Compassion: the ability to feel what others are feeling, especially pain.
As far as I can tell, we cannot teach compassion. The source for this capacity to identify with others in sorrow and in joy seems to have its roots in the Holy Spirit. The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)
What we can do however–those of us called to be leaders of the Lord’s people–is to teach our people to act with compassion.
I suspect you have noticed that a large percentage of those calling themselves followers of Jesus turn a deaf ear to the cries of the needy, reacting to requests for help with callousness. Selfishness is innate, no doubt part of our original sinful nature. However, to react against that self-centeredness and go out of our way to help another person is Christlike.
For followers of Jesus, this can be taught. Pastors are ideally situated to show their people and instruct them in how to act with compassion when faced by people in need.
First, the pastor teaches God’s Word. Scripture abounds with such stories and instructions.
Here’s a Bible trivia question.
Where is the only place in the Bible the story of the Good Samaritan can be found?
This fellow looking for eternal life told our Lord that the greatest commands were to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as himself. When Jesus commended him, the man had a question. But Lord, who is my neighbor?
Jesus answered with a story. A man traveling down to Jericho was set upon by thieves, was beaten and wounded and left for dead. Two religious leaders passing that way ignored him, but when a Samaritan–a citizen from that despised territory of religious half-breeds–came upon the man, he went into action, binding him up, ministering to him, then taking him to a nearby inn and arranging for his continued care.
The Lord asked his questioner, “Which of these was neighbor to the man in need?” He answered, “He who showed mercy on him.” Right answer.
Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37 is the only place this story is told.)
Compassion–the capacity to feel the hurt of others–is taught from one end of Scripture to the other. Any pastor or teacher who covers the entire Word will have plenty of occasion to instruct their people in this. Leviticus 19 instructs Israel to leave the edges of the fields for the poor and not to gather a field a second time for the same reason. They were to treat foreigners well since they themselves knew what it was to be a stranger in Egypt.
Proverbs repeatedly calls on God’s people to be merciful to the poor as well as to orphans and widows.Jesus repeatedly taught that “when you make a feast, invite the poor” (Luke 14:13).
I am chagrined every time I hear a church member misquote the Lord: Jesus said the poor you will always have with you. He did indeed, but He was telling the disciples they would have plenty of time to minister to them. He was NOT telling them it was all right to neglect the poor. Much the opposite, in fact.
My strong belief is that Satan has a computer-full of lies, excuses and misrepresentations of God’s word he keeps funneling to naive believers who will not study the Word or think critically. So, they spout these shibboleths as though they have stumbled onto eternal truth.
Some people will do anything to get out of obeying the Lord.
The pastor must lead his people to act with compassion toward those in need.
He will do that in two ways: by his own personal example and by actual take-charge leadership.
As the new pastor of a church, I was being driven around the neighborhood. My host pointed out a concrete parking lot which the church owned. “We put up basketball goals so the youth would have a place to play,” he said. “But the neighborhood kids took them over. When the church youth came, they refused to give up the court. So, we took the goals down.”
I said, “We’ll be putting them back up.” And we did.
The very idea.
What the church’s youth should have done was to join in and play alongside the neighborhood kids. What a great opportunity to reach people for the Lord.
Across the street from the church I presently belong to (and pastored for 14 years) is lovely a soccer field. Originally, the church built it for the students of our school as well as for congregational functions. The hurricane fence surrounding it was erected to keep balls (and children) from running into the street but not to keep anyone out. One day this week, I was pleased to see a group of the neighborhood kids who have no relationship with our church as such, out there playing a game of football.
As the pastor who had had the idea of filling in an ugly parking lot and turning it into a soccer field, I felt like a proud poppa.
One day when I was pastor of this church, some years back, a representative of Franklin Graham’s Samaritan Purse called our office. He was looking for a church in the New Orleans area that would be willing to sponsor a woman from Serbia who was bringing her infant child for major surgery at our Children’s Hospital. The catch was that she and her interpreter would need a home to live in for a minimum of six weeks, daily transportation to and from the hospital (located some 6 or 8 miles away), and all meals.
This person had made numerous calls to pastors all over the metro area. Some simply turned him down and others promised to get back. “I’ve not heard from anyone,” he said.
I said, “You have called the right church. We will do that.”
And we did. When I announced this to my people, several couples immediately volunteered. Some of the ladies offered to assist with meals and a couple of retired men with the transportation. We ended up with the women staying in one of our homes for a month, then moving to another home for the balance of the time. Neither woman was a Christian, but they attended our church during their stay and were showered with love and kindnesses.
This was such a great experience for our church that a few years later when a minister in another part of our state called with a similar need involving a Mexican family, I quickly accepted. “You’ve called the right church,” I told him.
Later, when I found out that he was still calling around, searching for another church to take this responsibility, I phoned him back. “I told you we would do it,” I said. He replied, “You said it so easily I figured you didn’t know what you were getting into.”
I assured him our people had done this before, and what a blessing it had been. In this case, since the woman was from Mexico, she would not need to bring along an interpreter. Our church and our city have a great many people of Hispanic origin, and meeting this need was simple.
Every time I became pastor of a church–and I served six in all–I quickly found out the philosophy toward the needy who walked in off the street asking for assistance. From time to time, an associate pastor would seek to enlighten his new pastor: They’re like leeches around here, Brother Joe. If you give them a dime, they’ll ask for five dollars. Better to send them on their way!
At the time, I did not respond to him. I don’t want him to feel I was reacting to him personally. But in one of our first staff meetings, I always made it a point to tell the entire ministerial staff the following:
Jesus told us to give to whoever asks of us. (Luke 6:30) That means we are going to give something to everyone who walks in here asking for help.
We don’t necessarily have to give them what they ask for or as much as they demand. I’m well aware that some people are users, and are glad to sponge off the good nature of God’s people.
If we err, better to err on the side of generosity, rather than hard-heartedness.
For that reason, we are going to need money to help people. Every time we served the Lord’s Supper, our deacons received offerings at the exits for benevolence. We put money in the budget to help church members who were in need. Beyond this, we encouraged our people to designate money to the church to assist the needy. In two churches, we set up food pantries.
The Scripture says Jesus was moved with compassion. (Matthew 9:36)
It’s not enough to feel the pain of other people or to say loving words. In his epistle, James makes this point. If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace; be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?(James 2:15-16)
We must put our love into action. And like all other godly acts, this can be taught by a faithful teacher who is willing to set the example and take the lead.