Compassion. Indignation. What comes to mind when you think about these words? You might say that we could sum up almost everything we see on social media or hear in political campaigns under one of these two words.
Under the banner of “compassion,” we find those who insist that calling any human behavior wrong or sinful is necessarily unloving and uncompassionate. And under the banner of “indignation,” we find those who are self-righteous and acerbic.
The problem is that words can’t be defined however we’d like to define them. When we wrongly define a word, we corrupt its true meaning, ripping the word out of its proper domain and context.
The question then becomes, What’s the difference between a false, fleshly “compassion” and a true, holy compassion? And what distinguishes false, fleshly “indignation” from true, holy indignation? Another way to ask the question is, How do we know we’re not covering up our own sin by camouflaging it under co-opted definitions?
The best way to answer this question is to turn not to the dictionary but to the Divine Word Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ. If our daily ambition is to become as much like Jesus as possible, we must turn to the Gospels for an authentic embodiment of both holy compassion and holy indignation.
When we examine the biblical record of Jesus’ life and ministry, we see holy compassion and holy indignation on display time and again, and careful readers will quickly see that Jesus displayed both of these characteristics, not just one. This points us to a simple test: When a person is characterized by all “compassion” with no indignation, it’s probably not a true, holy compassion. And when a person is characterized by all “indignation” with no compassion, it may be a sign of unholy indignation.
In The Emotional Life of Our Lord, B.B. Warfield draws attention to both the compassion and indignation of Christ. Warfield notes, “The emotion which we should naturally expect to find most frequently attributed to that Jesus whose whole life was a mission of mercy . . . is no doubt compassion.” This is a compassion that doesn’t simply feel bad for someone and then move on without doing anything but rather includes “the two parts of an internal movement of pity and an external act of beneficence.”
Such compassion is incumbent on those who claim to be children of the Father, who claim to be loved by the Father (1 John 3:1, 10). If we are children of the God of all compassion (2 Cor. 1:3, NIV), brothers and sisters of the compassionate Christ, something is deeply wrong if we are not known as compassionate people who deeply grieve both the suffering and sin of others and move toward them in Christlike love. This is not a compassion that minimizes sin but rather a compassion that genuinely grieves over the destructive nature of sin and longs for errant sinners to be reconciled to God and for exhausted sufferers to be comforted by God through His people.