“Jesus wept.” That was the most confusing verse in the Bible to me. Ex-nihilo creation: Makes sense for God. Trinity: Totally okay because the Bible is clear. Deity and humanity of Christ: No problem for God. God crying over Lazarus’ death? Perplexing.
I was saved when I was 29 years old. I had been a police officer in a large city for eight years at that point. Based on my unregenerate heart, combined with my family history and my exposure to trauma at work, I saw emotion as a sign of weakness. I hadn’t cried since I was about five years old.
Even before I was saved, I wondered at times why I did not feel any compassion. After I was saved, though, I began to understand that if Jesus could weep, so could I. When I saw others suffer, I would sometimes think, “That’s sad,” but I didn’t feel anything.
By the time Jesus wept in John 11:35, I hit several stumbling blocks to my understanding both in the context of the passage and my theology. In 11:3, messengers arrive and tell Jesus that “he who You love is sick.” One would expect Jesus to jump up and do something, but He didn’t. Instead, He told them God would be glorified, that it would not end in death, and He waited two more days to travel. When He arrived at Lazarus’ tomb, the one He loved was long dead. Jesus wasn’t surprised. He merely spoke and Lazarus arose. Jesus knew all this would happen and intentionally waited, knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead, knew this would all result in the glory of God, and knew it pointed to Jesus’ deity. On top of it, even if Lazarus remained dead, he would have been in heaven! Shouldn’t Jesus have been happy over the whole thing?
My conviction over my cold heart prompted me to do a lengthy study in Scripture about compassion. I wanted desperately to honor God, and I knew it applied directly to pastoral ministry and the counseling room.
A Lack of Compassion
I would define compassion as feeling sympathy or empathy for one who struggles or suffers. Why don’t some of us feel compassion? Scripture tells us that the heart treasures (Matthew 6:21), thinks (Matthew 9:4), and overflows to speech (Matthew 12:34). The connection from the heart to thought is crucial.
If I think a certain way, I feel a certain way. Let me illustrate the point. My wife grew up believing that dogs were members of the family. They snuggled, had birthdays, etc. Not so in my family. All animals were a nuisance, a tool, or food. They were not family. When it came time for my wife and I to consider putting one of our dogs down, I didn’t feel anything more for the dog than tossing out my paper coffee cup. In my unregenerate state, I considered shooting the dog myself to save money (don’t worry, I didn’t). My wife was traumatized when I suggested it. Why did she feel something, but I didn’t? She viewed the dog as a member of the family. I viewed the dog as being a disposable object. The result, for me, was a lack of emotion.
As an unbeliever, I didn’t think others mattered—so I felt nothing. As a believer, I still mistakenly thought emotion was a sign of weakness. I found, though, that my lack of compassionate emotion was because I did not care for them as I should. I had a cold heart.
The first part of the solution was confession and repentance. The Greek word for repentance is μετανοέω (mĕtanŏĕō), which literally means to change your thinking. Changing your thinking results in changing your emotions. If I think someone is important, I care.
Feelings are not the cause of things, but the result. A cold heart results in cold emotions. I had to confess my lack of compassion to God. Next, since my lack of compassion was a heart problem, I had to address the root of it.
One place I studied was Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:15. In that verse, Paul commands the readers to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”1Both rejoice and weep are infinitives of command. It couldn’t be any clearer.
When I am in the counseling room, by the hospital bed, or anywhere where my brother or sister suffers, I should feel sorrow for them. I should feel joy when the baby is born. I should feel sadness when the widow cries out or when the parent mourns over their prodigal child. I should feel. To not feel can be a sad sign of such things as pride (i.e. Job’s counselors), lack of care, or errant theology.
After realizing that I had a heart problem, I looked to Jesus. Matthew 9:36 tells us that Jesus, “felt compassion for [the crowd], because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” In Luke 7:13, Jesus felt compassion for the woman whose son had died. In the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, the good guy in the story felt compassion. In all these cases, the Greek word used is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizŏmai), meaning to feel compassion or pity. Thus, Jesus both felt and advocated—not just thinking compassion, but feeling compassion.
I also studied, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). After the Jews pointed out Lazarus’ tomb, “Jesus wept.” This word for “wept” (different than the previous verses) is δακρύω (dakruō), which is a silent shedding of tears.
Why did Jesus weep? Was He sad about permanent loss? That couldn’t be since He planned to (and did) raise Lazarus (John 11:14-15). Was He sad because God’s plan was thwarted? Impossible (Job 42:2).
Why did Jesus weep? He felt compassion. He knew how deeply Mary and Martha were hurt by Lazarus’ death. Jesus knew the world before the curse of death entered, He knew the pain that sin and death cause, and He knew that the world groans for redemption. If I am being molded into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), shouldn’t I feel compassion for others too?
Do you feel compassion? Why not? We are made in the image of God—who feels and cares for you. The biblical counselor, pastor, discipler, and friend is massively different than most clinical psychologists. We do not have a client before us, but a dear brother or sister in Christ who suffers.
Do you counsel anyone who lacks compassion? God has answers in His Word. He provides the method, the models, the means, and the power to change the coldest heart (2 Peter 1:3).
I still remember the first time I wept as an adult. After doing much study on compassion, I heard of a school shooting on the radio. I thought of the precious souls lost, and I wept. I was so surprised about my emotion that I called my wife to tell her. She and I rejoiced that I felt compassion! God has done wonders in my heart. I still have massive room to grow, but God has done much to soften my heart. He can do that for you and your counselees as well, for He is able.