Last month, I thought I was supposed to play piano at church on one particular Sunday. I was actually supposed to play the weekend prior, at a time when I would be in another state. I didn’t realize my mistake until just a few hours before the service, and I felt terrible. My worship leader was thoroughly kind and gracious with me, easing me of any guilt I felt. I, however, had a much harder time offering myself compassion.
When trying to practice self-compassion in circumstances like this, I’m often curious if our self-compassion a Christians is any different from secular self-compassion. We live in a time when self-compassion and self-care are embraced in many Christian spaces. For many Christians, the concepts of self-compassion and self-care have become as common as devotionals or quiet times.
As a mental health professional, I know the research that supports the positive impacts of self-compassion. As a Christian, I believe every single person is to be treated with full human dignity as one bearing God’s image. Adopting self-compassion and self-care doesn’t need to be selfish — it can simply be honoring a person God created, even if that person happens to be you!
Recently, I find myself sensing that Christians are missing something in the broader discussion of self-care and self-compassion. I wonder if we might embrace self-compassion more fully by clearly seeing the purest source of any compassion we experience: God himself.
Thinking about compassion often leads me to this quote by C. S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Something within me wonders if we unknowingly fool around with a half-hearted-self-compassion when we have something far greater offered to us in God’s compassion. Is there a distinction for us as Christians between how we understand (1) the therapeutic concept of self-compassion and (2) the embodiment of God’s compassion in us as his image bearers? And if there is a distinction, what difference does it make?
The Therapeutic Concept of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion guru Kristin Neff looks at this concept from a secular perspective. She defines self-compassion as a practice that includes self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Each of these elements is a beneficial concept and could certainly be integrated with a Christian theology. By blending these ideas with an intentional perspective shift that integrates our faith, we can discover ways these concepts point to God as the source of our compassion and to our embodiment as humans created in God’s image.
Without this awareness of compassion’s source (toward ourselves or others), we might feel as though we’re trying to muster up compassion on our own strength or even seeking healing solutions for ourselves apart from God. Once we are able to get in touch with God’s compassion beating inside of us, we can discover the bigger picture of who God is and who we are, created in his image.
Our Embodiment of God’s Compassion as His Image Bearers
We can trace the source of our compassion to God by grounding our understanding of being human in who God is, the One whose image we bear. This anchors our understanding of self-compassion as coming from God’s very likeness in which he created us.
God’s compassion is revealed throughout Scripture. We hear it in the first adjective God speaks as he proclaims his name before Moses in Exodus 34:6, calling out, “...the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness” (NIV). These words reverberate throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s people recall and proclaim who their God is (2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17, 31; Psa. 86:15, 103:8, 111:4, 112:4, 116:5, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).
Christ’s life is a living embodiment of this compassion as he interacts with hungry crowds and hurting people. His compassion is so rich that it is described by a Greek verb that depicts a person’s innards being moved by the compassion. Matthew 14:14 uses this verb, saying, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (see also Matt. 9:36, 15:32, 18:27, 20:34; Mark 1:41, 6:34, 8:2; Luke 7:13). A more literal translation might read, he was moved by compassion deep within and healed their sick.
The creation narrative in Genesis tells us that people are created in God’s very likeness, often spoken of as the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26-27). Theologian Marc Cortez describes the imago Dei as “a declaration that God intended to create human persons to be the physical means through which he would manifest his own divine presence in the world.”1 If we represent God’s presence on earth as God’s image and his compassion is foundational to who he is, then what we embody is not a self-sourced self-compassion, but instead, God’s compassion itself.
What Difference Does This Make?
Conscious awareness that God is the source of our compassion points us to the beautiful reality that self-compassion is directly connected to him. When we practice self-compassion, we are not accessing something random or ambiguous that has an evidenced-based benefit. We can intentionally acknowledge and delight in the fact that we are accessing a core facet of the God of the universe who created us to be the embodiment of his presence on earth!
This allows us to shift from drawing on a concept that points us inward to one that is anchored in God. This shift reminds us that we do not have to muster up compassion on our own strength — we aren’t the ones healing ourselves. Instead, we have an unending reservoir that we draw from as we embrace and embody God’s compassion straight from its source. This frees us to receive God’s merciful and tender care as he ministers to the wounded and weary depths of our soul that are in need of his compassion and kindness.
Reflecting on this distinction, I see the difference between the therapeutic concept of self-compassion and God’s compassion as nothing less than the difference between a faint hint of smelling chocolate in contrast with savoring a bite of the richest chocolate cake you can imagine melting in your mouth. No wonder the therapeutic concept of self-compassion has exploded in Christian and secular spaces! It gives a tiny taste, a hint, of God's very goodness. There’s a rightness to enjoying who God is and embodying who he is in our being as people.
As we engage in therapeutic self-compassion practices, we have opportunities to remember and look to their source. Rather than turning inward toward ourselves, this points us to lift our gaze to the One who created us and cares for us beyond what we can comprehend. This allows us to enjoy their benefits that research has validated, delighting in an awareness of their healing power and truest source: God himself.
1. Cortez, ReSourcing Theological Anthropology: A Constructive Account of Humanity in Light of Christ, 109. Also see Carmen Imes’s discussion of Cortez in Being God’s Image.
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