Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. | Colossians 3:12–15
Paul spends a chunk of verses at the beginning of Philippians making sure that we are acting with gospel motivation: WHY we act should come from our understanding of Jesus Christ. Paul does this because he knows that even good works will not be God glorifying if we do them for the wrong reasons. He also knows that all other motivations run out: they do not have the strength to keep us going. Last, he knows that a proper motivation points us in the right direction: it shapes us and those around us into holiness. As he begins chapter 2, he makes sure we have a good understanding of gospel motivation, saying:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy | 1
Our efforts should be based on a Trinitarian understanding of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our salvation means that we are invited into this loving relationship and receive encouragement, comfort, and get to participate in God’s plan for the world. This gives us identity, purpose, and the means to keep going when things get hard. It also leads to affection and sympathy. In other words, being in relationship with a loving and merciful God will make you more compassionate toward others.
Compassion (or affection and sympathy) is not just about doing outward things, it is about being able to see others through the lens of the gospel. When Jesus looks on the world, He both weeps (Luke 19.41-44) and rejoices (Luke 10.21-24). Jesus is both frustrated by the destruction of sin and hopeful about the work of the Spirit. When Jesus looks at people, He is able to both see how sin has caused pain and isolation, but He is also able to see the potential of salvation. Compassion is not explaining sin, but loving others enough to see it. To have compassion on others is to love them enough to invest in them when you see their sin; loving them enough to help them fight it.
GK Chesterton addresses this in his book Orthodoxy, talking about the problem of optimists and pessimists:
No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?
This is how we must approach EVERY human being: with an affection that engages them, but with a sympathy that sees them fully in need of Jesus Christ for salvation and for sanctification. Without affection, we become cruel, trying to fix people without caring about them. Without sympathy we begin to trust in the human spirit, believing that people are just fine on their own. The gospel shows us that we must be both optimistic and pessimistic. Every relationship we have should be THROUGH Jesus, seeing both the need for redemption and the hope of redemption. The only way to live in this balance is to understand who we are: sinners saved by grace, by the work of Jesus Christ, and to live out of this reality.