Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Where Does Compassion Come From?

Recently an attender of our church asked me, on the heels of our series opener from Jonah, “So how can I have a deeper compassion for people, especially those who are not like me?”

To be quite honest, I didn’t know what to say, for I, too, struggle with this – how can I increase in my love for others? So I just started praying right there on the spot for a 'word' that would be both biblical and practical, even while I was thanking him for his question. Sure enough, God’s Spirit was sufficient – he started showing me (in my mind’s eye) people that I had a great love for…men, women, kids, couples whom I had grown to spiritually ache for deeply. And as I thought about each of them, I realized it was their story that had turned my indifference to compassion. Yes, that’s what God used – their story!

Then various verses from the NT epistles began to flash across my mind that spoke of Paul’s love for the saints in various cities and how he knew their story. Whether it was one of poverty (Philippi), persecution (Rome and Thessalonica), or even pain (Corinth), Paul was aware of their journey to and with Christ, and it brought him to a place of intense compassion, even a godly type of jealousy for them. No wonder he consistently called his fellow believers his “joy, his longing, his crown.” He knew them and it helped him love them.

Then God reminded me of his story: An Almighty Creator sending his one-and-only Son to die for people who had no hope. That’s not just a story; that’s the story. The gospel! In that split-second, their stories and his story were merging. And I realized that those two things were common elements with all the people for whom I had a strong and deep compassion.

It began to dawn on me right there – hearing people’s story and knowing God’s story enables compassion to take toot and grow. It is how we begin to “exhort” (or lit., walk along beside) our spiritual family (1 Timothy 5:1). I had seen it in my own life, and I there was ample biblical evidence for the principle. So I shared this with my friend (who was probably wondering why I was stalling with pleasantries). I encouraged him to ask questions, listen closely, and dig for details. I reminded him not to parse words too quickly, but rather hear their heart. Relate to their struggle. "Draw out their story and the why behind it," I said. "You’ll find the seeds of compassion in the soil of their story. Watered with his story, God will move you from indifference to compassion, just as he has me in so many cases.” I then trusted the Spirit to enable him to receive my words with understanding and insight. Knowing this man, I am confident he did.

I’ve thought about that 2-minute encounter many times over the last month. Maybe it was a vision, perhaps just a mental reminder; either way, it became very clear to me that God uses, not only His story, but others’ story, to get me to a level of compassion that can make a difference. But that takes time. Ears. Questions. Actual conversation. Face to face communication. Listening. Then more time. Bigger ears. Deeper questions. And still more conversation.

No wonder there is so little real compassion in the American church of today -- There is very little face-to-face conversation that matters. Not a lot of deep communication. We don’t know each others’ story; we haven’t walked in their shoes, not even vicariously. Truth is, few people actually take time to sit down and listen to someone’s journey. After all, it’s an email world we live in, isn’t it? A blogging atmosphere. A “text-me-if-you-need-me” culture. And we wonder why we get irritated quicker. Frustrated faster. Judgmental and snappy in a heartbeat.

Here’s why: We don’t know their stories, and we have forgotten his story. But that’s where compassion lives – in the stories and in the story. Take the time today to hear one, as well as remember the best one. Then watch God sprout a seed of compassion that can make an eternal difference in the life of even just one.