Compassion is Underrated

In Colossians 3:12, Paul writes, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts …” As those united to Jesus in his resurrection, we’re to look like him with resurrected compassion. Now, I know it’s good to be compassionate, but how significant is it?

I often hear Christians express noble desires like these: I want a better prayer life; I want to be more disciplined in my devotions; I want to be more bold with the gospel; I want to overcome sexual sin; I want God to help me with my anger; and so on. Indeed, these are holy ambitions.

But I rarely hear Christians say, “I want to become more compassionate.” Why? Is it too embarrassing to say out loud? Or, is it that we don’t value it much? Or think about it much? Now, I know the excellencies of Christ are endless and any attribute is worthy of meditation, but I can’t help but think that compassion may be underrated. So, I want to behold the compassion of Jesus, with the hope that it will help me to become more compassionate like him, and accordingly, more of a blessing to others. Here are three observations:

1) Compassion is Passive

In Matthew 9:36, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a  shepherd.” Matthew uses this word for compassion (or pity) five times (Mt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; and 20:34). Four of the five occurrences are in the passive voice, and one is in the middle voice. Who cares? Well, what this means is that compassion is something that happens to you. Jesus sees the lost sheep and is affected. He sees the hungry people (whether it’s 4000 or 5ooo) and is moved. He sees blind men calling out for mercy and his heart feels deeply. This is compassion. It’s passive. It happens to you.

Christ’s heart is soft and tender, easily moved and affected by the plight of man. He sees the lost sheep, harassed and helpless. The sheep don’t have a good shepherd, only selfish and self-absorbed shepherds (cf. Mt 23:5-7) who fail to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured and find the lost (cf. Ezek 34:2-6) . Their interaction with the sheep is described as “harassing.” What do we make of the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees? Their hearts are stone cold, hard as a rock. And even so, the sheep are still responsible, accountable to God, but helpless. Yet God himself, in the person of Jesus, comes to seek out the lost sheep (Ezek 34:11). Jesus is moved by their lost-ness. He knows the danger of the impending judgement (Mt 25:31-46).

2) Compassion is Active

Jesus is moved and affected, yes, but he is moved to action. Notice how the compassion of Jesus compels him: “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest'” (Mt 9:37-38). And “These twelve Jesus sent out instructing them … ‘Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ … saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Mt 10:5-7). Jesus’ compassion compels him to mission and mobilization. He has compassion on the hungry and feeds them. He has compassion on the blind men and heals them. He has compassion on the lost and calls his disciples to pray for more workers and to go preach and heal. Jesus’ compassion is active. His compassion compels him to action.

3) How to Cultivate Compassion

Looking at the compassion of Jesus highlights my problem. I lack compassion. I see the tenderness of his heart, but it convicts me of the hardness of my own. Why am I not more easily moved and affected by the plight others? Is their hope for my heart? What can I do?

In the context of Matthew 8-9, we see Jesus’s authority over leprosy, paralysis, sickness, demons, nature, sin, and even death. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus has authority over all things; this includes our hearts! He has the authority to say, “Let it be soft.” So, there’s definitely hope. But let’s think about what we can do. Here are 5 ways to help cultivate compassion for the lost:

1) Look at the compassion of Jesus. This kind of beholding has transformative impact (see 2 Cor 3:18).

2) Consider the value of people. Jesus saw the value of people, created in the image of God, and thus precious and loved by God (Isa 43:11). He wasn’t indifferent to anyone.

3) Move toward people & learn their story. It’s easy to move away from people, especially different and difficult people. But since people are precious, Jesus moves toward them. He entered our world, became a man (Phil 2:5-11) and identified with our sufferings and temptations (Heb 2:10; 4:15). He moves toward people. And he knows our stories. Think of Jesus’ interaction with the women at the well (John 4:1-26). He knew how sad and sinful her life was; yes, he knew her story, the exact number of husbands she’d had. But he moved toward her, not away. He listened to her, spoke with her and helped her. He knew the stories of the crowds of lost sheep. He knew all about the “harassed and helpless.” He often had dinner with sinners and tax collectors – even in their homes! I can certainly envision Jesus asking people about their lives as he showed them their need for redemption. He never just listened; he was also always affected.

Often times, the simple act of moving toward a person helps cultivate compassion. As we ask questions and learn about a person’s life and what’s important to them, we better position ourselves to God’s softening power over our hearts. When it comes to moving toward the lost, we must see their story through the theological lens of needing redemption, and as those who are precious to the Redeemer. This will help us to see people the way Jesus does.

4) Remind yourself that you are nothing. Often times, we think we’re something. This is the sinful pull within all those making spiritual progress (Gal 5:25-6:5). But it’s simply not true. We are not “something.” Yes, we’re precious to God, but our value ought to be attributed to God. And our spiritual progress ought to be credited to the work of the Spirit. Paul writes, “When anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal 6:3). And what does this have to do with compassion? Well, pride says, “I’m something” yet fails to see (and own up to) personal weakness, sin and failure, consequently finding it hard to sympathize and bear burdens (Gal 6:1-2).

So, let us remind ourselves that we are nothing. It will help prepare our hearts to be more easily affected by others. This mindset will also positions us in the same boat as the lost, seated nice and close, where we can compassionately guide them.

5) Pray to become more compassionate. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you … If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:7-11). Is asking for more compassion not a good thing?

As those raised with Christ, may God help us to put on compassionate hearts. Amen.

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