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.
Warfield also highlights the indignation of Jesus seen throughout the Gospel record. He observes:
It would be impossible, therefore, for a moral being to stand in the presence of perceived wrong indifferent and unmoved. Precisely what we mean by a moral being is a being perceptive of the difference between right and wrong and reacting appropriately to right and wrong perceived as such. The emotions of indignation and anger belong therefore to the very self-expression of a moral being as such and cannot be lacking to him in the presence of wrong.
One such example, Warfield notes, is Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, where Jesus’ state was not that of “uncontrollable grief, but of irrepressible anger. . . . The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its ‘violent tyranny.’ ” He goes on to say:
Jesus’ anger is not merely the seamy side of his pity; it is the righteous reaction of his moral sense in the presence of evil. But Jesus burned with anger against the wrongs he met with in his journey through human life as truly as he melted with pity at the sight of the world’s misery: and it was out of these two emotions that his actual mercy proceeded.
A fitting summary of Warfield’s observations, as well as a litmus test for our own pursuit of holiness, can be found when Warfield remarks, “Compassion and indignation rise together in his [Jesus’] soul.” Do compassion and indignation rise together in our souls? If not, which holy trait are we lacking?
Those lacking in holy compassion can be characterized either by exhibiting a fleshly rather than a godly compassion or by manifesting no compassion at all. It’s found in those whose “compassion” refuses to call anything that’s lauded by the world wrong or sinful, but it’s also found in those who are constantly angrily and mercilessly castigating sin in everyone and everything but their own hearts and lives, untouched by the misery that suffering and sin produce in the lives of their fellow image bearers.
Those lacking in holy indignation can be characterized either by expressing no indignation at all or by being indignant at seemingly everyone and everything all the time without a whiff of tenderheartedness, charity, or grief. Therefore, both the licentious and the legalist lack true compassion and true indignation—because compassion is holy only when accompanied by godly indignation, and indignation is holy only when accompanied by godly compassion.
Let those of us who claim the name of Christ, our compassionate and indignant Lord, not deceive ourselves by baptizing ungodly thoughts, words, and actions as holy when they are simply manifestations of our own sinful flesh and distortions of true godly character. But rather, may we bow before the Father, ask Him to graciously reveal our own sin and lack of Christlikeness, rejoice in the forgiveness we have in Christ, and become more like Him through the power of the Holy Spirit: full of grace and truth, and full of holy compassion and holy indignation.