“Break my heart for what breaks yours” is a prayer I sometimes pray to God when I’m feeling brave.
Far too often, I get overwhelmed by all the bad things we see happening in the world and to the people around us. My heart simply doesn’t feel big enough to love like Jesus loved. A prolonged stint of exposure to suffering can lead many of us to become “hard of heart” or emotionally closed off as a means to cope with it all. When emotional exhaustion eventually takes its toll, it can lead to numbness, detachment, anxiety, social withdrawal, guilt, anger, irritability, or, at worst, apathy. Prominent secular counselor Rachel N. Remen explains it well: “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”¹
Healthcare workers are usually most prone to experiencing psychological fatigue and compromised coping capacity. But Christians who live to imitate Christ are also susceptible to feeling burned out by the weight of what other people go through. Moreover, an eroding sense of sympathy for the struggles of family, friends, neighbors, or strangers may also be due to the immense suffering in your own life, making it tough to shoulder other people’s burdens on top of the troubles you’re already facing. Whatever the reason, to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) is sometimes hard. At the root of it, since we are all saints-in-the-making, so to speak, none of us demonstrate Christlike compassion at all times, which is why we should all desire to grow in love, asking God to renew our hearts after his likeness.
Allow me to show you my cards. I live in Cape Town, South Africa, one of the most crime-ridden countries and dangerous cities in the world. National power outages, extreme poverty and inequality, violent murders, and house break-ins are so prevalent in our collective psyche and experience that most crimes won’t even make it onto the news. The atrocious ones that do inundate the headlines at such frequency that the seasoned reader has become desensitized, not even flinching anymore. To be clear, I love my beautiful country and its people, but growing up in these circumstances has made me trip over 1 John 3:17 more times than I can count. Yet none of us live in a vacuum, we all know what it is like to experience grief and loss, uncertainty and unrest. To help us sort through these emotions in the pursuit of understanding and imitating the compassion of Christ, let’s first unpack what some of these words actually mean.
In modern times, sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably. While both have roots in the Greek term páthos, meaning “to suffer or feel,” sympathy is far older. The word entered into the English language in the mid-1500s with an overarching meaning of having agreement with or coming in harmony with the suffering of another: i.e., conformity of feeling. However, a new term called empathy was coined during the rise of the field of psychology, causing its parent word to undergo a shift in meaning. Nowadays, sympathy is used to convey feeling compassion, sorrow, and pity for the misfortunes of another; you understand their suffering, but more on an intellectual than an emotional level. Empathy, on the other hand, comes from the German Einfühlung (“feeling into”) and refers to the emotional component of experiencing what the other person feels by putting yourself in their shoes. This term is relatively young, only making its way into popular imagination in the past hundred years or so. That’s why you’ll see only sympathy is used in our English Bible translations. Another word relevant to our discussion is “compassion.” Encapsulating both sympathetic pity and empathetic concern for the hardships of others, compassion takes it one step further by taking action to alleviate suffering, essentially “to suffer together.”
Losing the ability to extend sympathy, empathy, and compassion toward others is something we shouldn’t take lightly (John 13:34-35). Although it can be difficult to admit feeling this way to ourselves or close confidants, we can rest in the knowledge that our Father already knows our thoughts and hearts (Psalm 139:1-2). He sees us and wants to meet us in the midst of these emotions, and he has given us his Word to help us wrestle with answers.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”2 Corinthians 1:3-4
The God of all comfort comforts us so we can comfort others. A restless, hopeless, or overwhelmed heart won’t be able to provide genuine, lasting comfort to (i.e., alleviate grief, sorrow, or distress) others in their affliction, whether that be in thought, prayer, or with our resources. Following the pattern set out by Paul, we’re first going to look at how God comforts and cares for us and then how this motivates and equips us to comfort each other in love.
The God of All Comfort
“As a father shows compassion to his children,Psalm 103:13-17
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children . . .”
The God we serve is the very essence of true compassion. God is love (1 John 4:16) and his mercies know no end (Micah 7:18-19; Lamentations 3:21-23). He is not cold or distant but a close and personal Father who sees us in our distress and takes pity on us (Psalm 34:18). Yet his compassion compels him to action, fighting for justice for the oppressed and needy (Psalm 140:12), and giving food to the hungry (Psalm 146:7). God’s heart is for the lowly and afflicted. He comforts those who mourn (Matthew 5:4) and heals the downcast and brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3). Though we don’t always understand why the Lord allows suffering into our lives (Job 42:3-6), we know that he works everything together for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28) and his glory so that his grace may be demonstrated through our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:19). If you are feeling distraught or overburdened today, remember that El Roi, The God Who Sees (Genesis 16:13), sees you, and he cares. So “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Cast your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Take heart! God’s sympathy, or empathy, for our lost and miserable state led him not only to feel our pain but to step into it in the flesh to redeem us of our brokenness.
The Compassion of Christ
“For the mountains may departIsaiah 54:10
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”
The compassion of Christ is frequently mentioned throughout the Gospel narratives, giving us glimpses of the Father’s love for us. In Matthew 14:14, we see his compassion for those who are sick and in need of healing. Mark 6:34 and Matthew 9:35-36 recount Christ’s compassion on those who are harassed and helpless, desperately in need of a shepherd to lead them. In a parable, Jesus described the good Samaritan as having compassion on the robbed man he found lying wounded next to the road (Luke 10:33). In Mark 8:2-3 and Matthew 15:32 we witness Jesus’ concern for the ravenous crowds and how he was “unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” Jesus demonstrates his love for the widowed and those who have lost loved ones by resurrecting a widow’s son in Luke 7:11-15, and again in John 11 as he weeps with Martha and Mary for their dead brother, Lazarus, before raising him to life. The Bible is filled with countless descriptions of Jesus’ sympathy in action, and the ones we just glossed over are only the tip of the iceberg! As John aptly remarked: “Now there are also so many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). But Jesus wasn’t just an empathetic observer, he quite literally stepped into the shoes of our suffering.
The climax of Christ’s compassion was at the cross of Calvary where he took on God’s wrath poured out for sin by laying down his life for his friends (John 15:12-13). He suffers with us and he suffered for us. Jesus, fully God and fully human, is the perfect image-bearer, and not only did he model how to love people well, he is also able to understand and sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). When a loved one is diagnosed with an illness or your heart breaks for the beggar on the street corner, Jesus knows how you feel because he felt the same way yet immeasurably amplified. And if you struggle to feel compassion for the people around you, you can look at how Scripture describes Jesus being moved to the deepest depths of his being and let that move you as you remember his love. The truth is, no one cares more about the lost, hurt, wounded, poor, needy, and suffering people in this world than the one who made them. Any heartache or sorrow you and I experience for the suffering of others is only a drop in the ocean compared to the bleeding heart of Jesus for his people. In fact, to think we could in some way influence the outcome of their affliction by how much or little we feel only exposes our pride. Jesus has overcome this world (John 16:33). He carries the burden. Even when the things in our life and the world around us seem unbearably heavy, he is yoked in right next to us carrying the load (Matthew 11:29-30). Christlike compassion requires full surrender and humble vulnerability. We need to allow God to break down the walls we’ve built around our hearts and ask him to flood us with his all-consuming love. Through his Spirit, love will pour out from us too (John 7:38), but from a place of knowing there’s nothing left to prove. It is finished.
The miracles during Jesus’ ministry and even his death on the cross are not the end of the story. God has done something about suffering once and for all. His resurrection gives us confident hope that there will be an end to suffering in the new creation. There will be no more death, mourning, pain, or tears for everything will be made new (Revelation 21:1-5). What a glorious hope! In the meantime, Peter and Paul tell us not to be surprised when we are tested, but to rejoice, knowing we share in Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:12-13) and will see his future glory (Romans 8:18).
The Comfort of Community
A compassionate Christian is someone who has been comforted by God so that he or she may be able to comfort others.
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”1 Peter 3:8
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”Philippians 2:1-4
One of the most loving things we can do is to share the gospel with the lost so they may join in our comfort in Christ. We are called to have compassion on all people, but especially those who belong to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10), our family (1 Timothy 5:8), and the poor and powerless among us (James 1:27). In both these passages above, unity and humility are key to achieving loving harmony. No Christian is an island—we belong to the body of Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Your suffering is not only for your sanctification, God’s glory, his bigger plans and purposes, or to make you rely on him more (2 Corinthians 1:9), but for the sake of other people. You may be able to share a lesson you learned to someone else who might be going through a similar experience, or offer a sympathetic ear, word of encouragement, or donation.
Suffering has a way of bringing out our selfishness. Have you ever had a really bad day and used the excuse of being at your lowest to justify not having sympathy with someone else’s hardship? But when we’re genuinely concerned for the welfare of family, friends, and neighbors, we’re actively choosing to put aside our preoccupation with self to spend our time, resources, and energy on alleviating their suffering. It’s about recognizing that I am no more worthy or entitled to receiving sympathy and encouragement than anyone else. Even if a friend never asks how you’re doing, love is not irritable or resentful (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Dear friend, there is grace! The way of the kingdom is a daily rhythm. As we receive the Lord’s new mercies each morning, we wake up, give thanks, and clothe ourselves with compassionate hearts, kindness, and humility (Colossians 3:12). Granted, entering into the pain of someone who is hurting is one of the scariest things we can do, but isn’t that what ultimately makes us human? To feel deeply, experiencing the full spectrum of emotions that make our hearts bleed just as much as our mortal bodies? Imago Dei—we imitate Christ. When we press a little closer, succumbing to vulnerability by facing someone’s suffering head-on, we become a conduit for God’s love to flow through to the wounded. Bearing one another’s burdens doesn’t always mean we’ll be able to fix them. When we try to make it better, we’ll probably end up making it worse. Instead, it means we’re sharing the load and not allowing our brothers and sisters to suffer alone. Instead of offering empty platitudes trying to cheer them up, we sit and listen, pray, and suffer together.
As with any area of spiritual growth, no amount of striving or concentrated effort will bring about a changed heart; only a life wholly surrendered to Jesus, relying on the help of the Holy Spirit for daily renewal. Christian compassion is a matter of the heart, yet it is expressed as love in action on behalf of others. It is a commitment of all we are and have to the Lord who gave himself for us first. I leave you with Paul’s benediction in 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”
Spend some time in prayer, taking these difficult emotions to God. Pray for forgiveness for the times your heart has been cold and unloving, and ask him to fan the flames of compassion in you again by his Spirit.
Further Application & Study
When You’re Struggling to Be Comforted
Read Psalm 77.
See Enduring Word’s commentary for deeper reflection.
This psalm is an example of a believer who struggles to be comforted by God. The psalmist cries out to the Lord in great anguish and affliction, deeply troubled and unable to speak or even sleep. The lament is full of grief and sorrow, expressing his longing for the days when he used to sing praises to God. The honest questions in verses 7-9 are difficult to ask and may be relatable to many believers in times of trouble. Yet from verse 10 onwards we see the psalmist make a decision that alters his entire train of thought. Instead of dwelling on his faint heart, he decides to remember God’s wonders of old—to ponder and meditate on his mighty deeds. Come, see what your God has done! He praises God’s greatness by recalling God’s victory over Egypt and appeals to God’s faithfulness as the reason for his hope. But the story doesn’t end there. The same God has delivered us from death through Jesus to spend eternity glorifying the Lord, enjoying him forever. Nothing can ever separate us from his love (Romans 8:38-39); therefore, we are joyful in hope and patient in affliction.
- What questions come to your mind when your soul “refuses to be comforted” (v. 2)? To whom or what do you go with them to find peace?
- How can you set limits on your exposure to upsetting information? What habits can you implement to help you work through your emotions in a vulnerable and healthy way? (e.g., prayer partner, journaling)
- How can you remember who God is (his character) and record/recall the ways in which he has been faithful in the past (answered prayers)?
- In what way does Bible knowledge help us to celebrate God’s past faithfulness and help us to speak to our present situation?
When You’re Struggling to Comfort Others
Listen to “Hosanna” by Hillsong UNITED.
- How do the words make you feel? Sit with the lyrics and unpack their implications, letting it spur you on to rejoice in Jesus.
- Have you been surrendering your whole self to Christ’s kingdom? What do you think is holding you back?
- Think of people you know who are struggling. How can you comfort them with the gospel?
- When have you experienced comfort in affliction? How can you use your experience to step into someone else’s shoes to encourage them?
- How can you better steward your time, energy, and resources to alleviate the suffering of the people around you?
- Are you ready to ask God to break your heart for what breaks his?
- Draw near to your good Father in prayer. He’s not looking for perfection before you come to him; he just wants you and your heart.
¹ Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1996).
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter
Liesl is a daughter, sister, and friend who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. After completing her BA (Hons) in Linguistics, she started working in the magazine publishing industry. As an aficionado of antiquity, you’ll likely hear her geek out about the latest archaeological discoveries of the first century AD. When she’s not marveling at God’s grace and goodness, succumbing to her sweet tooth, or showing you her impressive collection of sea urchin shells, you’ll find her enjoying the beautiful Cape with her loved ones.