The Science of Compassion

By Deidra Riggs

April 2, 2017

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Romans 12:2


A shoot beginning to sprout out of an egg shell sybolizing new life and growth.Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have found that practicing loving-kindness and compassion actually works to create new maps in our brain. These new maps essentially “shrink” the parts of our brain that trigger our fight-or-flight response.

In the study, Richie Davidson, one of the researchers, defined loving-kindness and compassion by saying, “Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the wish for happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve others’ suffering.”[1] What is fascinating is that the change in brain patterns isn’t accomplished by making someone happy or relieving their suffering. Instead, it’s done over time by desiring good for the other person. As this study suggests, when we truly hope the best for others, even those who seek to harm us, in essence, it turns off our desire to want to see the other person “get what they deserve.”

When we let ourselves be manipulated by rhetoric that encourages us to keep our guard up and treat others with suspicion and fear, we shut down our ability to exercise compassion. We diminish our ability to follow the teaching of Jesus, who called us to love even our enemies. Exercising loving-kindness and compassion does not excuse the evil behavior of others. In fact, I would argue a different point: extending loving-kindness and compassion toward those who would seek to harm us actually makes us more aware of the influence of evil in their lives.

The enemy would like nothing more than to keep us distracted from the fact that he is the true source of all evil in the world. Even Christians forget this. We forget and then we focus our anger on people. Instead, we need to harness the energy of that anger and direct it toward Satan, who is at the root of every act of evil. Do not mistake the actions of people under the influence of evil for the evil one. Extending loving-kindness and compassion toward a person enables us to see more clearly the source of the evil for what it is.

Jesus knew the power of compassion. He knew that desiring good for those we have named “enemy” retrains our brains and transforms us, through the literal renewing of our minds. Practicing loving-kindness and compassion makes it possible for us to de-escalate divisiveness and point people toward something more.


How do you define compassion? How does it help you to remember who our true enemy is?


Lord, I’ve been angry at (insert name of a person, a group of people, or a situation) for a very long time. I’m not sure I even want to desire good for them. Forgive me when I focus my anger in the wrong direction. Have mercy, Lord. Amen.

[1] Dian Land, “Study Shows Compassion Meditation Changes the Brain,” University of Wisconsin—Madison, March 25, 2008


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentaryBe Transformed by the Renewing of Your Minds (Romans 12:1–3)

Deidra Riggs

Writer & Author

Deidra Riggs is a national speaker, an editor, and the founder and host of Jumping Tandem: The Retreat, a bi-annual event for writers, authors, and entrepreneurs. She is a storyteller who creates safe space for navigating...

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