The greatest force that keeps us from acting with compassion isn’t apathy—it’s religion.
Religion compartmentalizes our faith into safe little expressions of daily or weekly activity. We give our time to a church, read the Bible in the morning and maybe even tithe—fulfilling our religious obligations in order to distract ourselves from having to consider how we might live out Jesus’ incarnated compassion in a needy world. Religion doesn’t require us to get our hands dirty. It certainly doesn’t call for any grit. It asks us only to pay our dues and check off our boxes, and then it leaves us free to get on with our real lives.
This has been going on in the faith community for centuries—and God hates it.
God hates it so much that he spoke to the nation of Israel through the prophet Amos, warning them against playing the religious game while ignoring the needs of people right in front of them who were hurting in Amos 5: 21-24:
I hate all your show and pretense— the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.
Somewhere along the line, the Israelites gave more attention to praying for those in need than to being present with them. They grew content with reaching out to God through their songs and offerings while refusing to reach out to their neighbors.
The Israelites’ error is the same one we so often make—channeling all of our energy into religious observance without working to bring about a more just, safe and healthy life for people in need. We feel pity, as I assume the Israelites did, but simply feeling pity is precisely what enables us to keep singing our songs to God while never doing anything about the needs that are all around us.
Living with compassion is a different story. It requires action. It compels us to get up close and personal with people. We can’t practice presence from a distance. And we can’t outsource presence to God—because he has already assigned it to us.
Taking the Gloves Off
Years ago, my friend Rick worked on a floor in a hospital where several patients were dying of AIDS. Part of his job was to attend to these patients by changing out their linens and giving them baths.
He told me one time that he had noticed how, when a patient was nearing death, many on the hospital staff provided less care than they had when the patient was in better health. Apparently, it made sense to them to move on to other patients, knowing that the terminal patient would soon pass away regardless.
In particular, Rick described one patient who was in her final days. Everyone knew it, and as usual, the staff became less attentive to her. Near the end, this woman spent large blocks of time alone with her suffering and fear.
One day, Rick walked into her room and went about his job as he did every day. He changed out her linens. He made sure she had what she needed. And then he started to make his way out of the room to move on to the next patient.
But as he reached the door, he looked down at the latex gloves he was wearing and realized that he had never had any interaction with the woman in that room without gloves on.
As he paused in the doorway, he began to reflect on the realities of heaven and how God would want things to be. A question pressed in on him: Should I reach out to this woman who is dying of AIDS and touch her skin-to-skin?
Would he act on the compassion he felt welling up inside him, or would he numb it by going about his business? Would he rip compassion out of the realm of good intentions and put flesh on it?
Rick summoned up his grit and walked over to the dying woman’s bedside. Removing his gloves, he reached out and took hold of her hand with his.
She looked up at him, squeezed his hand and said, “That’s the first time anyone has touched me without gloves on in over two years.”
On earth as it is in heaven.
Three Attitudes of Compassion
Becoming people who act on their compassion requires a change in our thinking. It doesn’t come naturally. And it certainly isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would do it. We must make some conscious and deliberate changes to the way we think about the challenges that other people’s needs present to us.
Let me suggest three shifts in perspective that may be necessary in order for us to move past pity and become people of compassionate reaction when we see a need.
Hurrying is the enemy of compassion. It renders us unable to notice. We’ve all hidden behind that smoke screen of hurry, convincing ourselves that if we don’t notice, we aren’t responsible to act. We’ve timed things just right on the exit ramp so the homeless person on the side of the road was only a blur. We’ve picked up the pace on the sidewalk in order to avoid eye contact. We’ve quickly changed the subject with people who were sharing about a need or a struggle—or worse, we have cut the conversation short with a token “I’ll be praying for you,” which, as we all know, is Christianese for “Can we please move on?”
The kind of patience that compassion requires doesn’t mean passively waiting around. Rather, it means slowing down enough to notice. It means having the discipline to lay off the accelerator so that you can observe the world around you.
Jesus slowed down enough to notice, but he certainly didn’t sit around. He was out walking. He was moving in the towns and in the countryside. And in the middle of his activity, he noticed people.
There is a difference between being busy and being hurried. Busyness has to do with scheduling, appointments and the clock. Hurry is a mindset. We can be busy and still take time to notice what’s happening around us. On the other hand, we can have an open schedule and be hurried, always looking ahead to what’s next, never being in the moment and conveniently bypassing needs that may present themselves.
Stay busy if you want to, but live unhurriedly.
Expect a Mess.
I recently watched a documentary called God Grew Tired of Us, which is about three of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” In the film, one boy talks about walking down a street, seeing a woman crying on the side of the road, and noticing that nobody stopped to comfort her. So he did. He went up to her and in broken English asked her what the trouble was. “When somebody is in pain, the best way is to go and involve in his problem,” he says.
Get involved in his problem. That’s active compassion.
But let’s be honest: Getting involved means we become exposed to the messiness of other people’s lives. Addictions are messy. Divorces are messy. Trauma is messy. Depression is messy.
If we are courageous enough to involve ourselves in people’s needs, we had better expect a mess. Simple, clichéd answers won’t work. Conversations won’t be tied up with neat little bows. The needs of others don’t take a vacation when we do.
But it’s in the midst of the mess that change happens and needs are met. Even our willingness to enter into somebody else’s mess is a way of taking off the gloves to get skin-to-skin.
When the boy in the documentary went up to the crying woman and asked what her problem was, he was afraid she wouldn’t respond. “I thought she would not accept what I say. But she look at me, and she feel a little bit at home.”
If we’re prepared to get a little messy by acting on our compassion, the space we create for people will lead to their feeling “a little bit at home.”
Make Space for Interruption.
A few years ago, Meghan, one of the students in our church, was preparing for her next steps after high school. She had worked hard to put herself in a position to have options after graduation. She had the grades, the experiences and the personality that made her an instant yes for just about any college admissions team. She ended up having her choice of a couple of colleges she liked.
So there she was in August, packing up some of her belongings, loading up her car and saying good-bye to her parents. But Meghan wasn’t driving to a tree-lined campus in one of America’s quaint college towns. She was heading to the airport, on her way to India to work in an orphanage.
Our church had been mobilizing our community to help the Dalit people, the lowest caste in India, who aren’t even considered human by many others in their country. Meghan felt punched in the gut by what she was learning. She couldn’t ignore the compassion stirring in her as she heard their stories. She felt compelled by Jesus to go and serve these people. It interrupted her plans, but she was willing to leave behind the normal course of her life to follow Jesus into something unknown.
People’s needs are inconvenient—to them and often to us. Each day, we may be given small opportunities to put compassion into action. But it might interrupt our lunch plans or our meeting agenda or the plans we had to clean our home. Sometimes, as they did for Meghan, those interruptions happen on a larger scale. Acting on our compassion may compel us toward a new career path. It may redirect how we thought we’d spend our retirement years.
Pitying someone is so much easier than acting with compassion. But feeling pity for others is not the way of Jesus. It’s why compassionate action requires grit. Are you willing to slow down long enough to see the need? Are you OK with stepping into the mess of other people’s lives? Will you hold your plans loosely, allowing space for God to interrupt you with His plans to meet the needs of others?
At some point in your journey, there will be someone by the side of the road for you. It may not be a mother who’s lost a child, a refugee or somebody who’s dying of AIDS; but there will be a need that stirs up compassion in your gut. And when you find yourself wanting to pray that God will meet the need that you know you have the capacity to meet, make the tough choice instead to convert your compassion into action.
I’m not sure there is anything more rewarding than bringing a little heaven here on earth.
This article was adapted from an excerpt of Jason Mitchell’s book, No Easy Jesus. Used with permission.