How do we understand this apparent contradiction? Recently Philip Clark gave me the key: God's love is not simple but complex, not just one type but a harmony of several types. Two that Philip mentioned are: affective love, in which the love is a response to the qualities of the other, so that we are affected by the other, and agape love, in which love emanates to the other regardless of their qualities or lack thereof. Christians are used to emphasizing agape because it is the more remarkable and is the one that is supremely exhibited in Christ's death, but we can see that agape embraces affective love in that it could not be full agape if the lover were not affected by the one loved. God's love, it seems, involves both.
Compassion is what a person has for another who is unlike them; the compassionate person possesses some benefit that the other lacks. Typically, (some of) the rich have compassion for the poor, or the happy have compassion for the sad. Prosperity and happiness are benefits. Occasionally the poor have compassion for the rich, who are seen as being enslaved by their wealth; in this case, freedom is a benefit. Compassion is when we see the the other as different from us. The compassionate person uses their resources to help the less-resourced person, but would seldom completely impoverish themselves in doing so; they would seldom transfer all their resources to the other, but would usually seek to even up the imbalance. The compassionate usually involves some notion that the other person 'deserves' better. Compassion has the notion that each is 'due' something right at its heart.
Love is when we see the other as the same as us, and go beyond 'due' and what the other deserves, to empty ourselves for the sake of the other. This kind of love is what Martin Buber seems to have been reaching for when he introduced the idea of the I-Thou relationship. Intimate. The sameness is not ontological, but rather the giving of ourselves for the other on the grounds that the other is worthy. But the worth is not in relation to some external notion of what the other is due, nor in a moral sense, but arises from within us when we are willing to give our very selves for the other. Paul marvels as God's love, "Sometimes someone might be willing to die for a good, righteous man, but God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" [Romans 5:8?]. That God treats us as 'the same' is related to our being in God's image, but it is more than this.
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Created: 8 February 2004. Last updated: 15 February 2004 Philip Clark. 18 June 2010 compassion and love.