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I spent some time this week digging into the meaning of the word compassion and found it incredibly interesting that the important notion of compassion means vastly different things to different people.

The modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines compassion as: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

So there we go, it’s a feeling. A consciousness. It is simply the passive ability to desire something for someone else.

Or is it?

#Compassion entails much more than a sympathetic consciousness. #love #care Click To Tweet

sad girlA much earlier version, the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, has more to say about the word. Compassion is defined there as: A suffering with another; painful sympathy; a sensation of sorrow excited by the distress or misfortunes of another; pity; commiseration.

Suffering with another? Commiseration? This entails much more than a sympathetic consciousness.

And so we have a problem. Does compassion really mean something different than it did years ago, and if so, why did it change?

Real Compassion

In order for a culture to shift, the language must first be changed, and this is precisely what happened.

This is why we went from compassion being something active – getting hands dirty and actually sharing in the suffering of others, to a flimsy, disengaged version of sympathy. (Ironically, probably more similar to apathy.)

Think donating Thanksgiving leftovers to a local food pantry and ignoring the hungry the rest of the year or offering to pray for someone without asking God how you might intervene and be part of the solution.

Compassion without action is not #compassion at all. #care #love Click To Tweet

Consistently throughout scripture, God displays compassion as an action. Jesus lived the definition of compassion. It was compassion that drove Jesus to teach and feed the multitudes, heal the sick, and ultimately die for all of mankind.

Compassion is what loving your neighbor looks like in everyday life, and compassion without action is not compassion at all.

Ideas and Language

So what does this mean for leaders who are charged with developing the culture?

For starters, we need to understand that ideas matter. If I see the world from a Christian perspective, my ideas and the culture I create will be vastly different than that of a secular humanist.

Without the foundational belief that people were created by a loving, all-powerful God, there is no divine dignity or purpose.

If I believe I am the product of evolutionary processes and there is no superior agent to myself, I am inherently hopeless and even my grandest attempts at compassion are selfish. There is no real hope for the hurting and mustering up a bit of sympathy for others causes me to feel a little better about myself.

However, if I understand that I was created in the image of God and have the ability to extend His attributes of honor and love to those around me and recognize the dignity that the other image bearers possess, then and only then does compassion become possible.

Ideas are the precursor to the creation of language, and as I mentioned previously, in order for there to be a culture shift, the language must first be changed. It’s no secret that humanistic ideas have been pressing their way into American culture and as we surrender linguistic ground, we surrender the culture.

Restoring Definitions

We have the opportunity as leaders to start restoring the meaning of these words. We know that we have been created with purpose and destiny, let’s create a language and culture that reflects that.

An action must accompany the restoration of the definition.

What would it look like for you as a leader in your family and community to actually have compassion. How would that change the public’s perception of the dedication that leaders have to the city? How would it affect those who see compassion as simply a “sympathetic consciousness”?

Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY

We can’t afford to let the course of American culture “just happen”, in fact the word culture was originally defined as the application of labor or other means to improve good qualities in, or growth. It is the improvement of the existing reality. “Culture” means creating redemptive realities. That means actively taking a stand for justice, confronting deadly ideologies, and removing the decay left by humanistically inspired relativism.

At the end of the day, we have to decide what is worth standing on and fighting for. It’s true that not all battles are worth fighting, however if we are willing to give up on the language battle, we may as well surrender altogether.

Words are power. Words change worlds, and as a wise king once said: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits”.


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