Love without truth is sweet, syrupy, and weak as sugar water. On the other hand, truth without love can often be quite destructive (cf. Eph. 4:15). Therefore, compassion, in order to be authentic, functions somewhere between these two hurtful extremes. True compassion exhibits the love of the truth and the truth of love that are characteristics of New Testament Christianity.
Unfortunately, too many tend to either naively think that compassion is always sugary sweet and never condemnatory or else cynically believe that no one is a worthy candidate of it. The thesis of this article is that Genuine biblical compassion is neither naive nor cynical. Instead, it is the glue that holds Christianity together, allowing it to be gentle and tender without deteriorating into trite sentimentality, and unpretentiously sacrificial without being melodramatic.
Compassion is not, as some seem to think, a public relations campaign. Neither is it simply an emotion. It is, instead, a divinely inspired action characterized by (1) knowledge, (2) moral outrage, and (3) the capacity to truly identify with the object of one’s compassion. If these three elements were a part of current sentiment, the modern welfare state, as we have come to know it, would not exist.
Those who pride themselves as combatants in the so-called “war on poverty” want us to believe that the difficulties people face today are somehow unique and much more complicated and perverse than at any other time in history. Although many in our society have been indoctrinated with this sentiment, it simply is not true! 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century America had it all: alcoholism, drug addiction, illegitimacy, crime, unemployment, spousal and child abuse, social upheaval, and grinding poverty. What, then, is the difference? Simply this: In the past, those involved in charity were individuals who had a frank, clear-headed, compassionate, but unsentimental, view of human nature. They believed there were some genuinely poor who were truly deserving of charity (i.e., compassion/love). These were beggarly (i.e., destitute, helpless, and powerless) through no fault of their own. At the same time, these charitable individuals and organizations knew that much poverty resulted when individuals, of their own free wills, chose destructive paths (e.g., alcohol and vice); that such erring individuals should and could, with God’s help, change course; that all able to work must do so (2 Thess. 3:10); that those who helped should freely give of their time and love; and that money alone, given indiscriminately, was poisonously destructive. Today, cut off, as it is, from its religious moorings, the modern state sees itself as the engine of progress and the vehicle of man’s salvation. The one-by-one, individual-by-individual, person-to-person work of the past is viewed as too slow and unproductive a process. Relief needs to be universal and immediate. Disagreeing with the idea that most poverty is the result of vice, freely chosen, the state believes people are basically good, with everything this encompasses, and that the elimination of poverty is possible through the “redistribution of wealth.” Furthermore, the modern state seems convinced that the sooner charitable work is rid of the bothersome claptrap of religion, the better everyone will be. As a result, true compassion is most rare.
Currently, compassion is defined by the welfare elites as how much money can be spent each year on the “war on poverty.” To categorize certain individuals as “deserving” or “not deserving” is to “wrongly blame the victims,” we are told. Now, after six-plus decades of experience with this modern system, are the poor—entitled as they are to a government welfare check, food stamps, rent subsidies, and a host of other program benefits from the state bureaucracy—any better off? Has poverty been eliminated? Has it even been reduced? If not, isn’t the only viable alternative a return to genuine biblical compassion?
It is no accident that the three elements that comprise genuine compassion are exhibited by the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who was the complete and final revelation of God to man. Consequently, We turn our attention to an examination of these elements as they were manifested by our Lord.