Compassion, the dictionary tells us, is a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. This, frankly, does not sound pleasant. It sounds almost like a sickness, a disease. No wonder we avoid it. At least I think we do.
It has seemed to me lately as I consider the suffering in the world—and the way in which we as the Church seem, at times, unmoved by it—that we have perhaps inoculated ourselves against the disease of compassion. A disease our Lord and Savior seemed to be stricken with.
We fill shoe boxes at Christmas, serve at a soup kitchens once a month or sponsor a child all year long. Our churches ask us to bring in our old clothes, some extra food or a toy for a child in need. So we do. We feel good, like we have done something that makes a difference. And we have, and it probably does. These things are good and worthy, but I am afraid that we do them not only because we want to help, I know we genuinely do want to help. But I think sometimes we also do them so that we can stop feeling that deep sympathy, that sorrow and desire to alleviate suffering. Because it can get in the way of our lives, our plans and our stuff.
These acts can serve as inoculations. They keep the real disease at bay just enough so that when we are driving our third car to our second home for our fourth vacation we don’t feel the pull of our consciences. And if we do we can happily point them to the activities we have done or the checks we have written. “See” we could tell any lingering feelings of concern over what we may yet be able to do to alleviate suffering, “I have done my part.”
This is why I feel these inoculations may do more harm than good. Far be it from me to say anyone should refrain from child sponsorship, Christmas giving or service projects, but if the end result is just hit and run giving and doing while systems of suffering and oppression remain in place and our daily practices and hearts remain untouched, then maybe it is better that we stop. As John Stott said, “God wants his people to become like Christ, for Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.” And without the disease of compassion it seems impossible to fulfill this desire, for Jesus suffered from compassion throughout his life.
When he went ashore, he saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick. (Matthew 14:14)
And Jesus called his disciples to him, and said, “I feel compassion for the people, because they have remained with me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” (Matthew 15:32)
And two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd sternly told them to be quiet, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.” Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed him. (Matthew 20:34)
And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching him and falling on his knees before him, and saying, “If you are willing, You can make me clean.” 41 Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” (Mark 1:40-41)
He went to a city called Nain; and his disciples were going along with him, accompanied by a large crowd. Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And he came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” (Luke 7:11-14)
It must have been terribly inconvenient for the son of God to be constantly interrupted with the weakness of humanity. With our hunger, our sickness, our weakness and our pain in desperate need of his touch. But it never seems to have bothered him. Whether it interrupted a journey, a sermon or a fishing trip, he allowed himself to suffer the disease of compassion and to do what it demanded of him – to heal, to feed, to stop and walk alongside the broken.
But it seems that too often his body here on earth is not doing the same: that we, the light he called to dispel the darkness, are content with inoculating ourselves against feeling the suffering of the world we are meant to serve. We do not want to bear the burden of what must have broken our savior’s heart. All of those hungry people wanting to be fed. The sick asking to be healed. The lepers cast out of society. The demon possessed searching for an escape from their torment. He did not turn away. But we do. All the time. Every day.
It is too much. That I readily acknowledge. There is too much suffering. Too much violence. Too much poverty and disease. Too much oppression and fear. It is hard and it is heartbreaking. But that is why we are needed in the midst of it all. We are not called to drop off a gift once a year, to write a check and nothing more, to donate things but not engage our hearts, to serve when it serves us. None of this is bad or wrong, but when it is done in order to or with the effect of preventing our hearts from breaking for the lost, the broken and the hurting then I think we do more harm than good. We should stop the inoculations and allow the disease to run its course. In the end the world would be better off.