Even a cursory reading of the Gospels would lead one to the conclusion that Jesus was filled with compassion. It is also clear that His followers are to be characterized by compassion. In Matthew 5:7 Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy”. The ones who receive God’s mercy both now and forever are the ones who show mercy now. You cannot give away what you don’t have. The people who are the most favored and fortunate, i.e. “blessed” are the ones who are most compassionate.
What is compassion? One definition that is helpful is one who perceives suffering and weakness or a deficiency in another person and regards that person as a fellow creature. Compassion is not disinterested, rather it readily identifies with the broken. It shares in and with the sufferer and weak ones. It resonates with us (we care about our suffering and deficiencies) and the perception of others as fellow sufferers and deficient ones motivates us to concern and action for them.
When one perceives another compassionately, the weakness of suffering or sin one sees in them is a quality one sees in oneself. It is loving ones neighbor as oneself in a nutshell. The story of the good Samaritan is a case in point. The bonds of fellowship (Philippians 2:1-4) entail a vulnerability to suffering, weakness and death, and a participation in sin, all of which are things we have in common with every person we meet. A church that is a compassionate community not only has a heart that goes out to others, it also has broad shoulders to bear burdens. We are not talking about mere sentimentality, hearts going out while the rest of us is inert. True compassion involves intentional action. If the suffering is physical or mental every effort is made to eliminate it. If there is an inherent weakness in the body or mind then forbearance is demonstrated. If ethical or moral deficiencies are present then forgiveness, mercy and gentleness are appropriate. We too are susceptible to the suffering and weakness we see in others. We too are dying and will die. We too are struggling with sin and need the same gentleness and tender mercy.
Sometimes it is helpful in understanding a virtue like compassion to see its corresponding vice. The vice corresponding to the virtue of compassion is aloofness. It is a disinclination or refusal to see, or a blindness to what we have in common with the sufferer or weak person that we meet. It then involves the inclination to dwell on the differences which create a distance between them and us. We often would rather be right than compassionate. Aloofness is a matter of denying the commonality we share with the broken by focusing upon the appearance of difference between ourselves and others. It is the heartbeat of a “we” (the righteous, good people), “they” (the outsider, contaminated ones) paradigm of the legalist.
Two men go to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee accepts the appearance of his own righteousness and the appearance of sinfulness in the tax collector but totally misses the commonality. The Pharisee is a willing victim of standardized, unspiritual but normal ways of seeing. Being spiritually blind himself he cannot see others as they really are. Hence, the illusion of distance is created. Why? Because he doesn’t know his own heart and others look so very different to him. Why does he not know himself? He is a nice person with a convenient external moral standard but his goodness and self righteousness is blinding him to his commonality with the tax collector. Were he to really see his aloof, condescending attitude toward the tax collector it would be more than enough to render him equal in moral status, and his awareness of his own failure of the heart would move him to a gentle, forbearing spirit. Self righteousness makes compassion toward the broken, sinful, least, last and losers impossible.
It is also rare to meet a compassionate youth. They usually haven’t suffered enough to really identify with or resonate with the brokenness around them. Idealism creates distance and aloofness toward the reality of people who don’t measure up. However, just because someone has suffered does not guarantee a heart fill with compassion. Some sufferers become deeply embittered and consumed with self protection and self pity. Rather than the heart moving out toward others, it becomes more turned inward and shrinks. The trials of life teach some compassion while others become more self-centered. What makes the difference is the healing of the Gospel and coming to terms with our brokenness, accepting it and owning it.
How does the Gospel give birth to a real life of compassion? For the Christian, the story of all stories regarding compassion is the incarnation of Jesus, Emmanuel, the with-us God. In the incarnation God is not merely near us or beside us or around us but even closer. He is one of us. His identification with us is radical. He alters his identity in our direction and for our sakes. He did not just sympathize with us, He took on human nature, bodiliness, susceptibility to sin and death and the whole range of human sadness and joy. He became sin for us. The cross is the ultimate expression of compassion. Human compassion is recognizing someone else’s lowliness as an analogy of the same lowliness in myself, be it actual or potential.
The absolute center of Christianity and the model for all Christian living and behaving is the compassion-driven incarnation and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Once we identify with Him as Lord and Savior, we no longer have any choice about how far we go in identifying with weak, suffering people. However, though the story of the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ is both a model of compassion to imitate and an imperative to, it is so much more. It is primarily good news.
If we truly get the Gospel we will be debtors forever to His grace. God is our absolute benefactor. Our gratitude manifests itself in two ways relevant to compassion. We have a sense of absolute dependency as well as a sense of being extraordinarily blessed. The earning mentality and the meritocracy of works righteousness is the core value of aloofness. It is eradicated by gratitude for grace. If we know ourselves to be absolutely dependent upon God for the most important thing in life then our accomplishments are undermined and prevented from creating a basis for disassociating ourselves from the weak, broken and sinful. True Christian gratitude yields the fruit of identifying with the other, the least, the last, the outcast; it is the foundation of compassion.
Yet, Christian gratitude is more than absolute dependency upon the grace of God; it is also a sense of being radically blessed. We are accepted, deemed worthy, dearly loved and delighted in by our Father. This gives us both the confidence and the humility necessary for compassion. To be grateful is to have the power to be un-self centered. Gratitude is the glad acceptance of our status as beneficiaries of God’s grace. It is accepting our acceptance. It is being at one with or identifying with ourselves as poor, weak and unworthy, and this guarantees compassion. This kind of compassion is not a duty to which we must force ourselves against our wills, but is a compassion in which being curved out toward others and giving of ourselves becomes the most natural thing in the world.
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