Once we received a wedding gift list which included the enigmatic item “glass bowels”.
It left me wondering, “How does that work? Wouldn’t it be painful to have glass bowels – especially on one’s wedding night?”
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised what a wonderful gift “glass bowels” would be in a marriage.
We need brittle bowels if we are to feel for the other and genuinely care.
The key word that describes such feeling in the Bible is the (Greek) word splanchna.
This means literally “intestines”, or more bluntly, “guts”.
It is used to describe Judas’s gory demise in Acts 1:18, “Falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.”
Or, in the KJV: “…he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”
“Bowels of mercy”
This word appears 11 times in the New Testament, and 9 times the KJV translates splanchna as “bowels”. Yet, apart from the reference to Judas’s disembowelment, every other use of the word is non physical. In every other case the word is used metaphorically to denote deep and passionate feeling.
Also the verb form occurs 12 times. It is always used metaphorically to denote deep and passionate feeling.
From splanchna we derive our word “spleen”, which we still use to refer to strong passion, though only evil passion. I.e. when we speak of someone “venting their spleen” which always refers to spitefulness that explodes in an ill temper.
But this is a later development, based on the spleen being regarded as the seat of a melancholy nature; the Bible never uses splanchna in an evil sense.
Vine explains it this way:
splanchna (noun), lit., “the bowels,” which were regarded by the Greeks as the seat of the more violent passions, by the Hebrews as the seat of the tender “affections”; hence the word denotes “tender mercies” and is rendered “affections” in 2 Cor. 6:12 (kjv, “bowels”); “inward affection,” 2 Cor. 7:15. See bowels, compassion, heart, mercy.
splanchnizomai (verb), “to be moved as to one’s inwards (splanchna), to be moved with compassion, to yearn with compassion,” is frequently recorded of Christ towards the multitude and towards individual sufferers.
You can see, then, why the KJV employs the translation, “bowels” (eg. as in “bowels [of compassion]” or “bowels [of mercy]”); though it also uses terms such as “tender [mercy]”, or “moved with compassion” etc.
Nowadays we prefer to leave our bowels out of it if we want to express tender affection. A young man would do well to avoid declaring his love with, “I love you with all my bowels”.
The “heart” has now supplanted the bowels.
Though in reality, neither heart nor bowels – nor spleen, for that matter – are where we physically feel strong emotion. That is more like our gut.
We are probably closer to the truth of the physical effects of strong emotion when we say we are “churned up in our guts”.
The important thing is that we do feel
Recently I read: “We are to care for others because care is love, care is essential to our God-given calling as humans and as Christians.”
And essential to care is that we feel for those we care for.
We cannot properly care for another if we fail to enter into what they are feeling.
This applies especially to those of us in our God-given calling to preach and pastor.
It is important that our preaching be with passion – genuine passion – if those that hear us are to believe that we really believe what we preach. (And passion, by the way, does not mean it has to be in a loud voice.)
Eg. Since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak. (2 Cor 4:13)
But in pastoring, as well as preaching, compassion – genuine compassion – is even more important, if those that we minister to are to believe that we really do care for them and are not just acting out of self-interest.
Eg. We were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us….
…as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children… (1 Thes 2:7-8,11)
No man should contemplate the ministry if he cannot feel for others; or if he cannot put the feelings of others before his own.
“But I’m not that sort of person,” some might say. “I’m not into ‘feelings’ for others like this.”
But the Bible tells us we must deliberately “put on tender mercies” (splanchna oiktirmon, Col 3:12).
We all find that difficult at times, especially with some more than others.
But our ministry will fail if we consistently fail to do so.
In my last post I spoke about how Jesus felt.
Jesus wept. (John 11:35)
He felt deeply His own loss when Lazarus died.
He felt even more deeply for those who mourned: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled”. (John 11:33)
Of the 12 verb forms of splanchna (i.e. splanchnizomai) in the New testament, no less than 9 describe Christ when He was “moved with compassion” for those suffering or in need.
See Matt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34; Mark 1:44, 6:34, 8:2, 9:22, Luke 7:13
(The other three references occur on the lips of Christ in telling His parables. See Matt 18:27, Luke 10:33, 15:20)
Of the 11 noun forms of splanchna, apart from the grizzly description in Acts 1:18, one refers to the “tender mercy” of God (Luke 1:78), the rest are commands or examples (or lack thereof) of deep human affection for us to follow.
See 2 Cor 6:12, 7:15; Phil 1:8, 2:1; Col 3:12; Philem 7,12,20; 1 John 3:17)
From these examples we observe the following:
- If we are being transformed by being conformed to the image off Christ (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18, Phil 3:20-21) we will be like Christ and really feel for others in what they go through – whether it be a spiritual need (eg. Matt 9:36), emotional anguish (Luke 7:13), or physical suffering (eg. sickness Matt 14:14, hunger Matt 15:32).
- If we are to care for others, it is wise to take time to meet one’s own spiritual, as well as physical and emotional, needs (Luke 5:16, Mark 6:31-32). (See again the following post.)
But a feeling for others will motivate us to be willing to put the needs of others before our own (not necessarily selfish) desire for rest or recreation (Mark 6:33-34).
- Christians should be able, not only to feel for one another in this way, but also to express this to those they feel for. (2 Cor 6:11-13)
Feelings can become confused.
They are essential to the care we give, but do not determine how to give that care.
Think of feelings as operating at three levels:
1. Selfish Feelings
At the most basic level our feelings are motivated purely by self-interest.
Eg, We see someone else in trouble, even try to talk to them (though, perhaps, not in a “spirit of meekness” aware of our own frailty, Gal 6:1). But then we are rebuffed by them.
As a result we feel rejected, or even hurt or angry.
Our “feelings” then are those of one who is slighted.
There is no doubt that, at this level, we have “feelings”.
But even if we feel this way at this level (as most of us do at some stage), we are not to stop there (Jas 1:19-20).
Such feelings are not only contrary to the Spirit (Gal 5:16-26, Eph 4:32-5:2, Col 3:12-14), but we cannot help another soul while ever we harbour such bitter feelings.
2. Indulgent Feelings
At the second level we get beyond self-interest and are able to look beyond our own personal hurt; we really do feel the anguish of the other person.
This is important in any pastoral situation; it is difficult to really help someone unless you are able to “sit where they sit” and “feel what they feel.”
As we have seen above, the Bible talks about this in terms of “tenderness”, or “compassion”, or (to use the quaint language of the AV) “bowels of compassion.” It means that you experience in your own soul (and guts) the pain that the other person is enduring.
I can only reiterate how important it is to we are able to do that in any pastoral situation .
Problems arise, though, if we can’t get beyond this. If all we can feel is the other person’s anguish, then all we will want to do is to deliver them from that anguish, no matter what it takes.
You probably know yourself that sometimes you can be in such mental or physical pain, that all you wish is that you could die.
You don’t stop to consider whether this is the best way out or not. All you want is relief from your physical or emotional turmoil.
Hence we have to be able to look beyond simply “feeling” for another person’s present anguish.
3. Thoughtful Feelings
At the third level you still feel for the person as much as ever.
But you feel for them in their circumstances, as well as in how they are feeling in themselves.
For the Christian, this means especially taking into account sin and the tragic consequences of sin.
Even where the person’s pain has not been caused by his/her own sin, you are conscious of the need to avoid quick-fixes that are sinful.
To take an obvious example, if a person is addicted to drugs, he may be crying out in agony for more. You feel for him, all you want is to see his agony relieved. But if you can’t get beyond indulgent feelings, you’ll go and get him more drugs.
But, if you are thoughtful, you will feel AND think: you not only feel his pain, but you weigh up prayerfully the whole complex situation of sin, and addiction, and corruption, and a life that is heading for hell (cf. Prov 5:1-5).
You weep for him, not just because of his pain, but because of all these other things that are intimately bound up with his pain.
And, because of that, you don’t rush to thoughtlessly give him more drugs simply to satisfy his pain.
Rather, you want to see him deal with the whole situation to get his whole life in order.
The Power of the Gospel
Above all, we are aware that the greatest deliverance we all need is to find freedom from the guilt of sin – which is only possible through the power of God in the gospel. (Rom 1:16)
Jesus had great compassion on those sick and suffering.
But His first word to the suffering paralytic was, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” (Mark 2:5).
Jesus felt deeply for this man in his physical suffering.
But rather than immediately alleviating his most evident need (that would come later), He took in the whole picture, felt for him in his deepest need of all, and addressed that first.
(Adapted from an article I wrote in the Protestant Review 20 years ago, Aug-Sep 1999)