The motivation and limits of compassion08 October 2014
What motivates people to serve others? Why do we help those in need, the poor, the sick, the lonely, orphans and widows? Is compassion for humans a natural instinct or is it a learnt response? In the biblical tradition, it is a clear imperative to show one’s faith in God in one’s behaviour by reaching out to others. Luke 10:25−37 seems to be a key passage in the Bible that teaches and exhorts Christians to be compassionate. Psychology teaches us that compassion is a natural instinct in humans although choice is involved too, and it turns out that religion plays a role in reinforcing compassion. This article is an attempt to understand the motivation and limits of compassion as reinforced by the Christian religion by (1) interpreting Luke 10:25−37 in the New Testament and by (2) using modern psychological insights. It often happens that people reach out to others for self-interested reasons, as serving others psychologically gives them a sense of meaning and fulfilment as well as a positive public image. Compassion, however, is also motivated by a love for God and a love and concern for people in general. As caring for others also affects one emotionally and might cause burnout, it is important to set some limits and boundaries on compassion. As God’s love for us leads us to reach out to others, we need to be sure about how and when we should fulfil people’s needs, help them to cope with their own needs, help them to understand the reason for their needs, guide them to fulfilling their own needs or help them to find a place where help is available.