By guest author Lorne Meisner, Associate Regional Director - AGC West
Compassion has become a buzzword in our evangelical circles, and it has gained even more prominence during the pandemic of this past year; legitimately so, I might add. Compassionate churches is one of the 3 emphasized “ends” of our AGC movement of churches:
“COMPASSIONATE CHURCHES…assisting churches in engaging believers and non-believers in our communities with mercy, kindness and compassion ministries.”
The very term, “compassion”, has various nuances depending on what tugs at our hearts, such as offering hope to those struggling with addictions or sponsoring refugees . And yet there is a very real risk in reducing “compassion” to a project or such a specific expression. While I agree that compassion should be associated with such expressions, it is so much more than any or all of these expressions.
This 'so much more' is hinted at in Gospel texts such as Matt. 9:36 (ESV)
“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”
or Luke 7:13 (ESV)
“And when the Lord saw her [the mother at Nain who had lost her only son], he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”
In light of these descriptions of Jesus’ ministry to people with significant needs, how do we become people of compassion, both individually and collectively? How do we become churches known for their compassion? How do we express this Christ-like quality near and far—as near as our own homes and communities, and as far abroad as to people 12 time zones away?
I believe that “compassion” that sticks or endures is so much more, so much broader than individual acts or a project or ministry to a particular need that tugs at our hearts.
Compassion has its roots in God’s capacity to feel and experience our human struggles. The God we know through his revelation of himself in the written words of our Bible and through his Son, Jesus Christ, this one true God is not unemotional nor is he uncaring. In fact, just the opposite, he possesses the capacity to feel and to care and to be moved emotionally.
The simpler and root term translated as “passion” has as its most basic meaning the ability or capacity to feel, to endure, to sense life at an emotional level. For example, consider Acts 28:5 (ESV) “[Paul], however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm”, where the term refers to physical hurt or harm. In turn, “compassion” is the capacity to feel with others, in solidarity with them.
The most common use of the root term for “passion” is in relation to Jesus’ sufferings associated with his physical agonies leading up to and including his crucifixion; (see Matthew 16:21; 17:12; Acts 17:3).
But his sufferings also include his capacity to feel the frustrations associated with being limited as human beings; (see Hebrews 2:18; 5:8; 1 Peter 2:21, 23; 4:1).
In summary, God is emotional and feels what we feel; in fact, we can accurately say that our human capacity to feel and be emotional beings is because we are made in the likeness of God.
Scripture also tells us that those who trust in and obediently follow Jesus as their Savior and Lord should expect to share in his sufferings or passions. We do not share in his suffering for our sins on the cross but we are called to share in his feelings, his passions for our sinful and broken world. For example, consider Philippians 1:29 (ESV):
"For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
And furthermore, God’s Word also tells us that as members of the same family of God, as parts of the same body of Christ, we are to share in each other’s sufferings, even as Jesus shares in our sufferings:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together.” (1 Cor. 12:26 ESV).
Just as the head empathizes with the members of the body in their sufferings, so likewise the members of the body empathize with those other parts that ache and hurt. We only need to recall how a strained back or an aching tooth causes our entire body to suffer and slow down. What is true of our physical body is also true of the spiritual body of Christ. We are to be in solidarity with the sufferings and hurts of other believers:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts…” (Colossians 3:12 ESV).
Let’s turn our attention to how this capacity to be in solidarity with the sufferings and hurts of others can be expressed in ways that reflect how Jesus, our Savior and our Model, expressed compassion. For a brief moment let me return us to some of the Gospel references quoted earlier, where we observed Jesus’ compassion for people’s sufferings and physical needs, such as hunger, incurable diseases, and even with physical death itself.
The term that is translated as “compassion” in the Gospels is derived from the word that describes our internal intestines or our bowels and suggests that certain situations and conditions affect these parts of our physiological being, not unlike our English expression, “that turns my stomach” when we see someone suffering. When we enter deeply into another person’s hurt and pain it can quite literally affect us physically, as well as emotionally.
Yet Jesus’ compassion “moved him” beyond the feeling itself to take action to do something to alleviate their suffering and their needs, as is true of genuine compassion; it stirs us to do something, like comforting the grief-stricken friend, or providing a hot meal to someone who is too ill to cook for herself.
Compassion works hand in hand with another quality that is best seen in God, but is also evident in humans who are made in his image, and that is the quality of mercy, which is often defined as kindness extended to those who are in need and cannot help themselves. Mercy, in turn, appeals to God’s power and resources to provide relief, as was the case with the miraculous multiplication of food to feed the hungry, or the power of God to relieve the grief of the mother whose dead son was brought back to life. God’s resources match his kindness and mercy, resulting in the alleviation of the needs and sufferings of those who are not able to help themselves.
I hope you can see the pattern: suffering stirs up compassion, which is solidarity with those who are suffering, which in turn arouses mercy, which in turn appeals to God’s kindness and power to intervene to alleviate the suffering and needs that stirred compassion in the first place.
So just how should this work in our lives?
The pattern is actually one and the same for us as we observe it in the life of Jesus, who is not only the son of God but also the perfect son of Man who models and reflects how God’s image is supposed to function in us.
- First, we need to allow ourselves to feel and suffer with the hurts and needs and the sufferings of others, even to the point where it might affect us physiologically. We need to beware of blocking out our capacity to feel by ignoring the suffering around us or becoming numb to it; but we also need to be on guard not to become so overwhelmed by the immensity of needs that we are paralyzed from acting at all.
- Then we need to invite and allow God’s indwelling Spirit to stir us to feel deeply with others in what I call concentric circles of concern, beginning with…
- Those closest to us—our spouse and family and their hurts/needs;
How do I let those closest to me know that I care and feel in practical ways that can alleviate some of their suffering?
- Those in our communities, at work, at school or in our shared neighbourhoods, such as those who may have lost a loved one, with those who may have lost their employment and have limited financial means, or with those whose health limits their ability to care for some basic needs. How do I express compassion and mercy and help these people in practical ways that alleviate some of their hurts and needs? For starters, we can offer to pray for them, but beyond that we could ask, “Is there anything that I can do to help out?” People’s awareness of their needs has increased with this time of isolation as many struggle with loneliness and anxiety and uncertainty and fear, so there are almost unlimited opportunities to be compassionate!
- On a much broader level, what grabs our hearts in our province, and nation and even globally, such as the plight of our indigenous people, or the tragedy of human trafficking, just to mention a few. While we cannot possibly alleviate all of these needs by ourselves, we should not use that as an excuse to do nothing. Are there one or two youths or refugee families we can help. Is there one orphaned child or needy family that we can afford to sponsor? Believe me when I say that it makes a world of difference for those few we can help.
- Those closest to us—our spouse and family and their hurts/needs;
What is God stirring in us, individually and collectively as churches to do to express his compassion for the needs all around us? I am absolutely convinced that if we ask God’s Spirit to stir us and direct us, He will gladly do so….
Oh God of compassion and mercy and limitless resources, may your Spirit awaken and stir us, your people, to express these same qualities so evident in our Savior, Jesus, to those around us who are so desperately in need of your love and compassion, for the sake of your Kingdom we pray. Amen.