True compassion: Offer help, not just advice.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 December
Hebrews 4.14-16 KWL
14 Since we have a great head priest who passed through the heavens—Jesus, God’s son—
we should hold sway by agreeing with him:
15 We don’t have a head priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses.
He was tested by everything just the same—and passed the test sinlessly.
16 So we should come to his gracious throne boldly:
We should receive mercy. We should find the grace to help us in time.

The fruit of the Holy Spirit reflects the thinking and attitude of the Spirit, those traits of his which oughta come pouring out of the people he lives within. And which are invisible, or nearly so, in the people he’s not within—or they’ve figured out a way to fake ’em.

Compassion, the ability to feel for other people, to sympathize with what they’re going through, to want to be gracious and helpful to them, is definitely a Christlike trait. Conversely its lack is definitely an antichristlike trait. Christians will care; antichrists won’t. Christians will reach out when people have need; antichrists will figure those people aren’t their problem… till they start affecting property values or taxes. Or if people who lack compassion wanna look good to the public, or get tax breaks, they figure maybe they should help those people; maybe not exactly the way those people want, but what do they know? If they knew better they wouldn’t be needy. Beggars shouldn’t be choosers anyway.

I’ve worked in a few different charities, and saw firsthand the differing attitudes of the religious and irreligious folks who worked there. In the Christians you’d see the other fruit of the Spirit come out: Patience, kindness, joy, love. In the irreligious Christians and the pagans, frustration, harshness, sarcasm, coldness. “These people. God. They’re so pathetic. Why should we have to help them? Why can’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? Best thing for them. Makes ’em independent. Makes ’em tough and hard. Like me.”

Yeah, I’ve met a lot of not-so-compassionate people in the church, offering their frigid sort of “comfort” to the suffering. I’ve been the recipient of some of it.

How it feels from the other end.

Years ago, during the great recession, I worked for a Christian charity which took advantage of my not-quite-full-time status to not give me any job benefits. I needed some expensive dental work, so I went to the leadership of my church to ask their advice. What I got was, “You need a better job. Let me pray for you. ‘Lord, help him get a better job… Amen.’ Now, you just watch out for that job. It’ll come.”

It didn’t. A few months later I got laid off.

This was all the so-called “help” my church offered. No pointing me towards better job prospects. No asking around on my behalf. No hiring me (like another pastor had done years before). No offering to connect me with people who could help. That church believed in faith healing, but none of ’em offered to pray for my healing. Nothing but “Do for yourself… oh, and God, help him do for himself. Amen.” I may as well have gone to the Tea Party Patriots for help… but let’s not go there.

I should’ve realized this was the common attitude a few years before, back when we met in the city’s community center. Some homeless fella wandered in and saw the table we usually set up with “munchies”—bagels and pastries and coffee and treats, for those of us who like a little breakfast with our church services. “Is this stuff for anyone?” he asked, and once I told him it was, and to help himself, he did.

A few minutes later the wife of one of our pastors came to me with a worried expression on her face.

SHE. “There’s some guy eating at the munchies table.”
ME. “Yeah, I know.”
SHE. “I think he’s homeless.”
ME. “Probably is.”
SHE. “What do you think we oughta do?”
ME. “Ask him if he wants to stay for the service.”

I was no help, so she went to talk to someone else who’d agree with her that such people need to clean up before they walk into our church and eat our food.

Suffice to say for about a month or two after asking for help, I felt like quitting that church. Less-patient Christians would definitely have left. And they wouldn’t have gone to any other church instead. They’d just be done with Christians. If not God.

Because we Christians are supposed to help one another, right? Bear one another’s burdens? Ga 6.2 Ah, but that only means emotional burdens, according to many a Christian. They’re to feel bad about your problems. They’ll weep with those who weep, Ro 12.15 because tears are free. Physical burdens, material help: We don’t do that. We don’t want to foster dependence. We don’t want the needy taking advantage of the church, or of the people in our church. We’re here to save souls, not lives. (Yeah, considering “soul” means “life,” I know how ironic that sounds.)

Yet I’ve heard the gripes from the leadership (’cause I’m usually in leadership): Those people are just looking for a handout. We should give them [a token gift] but never [something valuable]—food but never money, vouchers but never food, coupons but never vouchers, whatever costs us the least. “Give a man a fish” versus “Teach a man to fish” and all that.

Always with the attitude of it’s someone else’s job to care for material needs, or these people need to do for themselves. Certainly God didn’t send them to us to be saved.

And yet these very same leaders actually think they’re helpful when they do the very bare minimum of help. Same as the folks James pointed to in his letter.

James 2.14-17 KWL
14 What’s the point, my fellow Christians, when anyone claims to believe, and takes no action?
Does the “belief” save anyone?
15 When a Christian brother or sister becomes destitute, lacks daily food,
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! May you be warm and fed!”
and doesn’t give them anything useful for their body, what’s the point?
17 This “belief,” when it takes no action, is dead to the core.

The folks who say, “Stay warm; eat well,” yet meet no one’s real needs of clothing and food: What good are they? For that matter, the politicians who say about the victims of gun violence, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” yet do not a thing to decrease the violence: What good are they?

Their so-called compassion consists of feeling bad, praying a bit, and that’s all.

Compare it with Jesus’s compassion. When he saw the sick, he had compassion and cured the sick. When he saw the hungry, he had compassion and fed the hungry. When he saw mourners at a funeral, he had compassion and raised the dead. Jesus’s compassion spurred him to act. And in a fruitful Christian, compassion must produce far more than platitudes.

“We can’t just throw money at it.”

Since Americans live in a wealthy nation, most of us assume the solution to any given problem involves money. The reason the poor have so many troubles is often because they can’t afford to pay bills or hire help. Throw money at ’em.

But whenever we bring up the subject of money, it introduces a whole slew of new problems: People really don’t want to give money to the poor and needy. Sometimes this is for valid reasons. Namely the fact money doesn’t solve every problem (a fact which never seems to occur to people till they’re asked to fund something they don’t wanna). When someone suffers from chronic pain, as much as Americans laud our healthcare system, we all know it’s a money pit: You can empty your bank account, but you’ll never cure the pain. Times haven’t changed any from Jesus’s day.

When someone’s lost a loved one, money actually an insult. What good is money in the face of real, emotional loss? Not that juries don’t try to compensate victims by granting them millions of dollars, but let’s get real: Money makes a mockery of the real issue.

And yeah, scam artists exist. I’ve been scammed by one or two of ’em myself. I knew they didn’t need my money when they asked for it. Lots of people have minor problems, or none at all, and they’re just trying to take what they can get, ’cause taking from charity is easier than work.

However, people’s fears about losing their money are far greater than the actual cases of people who really could be helped fiscally. The devil quite effectively uses our fears—plus our love of money—to keep us from being generous where we should. Those who worship Mammon will refuse to be magnanimous with it. If it doesn’t pay ’em back, they’re never gonna spend it. It’s why charitable donations have to be tax deductible: Mammonists wouldn’t give otherwise.

But we don’t need to throw money at a lot of problems. And it’s a myth every needy person just wants, or needs, money. For some years I was involved with a charity, Love In the Name of Christ (“Love INC,” for short) whose ministry is a very simple and practical idea: When people have needs, go help. Love INC connected with area churches like mine, tapped their volunteers, and we physically helped people.

When a shut-in was about to be evicted from his house, we’d go help move him. When a woman needed a ride to church every Sunday, we’d make sure she got one. When a man couldn’t afford a professional auto mechanic, we found a gifted amateur who could still fix his car. Somebody needed a couch; somebody donated a spare couch.

Yeah, you could solve each of these problems with money, and I’ve also worked for charities which gave people money. But very often money doesn’t need to be part of the solution. True of most problems.

And when we can’t help the main problem, sometimes we can do a whole lot to help all the smaller problems in that person’s life, and alleviate their suffering. A woman in another of my previous churches was going through chemotherapy. I can’t cure cancer. God can, and I can pray and see what the Spirit would do. But what could I do? Simple: I could vacuum her carpets and take care of her cat. The folks in my church could give her rides to and from the hospital. She couldn’t leave the house to go to bible study, but I could lead the bible study at her house. None of this solved her most pressing need, but they still bore some of her burdens.

Action. Not platitudes. Ever read Job?

Most Christians understand talk is cheap. Telling people, “I’m praying for you,” is nice and everything, and can get results if God so desires, but what really shows love is when we personally, physically do something. We come visit. We bring food. We offer to do things. We walk the walk.

Problem is, once we’ve walked the walk, a lot of us figure our actions grant us permission to talk. Sometimes our visits, meant to offer sympathy and compassion, turn into a big pile of platitudes. Remember Job’s friends? Man were they a waste of space.

Most folks skip the middle part of the book of Job. We read the interesting beginning, where God lets the devil destroy his stuff, his family, and his health. Jb 1.1 - 2.10 We read the happy ending, where God gives him the stuff back and gives him more kids. Jb 42.10-17 (Oh, and young-earth creationists read the verses about Behemoth and Leviathan, Jb 40.15, 41.1 KJV and claim these are dinosaurs, and skip the verses about unicorns. Jb 39.9 KJV And claim Job and his friends lived centuries before Abraham’s time, even though they’re Edomites Jb 1.1, Lm 4.21 and therefore Abraham’s descendants.)

In the middle of the book, Job’s friends came to visit. They sat shiva with him for a week, wisely keeping their mouths shut and mourning with him. Good on them. But after a week Job started to vent, and they unwisely saw fit to “correct” him with some of their “wisdom.”

None of it correct, as God later pointed out. Jb 42.7 If you ever read it, you’ll notice nearly all of it is the very same rotten advice we Christians still give the suffering. That’s how I know we don’t read it.

  • Your suffering is God’s judgment. Repent, and God will fix everything.
  • Don’t say “God’s not listening to me.” He always listens.
  • Your suffering is God trying to lead you away from an even greater evil.
  • We deserve so much worse.
  • God knows best. Let’s not criticize his blessings.
  • Just pray really hard, and God will sort everything out.

Just thought I should warn you in advance: Before you’re ever put in a position to advise the suffering, make sure you read all of Job. Not just the fun parts. When we’re trying to comfort people, our words of comfort should not be speculation about what God’s up to, what God’s thinking, why God allowed this, and so forth. Leave the theodicy at home.

True comfort, the product of true compassion, is telling people what you’ll do: “I can help with this. I can do that for you. I’ll be here tomorrow. I’ll take care of that for you. I have a friend who can help, and I’ll call her.”

Ever notice the Holy Spirit comforts us by empowering us? Well, we Christians need to follow his example. Let him empower us to help others.