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Alasdair Groves

Jesus and Compassion

March 1, 2024


How can understanding Jesus’ emotions help us understand our own? Listen as Alasdair Groves focuses on one particular emotion which Jesus felt: compassion, an ache on the heart that presses toward action to make things better.

Mentioned in this podcast: We're excited to announce the 2024 CCEF National Conference on the topic of rest. Learn more and register at

This is episode 3 in a miniseries on emotions (listen to episode 1 here and episode 2 here). Do you have any questions about emotions? You can email us at, and we’ll spend the last episode of the miniseries answering some of your questions.


Hi. My name is Alasdair Groves, and I'm the host of Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. For more information about CCEF and about our resources that bring the treasures of Scripture to the troubles of life, you can go to

Today's episode is part 3 of a miniseries we are doing on emotions and, in particular, on the emotions of Jesus. So this will be the second emotion of Jesus that we'll be considering. Last episode was dread. Today we'll be talking about compassion.

Let me say a word or two about compassion. It can actually be a bit tricky to define and there's lots of other words that live in a very similar semantic territory. Compassion—my working definition would be, it's an ache on the heart that presses towards action to make things better. I'll say that again. It's an ache on your heart. It's a grief, a sorrow, a hurt, an ache on the heart that presses toward action to make things better. As such, I would see it living under the broad umbrella of sadness. It's something that is a sorrow. It feels bad inside as you see someone or something outside of you suffering, and hurting, and not doing well.

Probably best thought of as maybe even a sub-category of a word like sympathy, would have some significant overlap with a word like empathy. Empathy probably looks at “How is what you're going through something I can relate to deeply?” Compassion, you don't have to have gone through something that someone else is hurting from to look at and go, "Oh, it just breaks my heart to see what's happening for you, and I want to see that get better, I want to see that made right." That doesn't mean that just because you have compassion action will always result—there can be times where there's literally nothing you can do—but you want to see that person or that group or that project or that little creature or whatever, you want to see help and healing come and it hurts your heart and it moves you towards taking action. So, usually when you have compassion, you'll also feel empathy, and usually compassion will in fact lead to some kind of action.

Now, I say all of that to kind of just lay the landscape out a bit of this particular word “compassion” that I want to talk about as I want to talk about Jesus and compassion, but I'll make one more just preliminary comment which is this: this is a very different way to consider Jesus' emotions than thinking about dread. In our previous episode, I spent a lot of time defending the very idea that Jesus could have felt dread, and so if that is a shocking statement to you and you haven't listened to that episode, you should go back and check it out. But this one I assume is just incredibly obvious. Of course Jesus felt compassion. The Scripture is very clear about that, and that's not hard for us to think or feel or picture.

There's probably lots of Scriptures we could go to, and the one I want to take us to is probably one that jumps first and foremost to my mind when I think about the compassion of Jesus. Like I said, there's a certain obviousness to “Jesus felt compassion,” and the question I want to press into is, “So what? How does that help us? How does this thing we know to be true actually meet us where we are?” So I want to understand a little bit about where Jesus' compassion is and what it looked like and then think about “What do we do in light of that?” I'm going to look at Mark 6:30­–34. Let me just read that to us. "The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught." They had just gotten back from an extended missions trip where he sent them out, essentially. "Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat..." (I like food, so that quickly sets the scene for me and the intensity of what they're dealing with here.) “He said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’” Here we are already seeing Jesus' compassion in action. "So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place, but many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, so he began to teach them many things." He's a lovely, lovely Savior, isn't he? I mean, how can you not just be in awe of someone who, here he is, they're trying to get away for a retreat and he sees and has compassion on his disciples and is doing this to bless and help them. He himself, of course, is bearing more burdens than any of them and they get there and they find that there is literally a horde of people. This is the setup to the feeding of the 5,000, so there are literally thousands of people waiting to be served, and loved, and taught, and ultimately fed through a miracle, and Jesus sees them and responds with compassion. He loves them, he teaches them good things, he feeds them.

What does it mean that Jesus had compassion on them? We get a little picture of it in what he does, obviously, where the ache on his heart leads to action to help them. In Matthew 9, it speaks of a similar event and talks with similar language about Jesus having compassion for these shepherdless sheep and uses the phrase in Matthew, they're “harassed and helpless,” and I particularly like that phrase. Jesus is coming, he's watching, and he sees these people milling about, and harassed, helpless, shepherdess sheep, they're confused and bleating. (Bleating not bleeding. I mean, they could be bleeding) But it's a noisy, chaotic, helpless, desperate, frantic experience, and that is what Jesus is seeing and it moves him, and the ache leads him to these actions.

Now, that's great, but I'll be honest with you—I struggle with this passage, and if I'm really honest with you and with myself, this kind of stresses me out. It tires me out to hear what Jesus is doing and how he's operating, because when you look at the passage it's hard not to come away concluding, "Okay, even when you're really tired, this is what it looks like to follow Christ. You keep serving." Right? You finally were getting away for a retreat, and rest, and relaxation, but the world caught up with you and there were more needs to fill and there was a crowd of more things to do. And so, here's what it means to be like Jesus: you feel a deeper compassion. You muster up a sense of love and care for the hurting, harassed, helpless sheep out there and you press in, and you don't stop, and you keep going.

And after this event, Jesus will send his poor, tired disciples off in a boat and he himself will go on to stay up into the night and he will pray and he will be the one to actually dismiss the crowds and let his helpers, who should have been the ones dismissing the crowd in the normal course of events, he'll let them go and serve them. And you just watch and it's just hard for me not to go, "Man, I can't do that. I don't want to do that. That's not where my heart goes in exhaustion. I get compassion fatigue. I get that sense of ‘I know I should care more, I know I should be moved but right now I just feel overwhelmed.’" And as I've thought about this particular dynamic in my own life, which I'm betting is not unique to me, I find that it's especially exacerbated when I'm operating out of a sense of obligation and a sense of guilt that I'm not doing enough and I'm not caring enough.

So, compassion really for me, it's a word that hits me with a double whammy. It's not just that I should be trying harder, and doing more, and I feel guilty that I'm not, it's also that I should be caring more. I should be loving more. Running into a lack of compassion or a low end, last little ebb of compassion, is to me often a place where I just see I am not loving my neighbor as myself, I'm not loving as God loves. I feel just the weakness of my own heart and the weakness of my own ability to love as I'm called to.

My daughter the other day was home on a sick day from school and we came home to find that she had made an apple pie, which was delightful and wonderful that she was choosing to use her experimental capacities as she gets older of, "Hey, let's go on a little baking project." And so, she was trying to talk about it, she was like, "There's lemon zest and lemon juice I was supposed to have. We didn't have any so I didn't know what to do." But it's got me thinking about lemons. You cut a lemon in half and you squeeze it out to make an apple pie or whatever you're making, and sometimes with compassion, I feel like half of a lemon that's already been squeezed completely through and there's barely the pulp left inside and I'm trying to squeeze it again. I'm just trying to get another drop of compassion out, just muster up a little more care, and effort, and energy, and love, and that's not good. I know this is not good. I know it's not how I want to live. I recognize the problem of it, but if I'm honest, I see that exhaustion, how easily my obligation and my guilt squash compassion and yet tell me I should have it all the more. And it means when I come to a passage like this, if anything, I kind of find Jesus' example condemning and discouraging.

So as I was preparing for the podcast I knew I wanted to talk about the compassion of Jesus, but as I was thinking about the passage I was feeling more and more tired. And in God's kindness, he just gave me one of those gospel jiu-jitsu moments where he takes what you're feeling and thinking and kind of flips you on your back in a delightful way. And I just realized, I'm sitting here reading this whole passage, reading myself into the shoes of Jesus. I am focused on my struggle to have compassion, not on the fact that he has compassion for me. It really was—I think I actually laughed out loud as this insight began to dawn because, news flash, you're not as good as Jesus. You're not the ministry servant-hearted person that he is. You're not the powerful person that he is. You don't love as he loves.

But here I am, I'm reading myself purely in the role of “be like Jesus, try harder, do better,” rather than reading myself first and foremost as a sheep without a sense of the goodness and closeness of my shepherd, feeling harassed and helpless. And it has been particularly sweet to be reminded that the thing I most need to hear in this particular passage is that Jesus has compassion for me as I am his sheep. And in fact, and here's what really starts to blow my mind, he has compassion for me particularly as a helper who is feeling harassed and helpless in the face of all of my tasks, and all of my burdens, and yes, even of my obligations in the places where I am, in fact, guilty of not having loved or done what I should have done.

Now, there's plenty of places where I put obligations on myself that are more about my pride and my fear of what other people will think of me, but I do also have obligations, and right commitments, and responsibilities that I bear and should bear in a God-honoring way, they're commitments I've made, and he sees me. He sees my frantic bleating, living like someone without a shepherd, harassed and helpless by all these pressures and obligations that I'm desperately trying to squeeze a little more compassion juice into in order to care just a little bit more today to make it through till tomorrow. So, news flash number two: he is a good shepherd, and he has compassion on his sheep, even especially where we struggle to have compassion for others.

Here's where I'll leave us for today. I just can't think of a better way to grow in sustaining compassion for the people in my life that I'm called to serve. I can't think of a better way to do that than to meditate on and abide in the deep, wonderful, inexhaustible compassion of Jesus for you and me.

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Alasdair Groves

Executive Director

Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).

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