compassion

Triune Compassion

From one angle, the storyline of Scripture is a story of grief. We are born into grief, grief is not something we only enter into when a loved one dies, it is what we enter into at birth. Grief is always linked to loss—consider then the magnitude of humanity’s loss. We are born east of Eden, separated from God, alienated from others, enslaved to our sin, and heading to hell.

After the fall we know vertical and horizontal, internal and external fragmentation. We have lost so much. We may not be able to articulate the heaviness of living in a cursed world, but we feel it. WE ARE GRIEVING.

Pain is humanity’s common ground—it is the air we breathe. Sorrow is the norm, loss the expectation, suffering the status quo. All creation groans, it quakes, it grieves under the weight of sorrow and the pain of sin. The ache for redemption is almost audible.

The sorrow of this world runs deep. It is like the depths of the ocean…when you press down into it, it is a vast, rugged world all its own. A sorrow, that without Christ would know no end—an eternal grief, an everlasting loss, an existence without hope and without comfort for all eternity.

Into this heavy darkness enters the God of all compassion. When Paul considers the compassion of God he breaks forth into praise. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the compassionate father and God of all comfort!” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Blessed be the Triune God who does not leave us languishing in sorrow, but engages this world of pain with fierce compassion and mighty gentleness.

God engages us with compassion and comfort that reaches the very the depths of the sorrow this world knows—He gets up underneath it, shoulders it and provides the redeeming comfort humanity needs. The Triune God of the universe is compassionate: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Compassionate Heart of the Father

When the Father opens his mouth to speak of his heart, what comes out? “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7). Compassion is the first word that comes out of his mouth.

The Old Testament is filled with references to the compassionate and comforting presence of God to his hurting people. “Comfort, Comfort my people says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)—this is the consistent and steady message of God “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).

The classic story of the Prodigal Son is a window into the heart of the Father. The story mentions says that when the son was far off the father saw him and “had compassion on him” (Luke 15:20). He rose to his feet, ran to him and embraced him. This was unheard of for a father in the first century context. Compassion compelled the Father to run to the hurting and lost.

 The Compassionate Wounds of the Son

Compassion comes walking in the incarnation. In Jesus, we see what compassion looks like, tastes like, smells like, and sounds like. B.B. Warfield wrote a book titled, The Emotional Life of our Lord. In it, he explores all the emotions we witness in the life of Jesus. He makes an important point, the emotion most often expressed by Jesus was compassion. The word used to describe “compassion” speaks literally of a sensation in the guts. To engage with compassion is to engage a suffering world from the gut.

Jesus was moved by compassion when he encountered these various situations.

  • A man with leprosy (Mk 1:41)
  • The death of a widow’s son (Lk 7:13)
  • Two blind men (Matt 20:34)
  • Hungry crowds (Matt 15:32, Mk 8:2)
  • A demon possessed boy (Mk 9:22)
  • Harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)

This examples show that Jesus was moved by compassion when encountering bodily ailments, individuals who were outcasts, death and loss, individuals assaulted by satan and his cohorts, physical needs, and spiritual lostness.

In Jesus, we see compassion. It looks like a tear stained face that aches over death. It tastes like fire-seared fish in the mouth of men who had disowned him days earlier. It smells like broken bread and poured out wine. It sounds like a Roman hammer pounding nails into flesh and a rock rolling away from a rich man’s tomb.

Jesus shows us compassion. He shows us that compassion…

  • is a posture that refuses to back down from pain
  • does not hide from suffering
  • runs head long into the sorrow of others
  • does not deny, minimize, or numb pain—it shoulders it
  • is not a mere emotion, it is a posture, a way of being in the world
  • is love when it meets pain

Compassion is rebellion. It refuses to lay down to pain. It wades right into the heart of suffering and wages war. It seeks to absorb and shoulder the pain of another. It inserts kindness, love and patience into the darkest of places.

This truth about Jesus has been deeply life-giving…and to be honest has kept my faith intact on many occasions. This world desperately needs a compassionate God—a God with a tear stained face, a man of Sorrows, a God with dirty feet, and bloody hands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right, “Only a Suffering God Can Help,” and He has!

The Compassionate Presence of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Great Comforter—compassion is integral to his character and activity. He comes to bring the comfort of Christ. It is his role to communicate the compassion of God through Christ to us.

He is deeply compassionate as he enters into our sufferings with the comfort of God, shares our pain and journeys with us through every hardship we face. If we have trusted Christ, we have never walked through anything without him. Since he took up residence within us, he has known our every grief. The pain beyond words, that hurt outside the scope of speech, He knows, He understands, He groans over, and He communicates about it to the Father for you. Where would we be without Him!

The Triune God engages in our sorrow, he brings us comfort through his gospel. He does not take away our pain…he walks with us in it, serves us, loves us and enables us to persevere through it. This is the movement of the Triune God toward the world—a costly compassion that brings comfort to a ruptured world. Blessed be this great God!

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Wisdom from Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares a nugget of wisdom in his Papers and Letters from Prison. The proper way to view other human beings is through a particular lens colored by humility, self-awareness and compassion. See what he has to see about the matter.

The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.

Compassion as Rebellion

Pain is a constant in human existence. This regularity necessitates response, which in time becomes habitual. We develop a particular posture toward pain and a way of handling life when it hurts. These mechanisms for coping, making meaning and supporting others have great potential for help or harm.

Responses that work to ignore, deny, minimize and numb pain are at best unhelpful. More likely than not, approaches with these hidden or explicit intentions end up compounding one’s pain.

Pain must be looked directly in the face. It must be experienced and it must be resisted. In other words, it must be engaged with compassion. Compassion is that posture that refuses to back down from pain.

Compassion does not run, it does not deny or minimize, it does not numb. Compassion is courage in the face of pain, it is a passionate unwillingness to accept suffering as a static reality. Walter Brueggemann says it best.

“Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.”

Compassion is rebellion. It refuses to lay down to pain. It wades right into the heart of suffering and wages war. It seeks to absorb and shoulder the pain of another. It inserts kindness, love and patience into the darkest of places.

Pain will not be rendered impotent until the return of the King. Yet, he has not left us without weapons for the battle, the greatest of which is compassion.

The Gospel and Grief

The Bible is the definitive guide to grief. Unflinchingly honest, the Scriptures tell us about the roots and realities of life in a ruptured world. It provides solace in our suffering and resources to persevere in the face of seemingly unbearable circumstances.

At the heart of divine revelation stands the gospel of God: the good news of a suffering God on a tree, an empty tomb, and an exalted King. It is this message that provides the greatest power and hope amid tragedy.

To begin with, the gospel is about rescuing us from the ravages of sin, death and the evil one. It is our only hope for a renewed world, healed relationships and mended selves.

The cessation of pain is a future reality guaranteed by the work of Christ. He became the man of sorrows to rid us of sorrow. He died to end the reign of death. He suffered to extinguish suffering. For the Christian, grief and pain are a temporary state of affairs. This future hope gives us courage in our pain and grit as we hold to God’s promises.

The gospel that saves us also shows us the nature of God. The person and work of Christ are the clearest display of the character of our Creator. In him, we see compassion embodied. The number one emotion attributed to Jesus in the New Testament is compassion.

The language of compassion repeatedly applied to Christ literally refers to the bowels or inner-parts. It refers to a deep, visceral response to the pain of others. When Christ encountered pain he engaged from his gut with grace, love and grief.

It has been said that compassion is love as it encounters pain. The idea of compassion is to “suffer with” another person. We see this in Jesus. He grieves with those who grieve. He weeps, sighs and aches when encountering hurting humans.

The gospel of Christ displays a God who comes near, enters the fray and suffers with and for us. God is present to us in our pain. Presence may be the single most comforting and important thing we can provide when others are grieving.

Absorbing the Pain of Others

Compassion at heart is to suffer with someone, to enter their pain, shoulder their suffering and walk with them in their valley. Stanley Hauerwas hits the nail on the head in his discussion on the appropriate posture of Christians toward the problem of evil…we need a pastoral posture rather than a philosophical stance.

“For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be ‘explained.’ Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be ‘explained’—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering.”

This gets to the heart of the matter, how are we genuinely going to help one another on the journey of faith? Answers can only go so far in the service of a suffering brother or sister. Putting your arm around a limping friend and walking with them, sweating with them, hurting with them, crying with them, having no answers with them…that is a completely different story.

The goal on the journey of faith is to stay on the path and make it to the end. Analyzing the roadblocks will not ultimately accomplish this objective. Sharing the journey and being present to one another through the roadblocks will move us toward perseverance on the road.

The Command to Weep

“Jesus wept,” two words that change everything (Jn 11:35). God hurts. God grieves. God weeps. Jesus is proof. When the Triune God meets pain he does the opposite of flee, he absorbs. He enters the fray. Paul urges followers of Christ to take the some posture. When we encounter those who weep we are commanded to weep (Rom 12:15). Weep is an imperative in this verse.

In striving to mimic the compassion of Christ we must grow comfortable walking the road of pain with others. We need to be students, ever developing a framework for engaging grief and honing tools to help our neighbors.

Dr. Alan Wolfert, founder of the Center for Loss, developed a model for grief engagement called “companioning.” The model is insightful and aligns well with the spirit of biblical compassion. Humility is the foundation of the eleven principles that guide the framework.

  1. Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away the pain.
  2. Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.
  3. Companioning is about honoring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.
  4. Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.
  5. Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about judging or directing these struggles.
  6. Companioning is about walking alongside;it is not about leading or being led.
  7. Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it is not about filling up every moment with words.
  8. Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.
  9. Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.
  10. Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.
  11. Companioning is about compassionate curiosity; it is not about expertise.

God’s Upside Down Mission Strategy

Paul once stated that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world  (1 Cor 1:18-31). His point, God’s choice of strategy for enacting his saving plans makes no sense to the world. This foolish wisdom is seen clearly in the incarnation, the cross, and the selection of the twelve disciples. Last year, I spent some time working on the theme of the twelve disciples and God’s upside down mission strategy. Here is the document: The Choice of Twelve: God’s Strange Mission Strategy.