In the old days, I’d stop and pick up any hitchhiker that wasn’t dressed in a black robe and carrying a scythe. I’d give anyone money who asked me for it. I would not think about the consequences of lending money to someone; I’d just do it and say goodbye. And I was right—no one who has borrowed money from me has every paid it back. Good riddance, I suppose.
If you’d asked me why I did such things back in my teens and early 20s I’d have said it was what Jesus said to do. Luke 6 would have come to mind, “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (vs. 38). And I knew the story of the Samaritan well enough to know that showing kindness to those outside your tribe was honorable and encouraged.
Something changed when I moved to the big city. Jackson, MS, where I became friends with black folks for the first time—quite a shock to the system. I never went to the poor section of Prentiss, MS. In college, I lived in the worst part of Jackson for 3 months and attended a church there. Had a black roommate, and got to ask him some pretty ignorant-sounding questions. I learned a lot from my new friends and my teachers at Belhaven about social ministry, race relations, and I ended up majoring in community development and studying and volunteering at John Perkin’s Voice of Calvary ministries. The result of all that was a larger pool of knowledge about the poor, but a decreasing pool of generosity. I learned how the sausage was made, and that made a difference.
I say all that to plead with you—don’t let this happen to you. It’s easy to get over-educated and then be happy with your theories and paradoxes and tensions and not ever actually do a blasted thing to help someone. So I beg of you, friend. Let faith have its way; do not grieve the Spirit.
How do we start to understand what it’s like to be compassionate as believers, individually or corporately, outside the church? It starts with a question: “What’s your definition of compassion?”
com·pas·sion (km-pshn) n. Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.
This is the sort of wholly impersonal, but theoretically well-intentioned, caring and empathy that most people get pretty good at faking. Under this definition, proper emotional response and a willingness to spend money or another renewable resource are sufficient.
Marvin Olasky, in his writings on generosity and poverty, asks for a return to an older definition, from Webster’s 1828 dictionary:
compassion: \Com*pas”sion\, n. [F., fr. L. compassio, fr. compati to have compassion; com- + pati to bear, suffer. See Patient.] Literally, suffering with another; a sensation of sorrow excited by the distress or misfortunes of another; pity; commiseration.
Notice how this requires more. In the first definition, I can, as a pastor, go to a bedside or pass by someone on the roadside and say a prayer and quote the Bible and be on my way. But as James 2 wisely states, “[If you say to the needy] ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
The giving of something that costs you nothing has become an art form. Such deeds may be photographed, Facebooked, and memorialized. But they cannot be measured because they literally do no one any good except to extend the reputation or self-righteousness of the giver.
In the second definition, love is required. If we are going to love our neighbor as ourselves, if we are going to owe no man anything but a debt of love (Romans 13:8), then it is this sort of incarnational compassion that must become our ideal.
Stop right here. Let this ring you like a bell. See how this sloppy, messy, commiseration sends us into the world? Not with theories or rhetoric but in our best grubbies?
See the existential struggles this resolves—
- Should I help the unbelieving people on Facebook who give their tales of woe? Well, can you? Are they willing to leave their insane world and live at your home and have you serve them and give them the first taste of “normal” they may have ever had? You can offer them new life.
- Should I help the poverty-stricken parts of my community? Well, can you? They can’t all move into your home, but you can move to be with them. You can sell your home, and buy one in their community, and start listening, start loving on your new neighbors and find out how you can really help.
- Should I support Compassion Children International Network with my money, or should I give locally, or should I give at all? I don’t know. Do you have money left over from caring for your family and the people whose lives you are shoulder-deep in already? If you have money left over from helping the poor in your church (see Jay Barfield’s article), and investing true, burden-bearing compassion in the lives of the poverty-stricken around you, then of course you may.
The list continues. Are you going to need help when a homeless man moves into your home? Yes. You can’t do it alone. Are you going to need help when you decide to sell your home and move across the tracks? Yes. You can’t do it alone. These works of incarnational compassion cannot be done alone. Jesus was in union with the Father and the Spirit, and we must not think that we are going out alone, but in union with the church and with his Bride.
Neither the giver nor the receiver can be content with a piece of bread and some tossed change. Today’s modern welfare state expects he can. Those who control the money in our society think that giving a dollar at the train station and then appropriating a billion dollars for federal housing can cure the cancer of poverty. But the crisis of the modern welfare state is an alert to us believers that we cannot model our care for the masses after them. We cannot set up private/religious charities that do the same thing as the federal ones and think that is the answer.
It is the notion of suffering with someone that is transformative, Gospel-powered compassion. In this sense, government action is bad not just because it turns those it is intended to help into dependents, but also because it creates a distance between the intended beneficiaries and the rest of us, who should actually be required to participate in their suffering. This participatory compassion is only possible when coming from the church and bound with faith.
The needy in our community require our love. Our time. They need us to suffer with them, as Webster rightly defined compassion. The open wallet has nothing to offer those with empty hearts and no home. But the open door, the empty seat at the table, the offer of employment to the nomadic who have given up on human relatio
nships—this is what believers can offer.
It’s time we realized that there is only so much that public policy can do, and so much that Christian works modeled after such policies can do. As Olasky has been saying for 30 years, “Only a richness of spirit can battle a poverty of soul.”