Book Review: The Search for Compassion

I have the privilege to step in for a friend and teach a course in Lincoln Christian University's MA in Spiritual Formation at the end of January. It is a glorious thing to fall into a well-worn pathway left behind by intelligent and soulful people, and I'm humbled to have this opportunity.

I kept several of the textbooks my friend for the class, one of which I'd love to recommend to you today.


Andrew Purves' The Search For Compassion is one of the most unique reads I have experienced. I included the book in my "Bar Raisers for 2014" but felt like it needed a separate post as well.

It is a well-balanced work that merges the often mind-bending challenges of Christian theology with practical ministry concerns such as compassion fatigue, rest and rhythms, and how to focus or sharpen our efforts in compassion.


Two insights from the book that I feel are critical:

First, compassion is not something we exercise because of God, but something we exercise through God. Purves' assertion is that compassion is to suffer with someone else, and he contrasts that with what typically passes for compassion today. We often see pity - the sadness at another's situation - as the same thing as compassion. However, Purves' strong doctrine of the incarnation (Jesus entering the gritty human enterprise) helps us see that compassion in line with Jesus is a "suffering with" - a movement of our physical and emotional selves to stand in the middle with others.

To truly exercise compassion, therefore, is not to get up the energy to feel sorry for someone but to see the world through the heart of God lived out in Jesus' fleshy presence here and now and to act accordingly (pp. 93-94).

Second, compassion doesn't mean immediately "fixing" things. The kind of compassionate ministry people are called to today is not a "repair" ministry, but a "being with" ministry - "being with" regardless of the conditions. Purves' reminds us that one of the most compassionate things we can do is to help people lament their suffering:

"Compassionate ministry must make lament possible for those who suffer in secret, and it must make lament corporate for those who suffer alone." (91)

Purves' calls for compassion to be done in community, reflecting a strong belief in God's people seeing God's compassion through the completed work of Jesus and the continued empowerment of the Spirit for the sake of the world (paraphrased). 

The book is strong in both scholarship and ministry principles, though some of the more Reformed pieces of Purves' theology may prove difficult for those of different theological traditions. I will say that this book has pushed the borders of my own compassion in ministry, refining how I see compassion and where I locate the source of my own compassion.

The key reminder for me was that since I exercise compassion through God's heart, there are times I can relent from activity and rest in Him so that the well of my compassion gets refilled by remaining in the presence of God. Even as I write this, I realize that I am approaching that place of an empty well. I need to step back and be refreshed, and to take the time to do so.

I encourage you to pick this short but challenging book up if you are resonating at all with the energy and challenge of living a compassionate life for other people.