Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Problem with Compassion

Compassion is a fine quality. But an excess of emotion without appropriate practical follow-up always seems to end very badly indeed.

Now I’m not talking about Leftist social engineering, professional fundraising or the welfare state when I use the word “compassion”. Such projects are promoted as compassionate and claim a tender-hearted motive but produce little effect. Professional fundraisers often absorb most of the funds they raise. The welfare system is so administration-heavy and fraud-ridden that handing stacks of cash to the visibly distressed on the street might well mitigate the effects of poverty more efficiently.

We may credit Progressives and Redistributionists with good intentions if we are being generous, but those ideologies have never been effective at producing their desired outcome — the only metric by which we may judge the fruits of compassion.

Caring, or Appearing to Care?

If one were a complete cynic, one might hypothesize that it is actually more important for the Organized Compassionate in the world to be seen to be doing something kind than to actually accomplish anything.

Real compassion is concerned with real solutions.

No, it’s genuine Christian compassion I’m talking about: compassion that touches people in need in a practical way and reaches out to a lost world. Compassion is about much more than fuzzy feelings. It’s about setting out to fix problems in a discerning, foresighted and efficient way — at least that’s how God’s compassion works.

And those who genuinely care will exercise Christian discernment as they display love.

The Meaning of Compassion

A number of different Greek words are translated “compassion” in English. At least two of these relate primarily to the practical consequences of compassion rather than the motive for it. For example, Romans 9:15 says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” In context this is both judicial and corporate. It has nothing to do with how God feels about individuals, saved or unsaved. Rather it has to do with the purposes of God in history and his judgment and dealings with respect to nations and other groups. It tells us something useful about the God we worship but doesn’t teach us a thing about dealing with those who are struggling in our societies, families or churches.

The word most frequently translated “compassion” in the New Testament, oddly enough, is used only of God and only in the gospels. The word splanknizomai comes from a root that is translated “spleen”, and refers to a compassion that is a deep, emotional sympathy. It describes a tenderness that affects you down to the core of your being. It should not surprise us that our Great High Priest should be so frequently described as compassionate. We read in Hebrews:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
By this we understand that our Lord does not merely examine his people clinically from a discreet distance and make appropriate adjustments to our conditions. Rather, his own experience on earth has given him a visceral connection with the pain, struggles, impulses, desires and emotional deliberations of his servants that sometimes lead us into compromise, rebellion, bitterness, hopelessness or failure — though we must always be clear that in the Lord’s case it is quite apart from any sinful response or inclination. Such pressures never led him to the places we often sink to, but all the same he has a keen and absolutely thorough understanding of the feelings and issues involved.

Compassion on Display

Several representative examples of the compassionate tenderness of God:
  • Jesus had compassion on those whom the “system” had let down: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
  • Jesus had compassion on those without resources: We read, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.”
  • God has compassion on the repentant sinner: In the parable of the prodigal son, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
An Emphasis on the Practical

These are the sorts of situations that give rise to godly compassion, as demonstrated in the words and actions of the Lord Jesus. But there is nothing of the Progressive ideologue in God’s sympathy. Even his “short-term fixes” — the healings, food, the relief of demonic oppression — are never calculated to draw attention to him or get him a pat on the back, or he would not have involved the disciples so directly. (Nor, incidentally, are the resources for relief extracted from the general public by way of taxation or pleas for charity.) The meeting of physical needs always serves a spiritual end, and it is always part of a long-term plan to address the deepest of human desires. His feelings are genuine and passionate, but always — ALWAYS, without exception — he has something both practical and long-lasting in mind in response to the feelings aroused in him:
  • Would the Lord leave “sheep” without a “shepherd”? Of course not. First he tells his disciples to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest”. Then, once their hearts have been conditioned to respond to the need he first perceived, he sends them out to meet those needs in fulfillment of their own prayers. He provides immediate relief, but note that this is no short-term patch job: his plan to meet the needs of the masses extends down through the centuries to this very day.
  • Let’s not get caught up in the obvious physical relief offered by providing bread and fish to a famished crowd. It is clear that the Lord intended his miracles as more than an immediate fix to physical hunger. They were a giant signpost indicating where and through whom spiritual hunger might be met and permanently satisfied. Consequently he again involves his disciples: he took their resources, multiplied them and had his disciples pass them out to the crowd, perhaps suggesting that when he was no longer on the scene, they would still be equipped to do so.
  • In the case of the compassionate father to the prodigal, he didn’t wait for his son’s groveling speech. He simply responded to his return, which was the evidence of the son’s change of heart. And the practical consequences of that compassion? He restored the prodigal fully and celebrated his return with music, dancing and a fatted calf. In fact, the intensity of the father’s expression of compassion was so great that it actually angered the prodigal’s elder brother who was looking to see the sinner take a few well-deserved lumps.
The Compassion of Christ

Can we be as compassionate as Christ?

Silly question, isn’t it. We are realists here, I’m sure. We are never commanded to have or to acquire splanknizomai, or deep emotional compassion, for our fellow man. Such feelings may develop very naturally over time as we walk with the Lord, but God is not looking for us to try to work up some empty emotion, to shed tears and beat our breasts over those in need while we walk away without doing anything practical.

He’s looking for us to act.

The Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant is instructive: the Master who forgives has emotional compassion (splanknizomai) for the indebted servant. But he does not demand that his servant contrive to feel the same way about those who are in his debt. He simply insists that he legally forgive or grant them mercy (eleeo); that he not hold their debts against them.

It is not for lack of feeling that the servant is punished. It is for lack of appropriate action.

The problem with compassion is that feelings alone never cut it.

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