Rigorous Compassion

July 31, 2023 by Sharon Conley Cottingham

The idea of compassion is often mistaken for a soft touch that overlooks wrongdoing. True compassion requires rigor. Rigorous compassion is far deeper than a gilded version of conflict avoidance. It is far greater than a guise for letting responsible parties off the hook. It cannot be distilled to simply the opposite of justice.

Jesus’ model of rigorous compassion holds wrongdoers accountable and graciously recognizes the Divine Image, the imago dei, in all humankind. In the narrative of John 8, Jesus faces off with a woman and her accusers. The woman was caught in her culture’s version of wrongdoing. Berated by the judgment of others, she was trapped by multiple forms of societal oppression.

Jesus’ tender compassion for this woman is evident in his defense of her and shines through in his parting words, “Go and sin no more.” From a heart of compassion, Jesus saw the truth of this woman’s lived experience, boldly supported her, and called out her best self.

But look closer. He also recognized the suffering experienced by this crew of accusers. He draws in the sand, inviting accusers to cast that first stone. In giving them this choice, he offered them an opportunity to let God’s image emerge from their entanglement with ego and self-righteousness. Through the lens of rigorous compassion, Jesus saw the suffering of each person and firmly invited them all to a better way—the way of freedom and vitality. Jesus clearly recognizes the suffering of both the woman and her accusers. Neither the woman nor her accusers were living with vitality from their true center, the image of God at the core of their identity.

Rather than sugar-coated “niceness,” Jesus named this distortion and coupled it with an invitation to responsibility for wrongdoing. Jesus boldly recognized the image of God in all who were present and invited the best of that image to shine.

Frank Rogers in Practicing Compassion defines compassion as “being moved in our depths by another’s experience and responding in ways that intend either to ease the suffering or to promote the flourishing within that person.” So what does this mean—easing suffering and promoting flourishing? Some examples are evident. The person without a home needs shelter; the abused child needs safety. Other suffering is less evident. The person deeply shaped by a system that perpetuates injustice, the woman whose self-loathing fuels her own destructive gossip—what does easing suffering and promoting flourishing look like for these?

Rigorous compassion refuses to overlook injustice and wrongdoing but, informed by Christ’s example, goes even further. It calls us to a more nuanced understanding of the ways all people suffer. This kind of rigorous compassion requires firm belief that all humans are created in the image of God. It invites us to recognize that we are God’s beloved children. There is no kindness in permitting humans to perpetrate evil. There is powerful kindness in calling perpetrators to account and inviting them to become more aligned with the truth of their belovedness.

Extending rigorous compassion personally is challenging, even more so politically and globally. But what better way to live like Jesus in our polarized and violent world? Jesus consistently modeled another way—not the way of the left or the way of the right, but a third way. A way that recognizes and calls out the imago dei in all of us.

Practice Prompt

Each day, I use this prayer as a practice to invite myself to rigorous compassion—I pray it first for myself, then for someone easy for me to extend compassion toward, then for someone difficult, then for the world. I invite you to do the same.

May I be safe from internal and external harm,
May I have a calm clear mind, and a peaceful loving heart,
May I be physically strong, healthy, and vital,
May I know love, joy, wonder and wisdom in this life, just as it is.

—Phillip Moffitt

Sharon Conley Cottingham serves as director of Formational Learning at The Upper Room.

This reflection appeared in the August edition of The Upper Room Journal, a monthly newsletter to support you in creating daily life with God. Subscribe here.

Photograph by Peter Conlan / Unsplash

Journal Prompts

Consider the idea of recognizing the Divine Image, the imago dei, in all humankind. How might this perspective impact the way you treat others, especially those you may disagree with or find difficult to understand? 

Think about a specific conflict or polarized situation you've encountered recently. How might adopting Jesus' model of rigorous compassion offer a third way to approach the issue? 

Watch and reflect on this lecture from Frank Rogers’ Practicing Compassion eCourse.

Share your responses with others in the comments below!

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