Thursday, February 28, 2019

This Thing Called Compassion

I started reading Lysa Terkeurst's book, It's Not Supposed to Be This Way. I had heard bits of her story and I bought the book so I could hear more of her story first hand. I also wanted to see what she has learned from her experiences. I am six chapters in and already know God wants me to learn more about this thing called compassion. So, I've spent a few days contemplating what it means to have compassion.

Literally, the word compassion means to suffer together. Some common synonyms for it are sympathy, fellow feeling, empathy, understanding, concerned, sensitivity, tender-heartedness, gentleness, merciful, considerate, kindness, and charity. Antonyms for it are indifference and heartlessness. One source explained compassion as the marriage between empathy and altruism. Empathy is the ability to take on the perspective of another and experience the emotions they are experiencing. Altruism is the action of helping others. It can have many motives behind it. We might give to a cause to get a tax break. We might perform acts of service to make up for wrong we have done. We might become altruistic to give back the good we have been given. Compassion occurs when we feel empathy and it is what motivates us to carry out altruistic acts to provide help.  

In our western culture we may be tempted to dismiss compassion as something that is too touchy-feely, too codependent, or irrational. But when we feel compassion, we actually secrete oxytocin, which is known as the bonding hormone that lights up the areas of the brain that are linked to empathy, care giving, and feelings of pleasure. It fascinates me that our relational God instructs us to have compassion in Colossians 3:12, "Put on then as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." When we avoid the experience of compassion, we shut down the hormonal process that helps us  form bonds with others.

As we search for the word compassion in Scripture we come across many verses that show us God is a compassionate God. Here are just a few of them:
  • For the Lord will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants when He sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free (Deut. 32:36)
  • But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and He turned toward them, because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has He cast them from His presence until now. (2 Kings 13:23)
  • Yet He, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all His wrath. (Psalm 78:38)
  • Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted. (Isaiah 49:13).
  • And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs. (Daniel 1:9)
  • He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)
  • When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
  • When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them and healed their sick. (Matthew 14:14) 
  • Then Jesus called His disciples to Him and said, "I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they fain on the way." (Matthew 15:32)
God had compassion on the sick, the afflicted, the harassed, the hungry, the imprisoned, the floundering, and those bound by sin. It was out of His compassion that God provided Israel a leader to rescue them from bondage in Egypt. It was out of compassion He disciplined the Israelites when they strayed, so they would turn their hearts back to Him. It was out of compassion God provided Joseph and Daniel favor with those over them. It was out of compassion God provided a Savior to pay for sin. It was out of compassion Jesus was compelled to meet the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of people. His compassion wasn't discriminatory. He showed compassion to the lost, the saved, the young the old, the mentally ill, those under yokes of legalism, those who were marginalized by their culture, to the disabled, and to those possessed by demons. 

God calls us to be compassionate people and sometimes we aren't. I thought of several possible reasons for this. First, we may lack compassion because we don't fully grasp the depth of our own depravity, the ugliness of our sin, or bigness of God's compassion and grace towards us. When we live in denial of the sinful tendencies residing within us, we can lack compassion for unbelievers who are in bondage to sin and need of a Savior. When we live in denial of our own besetting sins and the grace we daily need, we may lack compassion for others struggling to overcome their besetting sin. When we don't acknowledge our own potential to sin, we may lack compassion for those who took a step in the wrong direction and ended up sliding down a slippery slope, falling further than they ever meant to fall.

Without compassion, we tend to be critical self-appointed judges, wanting everyone to "white knuckle it" in regard to sin. I am afraid that reduces us to the white washed tombs talked about in Scripture. It also keeps us stuck in shame so that we don't experience the true freedom that comes with walking honestly with God and each other. Acknowledging sin, both the visible and the invisible, to God and each other allows us to become more compassionate towards ourselves and others. When we understand depravity and the calling of God on our lives to live honestly, we can develop compassionate communities filled with people who confess their faults to one another and experience the joy that comes in walking someone out of the shame into the loving arms of our Jesus. 

Another reason we might not be as compassionate as God has called us to be is that we have forgotten we were created to live in Eden. Since The Fall, we have been living in a world where hurts of all kinds and all intensities exists. And, this will continue to be the case until Jesus comes. When we fail to remember we aren't in Eden, we tend to deny pain, coverup our shameful parts, and swallow the hard questions with which we struggle. We also will tend to want everyone else to pretend everything is okay along with us. So, when someone speaks of losses whether through death, miscarriages, infertility, broken relationships, divorce, or natural disasters, we won't sit and weep with them. Instead, we will hand them platitudes wrapped in Bible verses. This may silence them, but it doesn't resolve their pain. It can also leave them feeling more alone and disconnected because we shut down the bonding process that happens when compassion is squelched.

When someone speaks of harassment experienced or abuse endured, we will be prone to just point them to verses on forgiveness, failing to realize that forgiveness alone will not resolve the pain of victimization. When the first thing out of our mouth is about forgiveness, we fail to show godly the compassion and righteous indignation that flows from the heart of our God, leaving them wondering if God really cares. 

Two other reasons that we may not be compassionate is that we fail to listen to others' stories and we forget that God has made each of us differently. When we don't hear stories and understand the differences in genetic makeup, we can easily misjudge someone. Some have been through one big traumatic event after another, while others have only experienced a few minor traumas. A lack of compassion and a lack of interest in story could cause us to harshly judge someone for the response they are having to a event, not realizing the event is just one trauma in a list of traumatic events in their lives. In addition, some of us have a temperament that is naturally resilient, while others have one that isn't. Some were taught skills in childhood that have helped them develop resilience; others were left to their own devices, finding themselves overwhelmed and anxious. When we don't know the story or the backdrop of a trauma and lack valuable information that would stir our compassion, we can come across as harsh and impatient with suffering.

In addition, some have grown up in homes where they were taught to trust God in the hard and they try to learn from it. But, some have grown up being told the hard in their lives was due to the unacknowledged sin and they are buried under shame for things over which they had no control. Some grew up in homes where they learned the hard stuff proved God didn't exist or that He didn't care about them. If we don't take the time to look at how a person's story fits into God's story, we can put unrealistic expectations on others to act, react, and trust God in ways of which they are not yet capable.

I remember sitting in a counselor's office despising myself for the eating-disordered person I had become. My therapist suggested I read A Boy Called It. After reading it, we discussed how had we not known his story, we would have had a very different perspective of the boy we both admired and how in light of the story he lived, his actions made perfect sense. My counselor assured me that my actions made perfect sense within the context of my story. It was then that I was able to look at myself with compassion and became curious about why I did what I did. I was then able to begin to unashamedly take my struggle to the Lord, giving me a deeper faith and a more exciting walk with Him.  

Giving compassion is a learning process. Looking back, I know there were times I had extended so much compassion towards others I didn't have any left for myself and I was exhausted. There were times, I was too self absorbed to notice the hurt and needs of others and showed little compassion anyone. There were also times I thought I was being compassionate, but realized later my compassion was misguided and instead of helping someone, I stunted their growth. I have also learned compassion can look different depending on the situation. There are times God leads me to act and times God leads me to let someone sit in the misery of their choices until they were willing to do the hard work of change. Sometimes that waiting is hard, but when God leads me to let someone sit in discomfort, I find my heart continues to grows more tender towards them and my prayers more passionate.

That is why God reminded us in Colossians that as His chosen ones, we are to put on kindness, humility, meekness, and patience along with our compassion. If we fail to put all of these on, what we may think is compassion could be an attempt to stroke our own egos or an attempt to alleviate the discomfort we feel in the presence of another's messy life. For compassion to be Biblical, it must be bathed in prayer for only God has the wisdom to help us understand when someone needs to bear their own burden to grow and when someone needs help because their burdens are to big to bear alone. I love this thing called compassion. 

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Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!