The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. James 5:11b
‘Compassion’...a powerful word reflecting deep emotion, sympathy, and a desire to relieve some kind of suffering or injustice. Believers and non-believers alike feel compassion. The Lord Himself feels compassion. The church often appeals to our compassion to fund humanitarian projects. Political voices appeal to our compassion to advance humanitarian policies and government programs. Non-profit groups draw upon our emotions to advocate their brand of social justice. So, what does this word mean in the larger context of scripture and how does it balance with other aspects of the character of God?
Paul says in Ephesians 4:32 says ‘be kind and compassionate to one another’; words written in the context of fellow believers in the church. Jesus experienced and displayed compassion. In Matthew 9:36-10:1, ‘When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. During His ministry He saw physical helplessness from disease, oppression from the Pharisees, harassment by the Roman government, poverty, and a leaderless mass of His fellow Jews, all suffering in some way.
What Jesus’ compassionate response? We see in verse 35 of Matthew 9 that He taught, preached and healed. He healed disease and infirmity; He cast out demons bringing emotional healing and freedom; He preached the good news of the Kingdom; and He delegated and authorized His 12 closest followers to do the same (Matt. 10). In one case He miraculously fed thousands a single meal because they had a long way to walk home after his preaching. Jesus’ primary response to the feeling of compassion was to teach people about the Kingdom. He taught about a kingdom that, if embraced, would bring life and abundance to every circumstance. He taught about a kingdom that had provision for every circumstance. He taught of a kingdom He would rule and, if they accepted His rule, was open to them. What He did not do was establish man-made systems, programs and policies to solve every form of suffering and neediness.
We see a similar approach implemented by the Apostles in the early church. They taught, delivered, and healed. And they met the physical needs of a small portion, the widows and orphans who were completely helpless in that culture. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles set up long term programs or policies in response to their feelings of compassion.
Jesus and His apostles knew that the proper response to compassion must include wisdom and discernment. They knew that teaching people how to fish was better than giving them a free fish every day. They knew that empowering them with freedom from evil demonic forces would position them to live in God’s kingdom rather than Satan’s kingdom. They knew that dependency of God’s people must be on His provision and His kingdom principles. Jesus said He was the way, the truth and the life. They knew that Godly wisdom and discernment partnered with compassion would create long term solutions only found in Jesus Christ, His kingdom, and His grace.
People who are driven by the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, but do not keep Christ and His kingdom at the fore-front will always develop man-made systems and programs. Those responses, while making people feel good for a moment; usually make the problem broader and more deeply rooted. And, overtime, the people for whom they have compassion often develop an attitude of entitlement, dependency and even co-dependency toward and with those responses. They will not see God’s Kingdom as the answer.
Consider your ministry and your leadership within the church and within our nation. How should you respond when you feel compassion for someone or for some group of people?