What Are “Bowels of Mercy?”

In the scriptures, the word “bowels” is often associated with compassion or empathy. For example:

  • The Apostle Paul encouraged the members of the church in Colossae to “put on…bowels of mercies” (Colossians 3:12).
  • He pleaded with the saints at Phillipi, “if there be any…bowels and mercies,” then they should be unified and kind to one another, and should “each esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:1-3).
  • John questioned how a person with the means to help the poor could “[shut] up his bowels of compassion from him.” He concluded that we should love not “in word,” but “in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).

In all three of these passages, the word “bowels” is a translation of the Greek word splagchna (σπλάγχνα), which refers to the internal organs of the body and which was used as a metaphor for deep feelings of tenderness and compassion. While the King James Version of the Bible usually translates this word as “bowels,” most other versions use the word “heart” or even skip the metaphor, using words like “tenderness” or “affection.” Even the King James Version on some occasions provides a less literal translation, such as when Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, expresses gratitude for “the tender mercy of our God,” where the Greek version says, “the bowels of mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78, NASB Lexicon on biblehub.com).

In modern English, we don’t typically use the word bowels or intestines to describe our emotions, but we do talk about feeling something “in your gut,” or having “butterflies in your stomach.” We might describe sudden, intense experiences as “gut-wrenching” or say that we feel like we’ve been punched or kicked in the gut. So we can relate to Jeremiah’s lament, “My bowels, my bowels! I am pained at my very heart” (Jeremiah 4:19). Or when Joseph sees his younger brother Benjamin for the first time in many years, we understand why “his bowels did yearn…and he sought where to weep” (Genesis 43:30). We also refer to intense emotions which we can’t ignore as “visceral,” referring to the viscera, or the internal organs of the body.

So it’s significant that the prophet Abinadi didn’t just say that the Savior loves us. He said that the Savior has “the bowels of mercy, being filled with compassion towards the children of men” (Mosiah 15:9).

It’s significant that Alma didn’t just tell us that Jesus can empathize with us. He said that the Savior took upon Himself our infirmities “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh” (Alma 7:12).

It’s also significant that, when the Savior saw the multitude He had been teaching in tears, and perceived that they wanted Him to stay with them, He said:

Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.
Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy (3 Nephi 17:6-7).

Today, I will be grateful for the Savior’s perfect and sincere love for us. I will remember that He feels that compassion deeply and intensely. I will strive to emulate His empathy and His mercy in my relationships with other people.

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