Once a week, Keith Giles and I do a little podcast that he posts to the web. We decided early on that we were going to make it as informal and conversational as possible, so we usually don't decide on the topic until the day of the podcast. Last week we decided to talk about 'Compassion.' That topic appeared on our radar as a result of a couple of different experiences and conversations we had with people during the preceding weeks about what biblical compassion really is.
I have to say that our conversation during that podcast affected me powerfully. Keith has some amazing things to say about how God moved in his life over the years, and how God has developed a deep, abiding compassion for the homeless in his heart. You can listen to the podcast by clicking here if you like, but I would also like to share my take-aways from that time as well.
Moving Beyond Sympathy and Empathy
One of the striking things I see about biblical compassion is how it moves beyond mere human sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is defined as, "the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune, etc." Empathy on the other hand is, "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings."
On the one hand, we feel badly about what another is going through, on the other hand, we feel badly because we know what they are going through since we have been there ourselves. One is based upon emotion, the other on experience. But in both cases there is nothing that indicates anything tangible will necessarily result. We can be sympathetic or we can be empathetic, and still stand idly by in the midst of suffering or need.
Biblical compassion is different in that it is essentially active. If you look at the references to compassion in the New Testament most all have this active component to them. If, for instance, you look at the book of Matthew; the word is always described as 'moving' someone, particularly Jesus, to act. Of the six references in Matthew to compassion, all involve an active engagement to meet a need:
- Mat. 9:36 Jesus is moved with compassion because the the people have fainted and been scattered abroad like sheep without a shepherd -- and he becomes their shepherd.
- Mat 14:14 Jesus is moved with compassion toward the multitude that come to him sick and infirm -- and he heals them.
- Mat 15:32 Jesus is moved with compassion by the multitude who have been following him for days and have nothing to eat -- and he feeds them.
- Mat 18:27, 33 Jesus tells the story of the lord who is moved with compassion at the plight of his servant -- and looses him and forgives him his debt.
- Mat 20:34 Jesus is moved with compassion by the two blind men that call out to him as he passes by -- and he restores their sight.
Biblical compassion cannot sit on the sidelines, because biblical compassion moves us to act, to do something, to help in some way.
And the amazing thing is that we have the resources to respond to the need, because all God is asking for is "such as I have." Too often we feel that since we don't have 'enough' to meet the need, that whatever we do is of little consequence and therefore not all that important. But the fact is the need can never be met completely by one person...it is not intended to be. It takes each one of us, doing our part, to meet the need.
Think of Peter's response in Acts 3 when the lame man asked alms of he and John when they were on the way to the temple. In my world, I shake my head sadly, admit that I don't have any money and keep walking. I feel bad, but what else can I do? But Peter stops and says, "I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene — walk!"
'What I do have, I give to you!'
That, right there, is the essence of biblical compassion to me. Compassion is doing what we can, with what we have. And think of the incredible result! Instead of a few coins in his pocket, this man walked away having been miraculously healed!
So the next time we are faced with someone in need, maybe we can give them our time, or maybe we have a talent that can be put to use to alleviate the need. Or for some of us, maybe our treasure is what is needed at the moment. Whatever it is doesn't really matter...because it's what we have! And that is all that God expects us to give.
Hearts of Compassion
One of the more poignant moments for me in my conversation with Keith, was when he was describing how he had responsibility for the "compassion ministry" at his church. He expressed how difficult it was to get people engaged and involved, particularly with regard to the homeless. I had to admit to him that, for me, it was incredibly sad that the church had to establish a 'ministry' for what I would think should be the character and nature of all believers. Shouldn't the church be the place where we emulate Jesus? Shouldn't that be the place where the world sees what it means to be 'moved with compassion'? How is that we have to try and motivate people in the church to be compassionate? Isn't that what it means to be a Christian?
As we talked about this, the following verse came to mind:
But whoso hath this world’s goods and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up the compassion of his heart from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? I John 3:17
I think that verse says it all for me...
As new creations, as followers of Jesus, it is not that we do not have hearts of compassion. Rather it is that we actively 'shut them up' when faced with the need of another. We have the resources to help, but we choose not to!
The mental image that I have is that my 'heart of compassion' is like a little voice inside me that says, "Do something!" every time I bump up against someone in need. That little voice does not go away by itself. It does not lose interest in the need and move on. It is a persistent reminder of what Jesus would do. And if I am going to get free of it, I have to 'shut it up'...
There are a number of reasons why we might seek to silence that exhortation to act; among them are fear, insecurity, selfishness, and greed. Whatever the reason, the result is always the same...I withdraw from the opportunity of helping another in need. And in doing so, I forfeit an opportunity to manifest the love of God.
I also find it particularly insightful that the verse specifically references help for 'brethren' -- not the world in general, but the brother in front of me! Too often I think that our vision is directed too far away. There is the sense that there is something noble about seeing how we can send money to third world countries and/or missionaries in far flung regions of the world. But we can be absolutely blind to the needs of the brother or sister who sits next to us in church.
Maybe I see what I want to see...
Or maybe I think it's someone else's responsibility. Maybe I have been conditioned to think that it's the government's job to do for them. Or maybe my pharisaical, self-righteous self feels that they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and 'get a job' or 'be more responsible'. Whatever it is, I think it is beyond controversy that there are many people that we know or are in contact with that could use a little help. The question is: are we going to allow ourselves to be moved with compassion and then open our heart, home and pocketbook to them as the Lord directs?
To those of us that have been telling our hearts of compassion to, "Shut up!", there is a sobering indictment in this verse. It says that if that is indeed the case, then there is no evidence that the love of God dwells in us!
Think about it...
In a world desperate for tangible evidence of the love of God, if we are not being moved by compassion and actively seeking to meet needs out of the storehouse of what we have, then there is no practical witness that God so loved the world and that, as a result, he gave his only begotten son to meet its need!
It should be a truly humbling and moving thing to understand that the world sees the love and compassion of God as we are seeing the needs around us, responding to them with an open heart and giving what we have to meet them.