Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
A bit of a confession here, the expression “there but for the grace of God, go I,” is perhaps my least favorite phrase in the English language. The axiom is most often intended as an expression of pity for the poor fool who has wandered unfettered into disastrous territory, but the implication is always that, were it not for me to enjoy a special kind of divine favor, that too could be my fate. Too bad God didn’t care as much about what happened to you.
It is fairly easy to confuse pity with compassion. To feel sorry for someone in a particular set of circumstances is a very human response borne simply of being social creatures. But pity, more often than not, also allows us to stand at some distance from suffering and observe it as an exercise in comparison. Poor them, lucky me. So perhaps this is why compassion is such a distinctly commended virtue in scripture, it requires something from us, other than the intellectual exercise of feeling sorry for someone. Compassion is the ability to come along side someone who is suffering and “feel” with them.
In Hebrew, the word most often translated as Compassion, is rachamim, which means “Womb of God,” and in the Greek the translators got at the same sensibility with the word, splangchnizomai which, apart from looking splendid on a tee-shirt, means “inner parts.” Both expressions imply a fundamental, visceral, connection with the suffering of another. Hence, Job’s friends who, while they may eventually have given in to the temptation to offer unsolicited and insufficient advice in the face of Job’s suffering, at least began by simply sitting with him for a week. In so doing they both acknowledge and honor what he is experiencing, they demonstrate their solidarity, not by comparing notes, but by being present.
Yet compassion is, for the spiritual Christian, a beginning point, and not an end in itself. It is the place that we start, that place of true connection to suffering, that place of genuine presence, but once there we are called to meet the need we find. In many ways Jesus himself was an expression of God’s authentic compassion for the world. Jesus’ calling was to come along side the suffering of humanity, to connect with it at that very basic and substantial level, and to offer a path through the suffering to another vision of Life.
“In separateness lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”
“You may call God love, you may call God goodness. But the best name for God is compassion.“