Learning Compassion

Learning Compassion

Characteristics of the Christian
by Bob Burridge ©2001, 2011

In the Presidential campaign of the year 2000, George W. Bush was able to win some of the support that gave him his slim victory by calling himself a “compassionate conservative”. Voters were very hungry for a type of politics that responded with sincere concern for the people being governed. Of course all the candidates claimed to be the real “compassionate” ones, and accused each of the others of using the word compassion while they were really being oppressive and opportunistic.

In a world guided more by impressions than by God’s word, ideas like compassion are hard to define, and even harder to sort out from the self-serving motives that often lie behind people’s words and actions. Though it is often confused by our fallen hearts, it is the common testimony of all sorts of people that sincere compassion is an important quality.

Compassion is obviously an important attitude
if we are to live together in any kind of civility.

We need to be truly concerned for the well-being of others. People need encouragement, companionship, sympathy, advice, and help in times of calamity.

God created us, and redeems us, to be his earthly kingdom, his family, his flock, his church. We are called the human race. That doesn’t mean we are all racing against one another to beat one another. We are made in the image of God and justified by the death of Jesus Christ so that we can represent God’s love, mercy, and compassion among one another. This means living in community with other people. The difficulty is the sin problem we all have in common.

When our brothers and sisters in the Lord have needs, we are called by God to help them. This mandate from God is summarized in Colossians 3:12-15

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”

Notice that compassion is something we are told to “put on” like our clothing. It is our duty, something we are commanded to do. We don’t just assume that because we are Christians we somehow have all the compassion we need. If it’s there it has to show itself.

Compassion isn’t like a condition without symptoms! When you’ve got it, those around you ought to be able to see its evidences. It is our job to work on those evidences by making sure the cause that produces them is really there in our hearts.

Our fallen nature counterfeits compassion
with something quite its opposite.

What is mistaken for compassion is often just a concern to ease a person’s own troubled conscience. It can show itself as superficial gestures that appear to show concern, but it’s done for the benefits it brings to the person’s own reputation. That does little to really help. Insincere compassion may actually hurt the person more.

The other extreme is when someone condemns superficial gestures in others to appear superior to them. Again, it does nothing to help those in need.

We need to learn how to follow God’s mandate. False compassion doesn’t do what is really good for people. It may look good, and feel good, but in reality it may cause more harm and hurt to those we say we are helping.

    True compassion is not …

  • telling someone whatever makes them feel good even though its a lie.
  • giving a person everything he thinks he ought to have.
  • giving children all the sweets they crave.
  • helping someone ignore their conscience when they have done wrong.
  • paying others to do good in our place, and then think we’ve done our part.
  • leaving our neighbors to the care of government agencies or charities.
  • spending money on solutions that really only prolong a problem.
  • paying able people to stay unemployed when they could be helped to find work.
  • allowing babies to be aborted, when we should be helping the child’s parents deal with challenges. They need to be encouraged to love their babies, and to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
    It’s harder …

  • to tell the truth in tough situations.
  • to help a person understand that what he craves may be harmful to him.
  • to help a person face his faults when he would rather find excuses or blame others.
  • to befriend our disabled neighbors, and to help them with housework, yard work, or to get to the store.

It is not surprising that a society made up of unsanctified souls tends toward false compassion. Fallen people define compassion by what they believe it ought to be. God’s word shows us what true compassion is, and how we can put it on.

God’s method of compassion can be divided into four lessons. I will quote several portions of God’s word here. He says it much better than I can. By reading through these passages it makes it clear that this is God’s method, not one dreamed up by us fallible humans.

Lesson One: We need to understand that
true compassion is only possible in the redeemed.

In our fallen condition, no one is capable of sincere concern for others and for God’s honor.
Romans 3:12 “… There is none who does good, no, not one.”

The First Epistle of John is a detailed study of how love manifests itself in God’s children. It makes the point that true God-honoring compassion can only be found in those who are redeemed by Christ.

Showing compassionate concern for others is one of the marks of a true Christian. If there is no compassion, a person should be very concerned about the reality of his salvation.

1 John 2:10-11, “He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

1 John 3:10-11, “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another,”

A lack of compassion weakens our own confidence that we belong to the Lord.

1 John 3:14-17, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

If a person is redeemed by Christ, then love and compassion should evidence itself.

1 John 4:7-13, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

Our own compassion is the seal of God’s compassion upon us.

1 John 4:16-21, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.”

So the first step in learning to be truly compassionate, it to make your salvation sure. Regeneration alone enables us. There is no other cause for true compassion. All else is a false compassion moved by selfish concerns, needs, and desires.

If we expect to see true compassion expand in our neighborhoods, country, and the world, we need to evangelize with the gospel of Christ.

Lesson Two: We must know how God defines compassion.

God’s word is filled with help about how we can show true care for others. When we know the truth about God and about others as his creatures, and when we remember that all the redeemed are our brothers and sisters by grace, then we will have a foundation for learning to appreciate what is really best for others.

Colossians 3:12-15 describes the elements of that compassion. It must include mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. To be compassionate we need to put up with one another, and be forgiving to each other with love, peace, and thankfulness.

2 Corinthians 1:4 explains how God’s mercies enable us. It is our Savior who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction. We offer the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

1 Peter 3:8-9 puts it this way, “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.”

The love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, shows how this kind of compassion is part of love. In verse 4 it tells us that love is kind. In the next verse Paul continues saying that love “does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;” When self is our center, our compassion is just a means to making us, not others, to feel good.

Paul, in Philippians 2:3 writes, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.”

These verses show us that true compassion not only puts up with rudeness of others, it also responds with kindness. Instead of treating them the way they deserve, compassion treats them as God commands us. This means that the best thing we can do for others, is to help them live by the principles God gives us in his word, and by helping them with their needs inwardly and outwardly as they struggle along.

Lesson Three: Learn what biblical compassion looks like.

It is good to know how the Bible describes compassion. As humans, it also helps us to have examples to follow. The Bible is filled with them. We have examples of compassion and godly models for us to see.

In captivity, Daniel didn’t refrain from forbidden prayer to avoid getting people upset with him. He didn’t disobey God to show what some would think was “compassion” for his captors. He knew it would not be good for them if he hid his prayers to make the pagans feel better about him. Their only hope of real blessing was if they learned God’s ways. True compassion is to humbly and kindly remain a faithful example of godliness. He put that duty above seeking comfort for himself.

Paul didn’t tell the Thessalonians to keep giving food to those who were out of work if they were able to do their part. In sincere and godly compassion he told them in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “… if anyone will not work, neither let him eat.” It was best for them to help the habitually dependent to learn the importance of work and personal responsibility.

Aquilla and Priscilla were thanked in Romans 16:4 because they risked their lives for Paul. They could have just prayed and minded their own business. They could have just repaired tents and lived quiet lives. But that would not have been the compassionate thing to do.

Jesus is of course our greatest example. His whole life is an example of compassion. But he didn’t hide the truth to draw more followers. In John 6:65-66, Jesus said,”… ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.”

He knew it was best for these people to hear the truth. He cared for them so much that he knew it would not be compassionate to keep hard to accept things from them just to make them feel better about themselves.

There are many other examples that could be drawn from Christian history and from the Christian community.

One Christian writer tells of the time when he was riding a subway on a cold Chicago day. An elderly woman shuffled into the subway and took a seat. Her clothes were ragged, barely able to protect her from the bitter Chicago winds. She hunched herself against the cold gripping a worn shawl around her. He said her hands appeared to be white, cracked, and bony.

In contrast a healthy looking young man energetically got on the train. He noticed the pain of the old woman sitting in quiet misery. Three stops later the man left the train leaving his pair of brown leather gloves in her lap.

The writer then says, “He saw her need and responded with compassion while I just sat there. It never occurred to me to give her my gloves. That young man showed compassion in a way I’ll never forget.”

Lesson Four: We need to live by
what we learn about compassion.

Compassion isn’t defined by just a set of facts. It is a way of life. It is true kindness toward those God created to bear his image. It is good intentions put into practice. The Bible says that we must “put it on.” We need to slip into the clothing that honors Christ as we reach out to really help others to see the transforming power of what our Savior accomplished on the cross for his lost and otherwise hopeless people.

In practical terms here are 4 steps that might help us develop Christ-like compassion in our lives once we have been regenerated by his redeeming grace.

1. Become aware of needs in those around you. Pay attention to where they might benefit from your help and encouragement. Perhaps as you pray for each friend and family member this week, you could consider where they would benefit from your personal encouragement and support.

2. Think carefully to know how God would be honored by your help towards them. That means not just doing what they expect from you, or what will cover their pain for the moment. It’s what in the long run will encourage them to develop in love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). Your help should not be given in a judgmental or superior manner. That is arrogance not love. Look for ways that will help, not discourage (Galatians 6:1).

3. Keep studying God’s word prayerfully to fill your thoughts with godly examples. What we occupy our minds with is what we will become (Philippians 4:8).

4. Pray that God will enable you to show true compassion in your life. Once your basic needs are met, set aside your own extravagances, so that you can build up the whole kingdom of God in this world.

Note: The verses in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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