I can still see her eyes—beautiful brown eyes, full of fear as she fought to breathe. My patient, a twenty-nine-year-old South African woman, didn’t even know she was HIV positive until she was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. By then, she had progressed to full-blown AIDS and had few treatment options left.
At twenty-four, I was a pharmacy student on clinical rotation in one of the poorest slums outside Cape Town. In a private hospital, a team would’ve intubated Simane, allowing a machine to breathe for her, but this hospital didn’t have the resources for a single ventilator, and its populace was too poor to be considered for transfer elsewhere.
So Simane grew worse, and as she did her eyes searched mine, burning with questions I couldn’t answer. She spoke Xhosa and I spoke English, which reduced any comfort I could offer from words to touch. I rubbed a thumb over her wrist. I stood at her bedside and flipped through the paper chart. I checked and rechecked her oxygen levels, aware that this small gesture changed nothing. And I tried to pray, searching for words I’d never had to pray before. Jesus, are you here?
I returned to the hospital one morning to find Simane’s bed empty. I tore through the chart until I found the truth—deceased 0300. The middle of the night. I felt sick wondering if someone had been there with her or if her last breaths had gone unheard. I returned to the States two weeks later. It’s been years, but I still see her eyes.
The concept of compassion is a deeply rooted part of the Christian faith. In the Old Testament, it’s provided as a defining characteristic of God and the heartbeat of his posture toward Israel despite their slowness in learning to trust him. Isaiah 54:10 puts it this way: “‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” God’s compassion animated his actions.
Compassion isn’t just a characteristic of God. The woven tapestry of God’s chosen people is built from lives that were animated by compassion: Rahab protecting the spies, Ruth offering unyielding loyalty to Naomi, David sparing the life of King Saul, the widow giving the last of her food to the prophet Elijah.
Then Jesus came and put a divine face to the word compassion. Unafraid to touch the leper. Willing to eat with the outcast. Able to cry at the loss of a friend. Gentle with the grieving parent. Giver of food, hope, healing, and salvation.
I’ve always been captivated by a George Orwell quote, “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.” With a profundity that only Christ could offer, he did both.
Matthew’s gospel says, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus saw people. Truly saw them down to the root of their being—the doubt, the misery, the need. The antidote for such a helpless people could only be his presence. And he lavished it on them, “teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness.”
Animated, Not Overwhelmed, by Compassion
I’m Simane’s age now. I have a young son, a happy marriage, a life filled with laughter and good conversations and dreams for the future. Did Simane leave behind a child? What would she have gone on to do? Who would she have become?
God knew her all the days of her life. He held every hour. And he sovereignly brought me into the last of those days to hold her hand. Nothing more. Nothing less. I wish I had been tasked with more. Sometimes I’m angry it couldn’t have been more.
These days, I live nine thousand miles from South Africa, and I work inside my air-conditioned house. I only have to scroll news headlines on Twitter and suddenly I’m standing at Simane’s bedside again, unable to fix the problem and the pain right in front of me. From my quiet suburb, I weep over the latest school shooting. I mourn for the war-torn countries across the ocean. I lament the children fleeing from violence in Myanmar. It aches—the earthly reality that I often cannot touch the ones I pray for. Colossal entities like continents and wars and visa requirements abide in between. Nothing about me is enough. My reach, too short. My resources, too meager. My strength, inadequate.
The helplessness is enough to overwhelm me—what breaks my heart can paralyze my body.
But seeing Simane’s eyes in the faces of others, the same fear and suffering, reminds me of something greater than helplessness, it reminds me that Simane changes the way I live my life. She reminded me of the way of Christ. Because of her, I’m compelled to look up from my path. To see those around me who need to be remembered and who long to be loved. To show compassion to whomever waits right in front of me.
Jesus calls us to see the pain and problems that plague us, but he doesn’t stop there. He also affirms our role by bringing us into his work. As Isaiah called out to Israel, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” As the chosen people of God, we follow Christ, animated by compassion to go, serve, love, offer, sacrifice. At times we are privileged to bring the antibiotics that save a life, and other times, we hold the hand of the sufferer. We become broken hearts with outstretched arms.
The Final Act of Compassion
If compassion was simply an endless state of brokenness over evil and suffering while armed with little more than band-aids and well-wishes, then I would be tempted to ignore the darkness. To live each day in willful ignorance of the horrors around me. But thankfully, I have been promised much more.
The days when I feel most crushed are the days I must refocus on the truth of who Jesus is—our God who sees it all, beginning to end, whose understanding and compassion have no limits. And that this God who sees became a savior who will one day return and heal the entire world. Revelation 21:4 reassures us: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Much to my frustration, I can’t raise the dead or cure disease with a touch, but I can offer what I’ve been given. Love and presence. Understanding. Friendship. Hot soup. A coat. A safe place to rest. And I look for the day when Jesus will be back. When his presence will make all the difference.
Cover image by Jurien Huggins.