I am talking about.

There is a flood, and a certain man is sitting in his house as the water starts to enter the door. He prays, "God help me escape this flood." Along comes a man in a boat, and says, "I am here to rescue you from this flood." The man says, "No, God will rescue me." The water creeps up, and eventually the man has to climb on his roof to escape the water. Along comes a man in a helicopter, and says, "I am here to rescue you from this flood." But the man says, "No, God will rescue me." As the water creeps ever higher, the man is finally sitting on the pinnacle. And he cries out, "God why didn't you rescue me from this flood?" And God says, "I don't understand. I sent you a boat and a helicopter."

In other words, God uses PEOPLE to help other people. Direct help from God is rare.

Compassion requires the participation of two people: the giver, and the recipient.

If you are in need of help, don't spurn the compassion of another. Do not thwart people who are trying to do the will of God as they understand it. Be compassionate in return. If you feel the help is misguided, do what you can to persuade that person. Don't just clam up and then cut off his attempts to help you. If you feel the help is being offered in a mean-spirited way, work toward a more peaceful and compassionate dialog.

Should you go against your own knowledge to accept misguided help? That's a tough one. Are you the victim of fraud? If so, then your knowledge may be flawed. If not, then try using reason with the other person. Be very careful to avoid logical fallacies. Direct your discussion toward the issues, not away from them. If you are right, and the other person has the capacity of logic, he will see it. Keep him on track as well. Don't allow him to use logical fallacies.

There is much fraud and deception going on these days. Many people who formerly deserved our respect have often fallen victims. If you have to live with the consequences of their recommendations, you have every right to question their judgment.

Good Reading

Why does God give us the needy? In order to teach us compassion. The first book talks about people who suffer, and why God allows it, and is by a well known author. Along with her husband Francis, Edith Schaeffer owned and managed L'Abri, a retreat in Switzerland, where people went to study the Christian faith.

The second book is a Jewish take on the question of suffering. It has a lot of good insights in it, and is worth reading.

Compassion and the Government

Can the government act with compassion on behalf of an individual?

Let me ask you some questions. First, is the individual on whose behalf the government acts, seeking to have the government act on his behalf? Is he the sole source of the request, and the only person who funds the effort? Or is the government taking money or other resources by force, and giving them to strangers that the giver has never met?

Observe the following:

Mark 9:41. For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.

Jesus is speaking. In this verse, there are several critically important concepts. The first is that the gift is in the name of Jesus. (Will government let you tell the recipient that you freely gave the money to help him, in the name of Jesus? No! That would violate the idea that has been set in stone, that the government must be separate from religion.) The second is that the gift is made PERSONALLY, face to face with the recipient. Not explicitly stated but still implied is that the gift is given out of love. To make this verse more dramatic, remember that Jesus was preaching in a desert country where water is scarce, and giving water truly was an act of compassion, not just a routine gift.

Can the government act with compassion? No. The government can only act by taking resources from some, by force, to give to others. Those who must relinquish these resources spent part of their life earning them. The government enslaves the person for the duration, thus effectively shortening his life. The government has no way of discerning who truly needs help, and fraud is rampant. The government doesn't have the resources to do something to compensate for its lack of discernment. The individual can discern whether or not the person needs help.

Recently a friend related the following to me: he was in the store he owns, selling parts to customers, when in walked a woman who asked for money to buy food. The friend gave her some money, and she left. One of the customers asked, "Why did you give her money?" And the owner said, "Because she was hungry." The customer asked, "But what if she spends it on drugs?" and the owner said, "Even if she does so, that's her decision. But this is a woman who is obviously hungry." Several times, back and forth, continued the questions and answers. The customer asked, "Why did you do it?" and the store owner said, "Because it was the right thing to do." The customer then took out his wallet, and handed the owner a $20 bill, and said, "Next time you see her, give her this." And the owner promised to do so.

The owner could judge her character. He knew her from previous encounters. He knew she was hungry. What bureaucrat is even free to exercise that kind of judgment? He is bound by rules intended to prevent fraud. He is not a free agent, even if he has the capacity to make this kind of personal judgment.

The government lacks the prerequisites for compassion. It lacks its own means, and must take from others, thus being anti-compassionate to those people. It lacks judgment. It lacks the name of Jesus, and it lacks love.

Would you come to my door, point a gun in my face, and demand, "Give me your money so I can give it to a person you never met, whether he needs it or not"? If you wouldn't do that, don't ask the government to do your dirty work for you. Theft is theft.

Compassion comes from the heart. The government has no heart.

When the government takes from me, by force, the means I would use to show someone compassion, it interferes with the exercise of my faith. This is forbidden by the First Amendment. The government has no role in dispensing compassion. That role belongs to me and my fellow man as individuals, alone.

Do not think you can rightly force someone else to be compassionate, especially to evade the duty of compassion yourself. If you don't have the means, there are other resources you can give, such as your time and your love. You cannot force compassion. It must come from the heart. If it is forced, it is perverted, and is not true compassion.

But, you may ask, what if there are not enough people willing to help?

Does it help others to impoverish some people so that others, whether deserving and needy or not, can get something for free? Does it help others to take money, half of which will be squandered in bureaucrat salaries? Or does it mean that only half as many people can be helped?

Whatever you pay for, you get more of. If you pay for sloth, you will get more sloth. If you pay for productivity, you will get more productivity. Taking from the productive to give to the slothful is not helpful.

If someone is truly needy, let me help him directly, in the name of Christ, with love. Don't stick a gun in my face and take my money from me by force, and give it to someone I have never met.

Whose responsibility is it to show compassion?

In this debate, take a side. If you disagree with my reason for the yes or no vote, feel free to say so.

Do you think the government belongs in the compassion business?

Children and Compassion

Babies are born selfish. This is necessary. They are totally dependent on others for their very lives. Others must feed, clothe, and shelter them. However, as they grow in size and understanding, as well as capability, they need to learn how to give rather than take, and how to provide for themselves.

How do you teach a child compassion? Certainly explaining it when a situation arises is a good way to teach it. But also, it is important to teach the child self discipline and obedience. If you are a parent, and you ask your child to do something, and the child refuses, and you let him get away with it, he will not learn compassion.

Letting a child observe an animal which is suffering, and help the animal, is another good way. Letting a child associate with disabled people is still another.

If the child does not learn compassion, he will not be good to other people. Teach your children compassion. It doesn't necessarily come naturally.

What about compelling your child to share his toys? I would actually hold that this does not teach compassion. Instead, it teaches the child to depend on others to exercise compassion on his behalf, and encourages the child to support the government theft system. Instead, respect the child's right to choose when to allow others to share the toys. If the child is actually using the toy, then protect his right to use it until he is finished. This is a Montessori principle. If the child is simply hoarding, then encourage him to share. But do not coerce.

If the child persists in refusing to share, then have a talk with the child, and let the visitor go home and return when the child is in a more compassionate mood. If the child has siblings who want to use the toys, the toys may well belong to several of them. Sharing in that case should be distributed fairly. Each child will be required to share, and each child will get the opportunity to play with the toys. Teach peace. Teach the children to resolve their differences quietly.

There is no one answer, and no formula. Use your judgment.


Forgiveness is a form of compassion. We all harm others. Without forgiveness, society becomes an ugly place where no one is safe. Judaism and Christianity teach forgiveness. Some other religions may also teach forgiveness, but I cannot comment on them. I think Christianity has the best understanding of what forgiveness is.

I have given a lot of thought to what it means to forgive. This is not some blithe thing you can do, and then forget about it. It is much deeper than that. Forgiveness means choosing to take the hurt and the consequences of what the other person did to you, and not strike back. This can be very difficult, but it is also very liberating. Without forgiveness, the practice of compassion is not complete.

Because you also harm others, you owe it to others to be willing to forgive. If someone poured out his life for you, say because that person is your parent, then to hold a couple of incidents against him is not forgiveness. Christianity REQUIRES forgiveness. The Lord's Prayer makes God's forgiveness dependent on your willingness to forgive.

Forgive others to exercise compassion because everyone needs forgiveness.

Compassion is Humane

The humane societies in the word are the ones where the people believe in compassion. If there is no compassion, then there will be widespread violence and poverty. Some people think all religions are equally valid. Some think that all religions have truth. But if you look at the religions, they contradict each other. They cannot all be true.

The true religion is one that teaches compassion. Life is difficult enough without making it far worse by acting inhumanely toward others. Those people who have it all, particularly because they were not compassionate and did not use their means to help others, are often very unhappy, and may even commit suicide. When you don't have a record of personal compassion, deep down inside you see yourself as impoverished.

One rather well known campaign commands: Practice random acts of kindness.

That's a good idea, but it doesn't go deep enough. It can gladden the heart of a recipient, but unless compassion goes to the deeper level of the soul, it is simply an exercise in simulated righteousness.

Make your compassion an element from the depth of your soul. If someone wants to give to you, receive graciously. Make compassion possible by receiving graciously. And find those in need, starting with your own family, then your friends, and then the stranger, and show them compassion. Give them what will really help them. Don't just give them a token. Give them a piece of yourself. In Love. And if you are a Christian, do it in the name of Jesus. If you are not, by all means still practice compassion. Learn more about it. The best book in the world that tells us what compassion is, is the Bible.

What do you think about compassion? Is it an important value to you? Why or why not? Please express your views.


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