What Is the Deal with Circumcision?

Circumcision.

Now there’s a fun topic!

The Bible talks about circumcision fairly often. It is mentioned close to one hundred times in different contexts…in both the Old and New Testaments.

But it is one of those biblical subjects that is rarely spoken about…or even understood.

Could you imagine a youth devotional on circumcision? Or a Sunday morning sermon? Or a children’s video?

The very thought makes us uncomfortable.

And maybe it should.

Maybe that is part of the purpose.

Circumcision first appears in the Bible in Genesis 17. God makes an unconditional covenant with Abraham to bless him, give him the land of Israel, and to give him a multitude of descendants, including a Seed that will bless all the families of the world.

Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice. (Genesis 22:17-18)

The “seed” ultimately refers to one person. The Seed. The Messiah.

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16)

So the first purpose of circumcision is as a sign of the covenant, a sign of the promise of the Messiah, one who would be born from the lineage of Abraham.

Still, it is a strange sign.

Can you imagine when Abraham first heard these words from God?

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)

Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he heard these words from God. That’s not the time to be talking about circumcision!

“Excuse me, God, would you consider a different kind of sign? A tattoo maybe? Or wearing a yarmulke?”

Circumcision was not completely unknown in Abraham’s day. There is evidence that it was practiced occasionally in other ancient cultures. So Abraham probably knew exactly what God was talking about.

The surgical removal of the foreskin around the male reproductive organ…without anesthesia!

The very thought had to make Abraham shudder. He would take the knife to himself…or have someone else take the knife to him. To cut the most intimate part of himself. To create pain, searing pain, in one of his most sensitive parts.

Bloody. Painful. Intimate.

Something cut off.

A permanant change.

A sign of the covenant.

The sign matched the promise. The nation of Israel, and the physical lineage of the Messiah, would come through sexual reproduction.

Every time a Jewish man and woman had sexual relations they would be reminded of the covenant…reminded of the promise….reminded that they were set apart as a nation.

And every time a Jewish man was tempted to go outside the covenant relationship and have an immoral sexual encounter, he would see the sign cut into his flesh and know that he was violating the covenant…both with God and with his wife.

The woman, particularly if she was a foreigner outside the covenant community, would certainly notice and probably ask, “Hey, why are you cut like that?”

Which would hopefully cut to his heart.

And that’s where circumcision ultimately aims.

The Old Testament mentions circumcision in other contexts besides the surgical procedure that we normally associate with it.

Moses talked about having uncircumcised lips (Exodus 6:12, 30).

The Israelites were rebuked for having uncircumcised ears (Jeremiah 6:10).

And God pleaded with His people to circumcise their hearts.

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
And take away the foreskins of your hearts,
You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! (Jeremiah 4:4a)

In these passages, circumcision refers to the removal of whatever hinders a person’s relationship with God or His purpose for them.

Moses couldn’t speak. He had some kind of speech impediment. And his lips needed to be circumcised to remove this barrier so that he could be an effective prophet for the Lord.

The Israelites were stubborn. They didn’t listen. Their ears were blocked up. And they needed their ears to be opened, to be circumcised, in order to hear.

And ultimately they all had stubborn hearts. Hearts that were cold. Unresponsive. Blocked. Walled up. And they needed their spiritual barriers cut away so that they could love the Lord without hindrance.

Moses promised a circumcised heart as the way that God’s people would truly love Him completely.

And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

A circumcised heart.

What a graphic picture when you think about it.

Bloody. Painful. Intimate.

Something cut off.

A permanant change.

In other words, our hearts are born with a covering, a barrier, a hindrance. And that barrier must be removed before the heart can truly be exposed, vulnerable, and able to love God.

This is where the New Testament steps in.

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses. (Colossians 2:11-13)

In Christ, our hearts have been circumcised. The flesh has been cut away. The barrier has been removed. The walls have been taken down. All sins have been forgiven. The heart has been brought into union with God through Christ.

We are able to love Him because He first loved us.

And this happened through the circumcision of Christ.

Bloody. Painful. Intimate.

He was cut off.

Rejected.

Separated.

Crucified.

So that there could be a permanent change in our relationship with God.

He bore the surgery so that we could experience the healing.

The covenant comes with a cost.

I admit, there is still much I do not understand about this picture. I am still trying to understand it, process it. But I think there is more here than we are often willing to explore.

Perhaps the pain and uncomfortableness surrounding circumcision teaches us another truth.

Healing often requires a deep surgery that cuts us in the deepest, most sensitive, most intimate parts.

The one place that you don’t want to go is often the very place that you need to go.

Our hearts easily grow cold. We build walls to self-protect. We erect barriers to feel safe. We stay busy or blame others or nurture bitterness in order to avoid God’s knife.

But God wants to cut these things away so that we can truly love again. Truly be vulnerable again. Truly be human again.

The process is painful.

It cuts.

It hurts.

It seems unnecessary…even cruel.

But God’s heart is good.

And the end always brings blessing.

Posted in Tough Questions of Faith | 1 Comment

Still Searching for a Messiah

I think I have finally put my finger on something.

I have felt it at different times.

Being a pastor exposes you to people’s expectations.

“What are people looking for in a pastor?”

“What do they expect?”

I have my own expectations as well which often feel impossible to live up to.

But I think I am beginning to figure some things out.

A few recent interactions have helped me piece some things together.

First, someone sent me a long article written by an attorney basically blaming the whole continuing COVID epidemic on pastors. It was an aggressive article telling pastors to “do your job!” Speak out! Tell people what is really going on behind the scenes! Give out the “real facts” on vaccines.

The real kicker was this.

Pastors should be the ones going down to all these public school board meetings, standing up, preaching fiery sermons that get recorded, and then going viral on YouTube with over one million views.

In other words, pastors can save our nation if they can just make viral YouTube videos where they really tell someone off in a public forum.

Next was someone who was deeply offended that I shared some of my weaknesses and struggles in a public setting. It wasn’t that I said anything inappropriate but that I had exposed a side of myself that was not “strong, bold, courageous, and always sure of myself.”

I was somewhat taken back.

David wrote out many of his struggles, doubts, and weaknesss in psalms that were sung in the congregations of Israel.

Paul boasted in his weaknesses and infirmities in order that Christ could be magnified more in his body.

Yet I discovered that some don’t want me to speak of my weaknesses or show any vulnerability. It somehow diminishes my position in their eyes.

Next, I have been listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. It has been an interesting documentary on the ministry of Mark Driscoll and the Mars Hill church in Seattle. There’s much that I admire about Driscoll’s ministry. He was bold, strong, and faithful to preach Scripture. He impacted a city like Seattle with the gospel. But it all came crashing down in a matter of weeks, leaving a lot of spiritual carnage in its wake.

Why?

You will have to listen to the whole podcast to form your own opinion but at least two factors are hard to deny. One, Driscoll’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. His fiery boldness in the pulpit was also the only way he knew how to treat his staff and it masked a need for absolute loyalty and unchallenged authority from all who were around him. And two, people looked to him as the “face” of Mars Hill. He was their brand. He was the one who made everything click and when he fell, the whole ministry fell.

Bottom line, many people were looking to him as their spiritual foundation…as their spiritual authority…as their representative…as their spokesman…as their champion…and, can I say it, as their messiah.

We are, by nature, messiah-seekers.

We long for someone to set this world right.

We long for a prophet who shouts the truth and shuts the mouths of the critics.

We long for a priest who meets all our needs and always knows what to do.

We long for a king to defeat our enemies and make our lives safe and secure.

We are not much different than the Jews of Jesus’ day.

We want a messiah who takes care of business, who “does his job,” who takes care of all the “junk out there,” and makes our lives easier, richer, safer, securer.

We long for a champion to fight our battles.

That’s why we love to watch movies about bold, brash, and strong superheroes.

That’s why we want bold, brash, and strong politicians.

Bold, brash, and strong political commentators.

Bold, brash, and strong sports stars.

And bold, brash, and strong pastors.

We are like the people of Israel facing Goliath and wanting someone with a bold, confident faith, fearless courage, and five smooth stones to bring him to the ground.

I get it.

I am not immune to the same tendencies.

I am in the same crowd longing for the same things.

We live in a dangerous world.

Enemies are everywhere.

We are vulnerable.

We are weak.

We are mortal.

We are fearful.

We could use a superhero…a champion…a messiah.

But in the Goliath story, we are not the ultimate champions. We are not the ones with the five smooth stones that will bring down all the giants in the world.

We are not the Son of David.

We are not the Messiah.

There’s only one.

And His name is Jesus.

But much to the disappointment of the Jews of His day, He did not come to defeat their external enemies in order to make their worldly lives better.

He came to defeat sin and death.

He came to change them.

From the inside out.

To prepare them for a coming kingdom above this present world.

And most surprisingly, He did not come as a bold, brash, and strong political, military, or religious leader.

But He came as a servant.

Gentle and lowly.

Giving His life as a sacrifice.

He blew all their categories away.

He came as a Lamb.

So what does that have to do with me as a pastor?

It means that I have to take my cues from Him and not from the expectations of the world or from others or even from within myself.

As a pastor, He has told me how I am to live…what I am to do.

There are three books in the New Testament, called the Pastoral Epistles, which define my role and my calling.

First and foremost, I am to follow Him…model His character.

The pastoral role is above all a ministry of character over charisma…faithfulness over fiery sermons…servanthood over superhero feats.

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, skillful in teaching, not overindulging in wine, not a bully, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7)

I am to be strong in the faith, discipline myself toward godliness, be patient toward all, teach the Word, preach the Word, love the Word, model the Word, pass on the Word to the next generation.

Feed Christ’s sheep.

Care for Christ’s sheep.

Everything else is lagniappe.

I recently read this quote from Matthew Henry, a faithful pastor from the 17th century:

Examples will govern more than rules. The greatest obstructer of the success of the Word are those whose bad lives contradict their good doctrine, who in the pulpit preach so well that it is a pity they should ever come out, and out of the pulpit live so ill that it is a pity they should ever come in.

A thousand fiery sermons mean nothing if one’s character crashes in the end.

And the same goes for every believer.

You are called to follow Jesus.

You are called to model His character.

Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control.

The New Testament letters to the churches tell you how to live in this present age.

Live soberly. Live righteously. Live godly lives.

Don’t live in fear.

Fix your eyes on Jesus.

Hold firm to the faith.

Speak the truth in love.

Let your speech always be with grace.

Sow the seeds of the gospel.

And leave the rest up to God.

The world has enough bold, brash people making viral YouTube videos.

It needs faithful followers of Jesus ministering to their neighbor in the quietness of the day.

The world is still searching for messiahs.

But we already have one.

The Sacrificial Lamb.

The Risen Savior.

The Coming King.

So stop looking to superheroes, stars, politicians, pundits, experts, scientists, preachers, or pastors to save you.

Look to Him.

 

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you. (Titus 2:11-15)

Posted in Random Thoughts | 4 Comments

A Few Thoughts After a Hurricane

Hurricane Ida was one of the most destructive hurricances to hit the United States. The damage is still being assessed. Over a million people are still without power. Many communities may never be fully restored.

On Saturday night, as the storm approached, the eye of the storm was projected to pass directly over our house.

That was sobering.

Thankfully (for us) the storm shifted twenty miles to our east, lessening the impact in our area…though, unfortunately, increasing the impact elsewhere.

Sitting here three days after the storm, a few thoughts have crossed my mind.

  1. Life can change very quickly. On Thursday morning, I was planning to play golf with a friend on Monday morning. By Thursday afternoon, I was beginning to prepare for a major hurricane. The storm developed quickly…and life changed quickly. We are always one day away from a life-altering event…thus we should appreciate every day as a gift.
  2. We are not as strong as we think we are. A storm of this magnitude reminds you of your smallness. The power of 150 mph winds, the force of storm surge, the energy inherent in a hurricane, all testify to a power way beyond us.
  3. Technology cannot save us. Technology and science are wonderful. They make our lives better and more convenient. But in the case of a storm, they can only tell us the details of the storm. They cannot stop it.
  4. Fear is crippling. Speaking of technology…all the details of the storm only make our fears increase. Watching the Weather Channel is almost hypnotizing. We are drawn in to fear. Something inside of us knows that we are vulnerable…and something inside of us longs for some type of salvation.
  5. We need family and friends. In the aftermath of a storm, it is vital to have family, friends, neighbors, and a church that can help. We like to think we are independent and can handle things on our own…but that is simply not true.
  6. We are losing a sense of community. Neighbors helping neighbors seems to be a fading memory. We are becoming increasingly isolated. Few people even know their neighbors today…much less trust them.
  7. Government is limited. With the breakdown of the family and the loss of community, people are becoming more and more dependent on the help of the government. For many people, the government is literally their only safety net. But government is limited. They can provide some assistance but they can’t solve a person’s deepest needs in the midst of a tragedy.
  8. The further the solution is from the problem, the less reliable and helpful it is. Piggybacking on the above point…government is limited because it really isn’t close enough relationally to know what the true needs are. Thus, either the true needs are not met or corruption enters the picture through the hands of intermediaries. We need people next to us through a storm not sitting in an office in DC.
  9. We are more dependent on electricity and water than we realize. Being without power for one or two days is inconvenient but doable. Longer days and weeks without power, and without a reliable water supply, begin to show how dependent we are on these things. It creates panic. It evokes anger. It exposes selfishness. And it cripples all of life.
  10. We are more dependent on God than we realize. We like to think that we are in control…but we are not. We never really are. The universe runs on a power that is infinitely stronger than us and beyond us. We can’t control the rotation of the earth or the orbit around the sun. We can’t even control the basic processes of our own bodies…the beating of the heart, the oxygenization of the blood, the functioning and regeneration of our 50 trillion cells. We are contingent creatures…dependent every day on our Creator who sustains us.
  11. Creation is groaning. Every disaster…every disease…every death reminds us that there is something desperately wrong with our world…something that government, science, technology, or education can’t fix. We live in a world impacted by sin. A broken world. And only a Savior with power over sin and death can save us.
  12. Our only true hope is Jesus Christ. Maybe it sounds like a cliche, but every storm…every tragedy…every death reminds me that I need a hope beyond the grave. I need a Savior who can calm the storms. I need a Savior who can change hearts. I need a Savior who can conquer death. I need a Savior who loves me enough to die for me…and to carry me through the difficulties of life. And there is only One…Jesus Christ.

Storms have a way of interrupting life and giving us time to reflect. They teach us what really matters…and what really does not.

I am thankful that this storm reminded me why I have put my faith in Jesus Christ.

He is sufficient for any storm.

And He is sufficient for me.

I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages. (Charles Spurgeon)

Posted in Random Thoughts | 1 Comment

Vaccines and the Coronavirus

My wife thinks I’m crazy.

She is probably right.

“Why in the world would you want to write anything about vaccines? You are just asking for trouble.”

A quick perusal around social media will make it clear that talking about vaccines is like walking through a minefield.

Everyone seems to have an opinion…and it is usually a strong one.

The debate is so toxic that I have seen good friends go at it…with not much grace, understanding, or common ground.

Either it seems that you are “pro-vaccine” and can’t understand how any sane person could reject them.

Or you are “anti-vaccine” and can’t understand why anyone would get them or push them on others.

Fun stuff.

As a society, we have definitely reached the point where civil discourse seems to be more extinct than the dodo bird.

So I guess I am a dodo bird for entering into the minefield.

Though I have to give a disclaimer up front…if you are looking for me to validate your side of the debate then you will be sorely disappointed. That is not my intent. My desire is just to share a few thoughts from my perspective as a pastor.

Pastoring over these past eighteen months has been one of the most difficult, stressful, confusing, discouraging, and Holy Spirit-dependent times of my life. I have no paradigm for this pandemic…or for all the politically-polarized rhetoric that has surrounded it. I never had a Bible college or seminary class on “Navigating a Congregation through a Worldwide Pandemic in the Midst of a Politically-Charged Culture Inflamed Even More by Racial Division, Social Media Outrage, Conspiracy Theories, Mass Media Distrust, and Apocalyptic Prophecies.”

I wish I did. It would have had an interesting syllabus…though I probably would have skipped it as a highly impractical class.

On top of keeping the congregation safe, connected, informed, and unified in the midst of ever-changing recommendations and mandates, one of the biggest challenges has been trying to be a “medical expert” for those who send me videos and articles, ask for my opinion, disagree with me, seek my input, or want me to speak more forthrightly on these matters.

I finally realized that I am not a “medical expert.”

A pastor is a lot of things but being a medical expert is not one of them.

I am also not a political commentator, social activist, financial advisor, or prophetic foreteller.

It seems that many people develop an amalgamated view of the pastoral role by combining every feature of their favorite preachers or religous leaders in the news or on the internet.

But my biblical job description is pretty simple. I am a pastor-teacher. A shepherd who loves and cares for his flock and a teacher who teaches them the Word of God, protecting them from false teaching that harms their spiritual lives.

I may have other gifts that enhance my ministry role but I can never forget Jesus’ words to Peter…and to every pastor.

Feed my sheep (John 21:17).

And the primary diet of God’s sheep is the Word of God.

Paul makes this clear in his final exhortation to Timothy before his execution at the hands of Nero.

Preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2).

In a world where people are always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7) and deceiving and being deceived (2 Tim. 3:13), Timothy was reminded to anchor himself in the truths of Scripture.

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

“Okay, that is all well and good, but what does all that have to do with vaccines?”

Bottom line…getting or not getting a vaccine is not a command from Scripture.

Yes, I have read an editorial titled “Jesus would get the vaccine” in our local newspaper. After all, the person reasoned, “He told us to love others.” That kind of hypothetical theology based on a subjective opinion about what they think Jesus would do, as it lines up with their own preconceived notions, is not convincing or very helpful.

And yes, I have received articles from friends telling me that the vaccine is nefarious in its origins and probably somehow related to the mark of the beast in Revelation. This is also not very convincing or helpful…and a highly sensational, extremely poor interpretation of Revelation even for those who hold to a dispensational, pre-millennial view of prophecy.

The vaccine is a vaccine.

It is a medical procedure.

It is a medical decision.

There are potential side effects for those who decide to get it (rare as they may be) and there are potential risks for those who decide to not get it (amplified even more by the recent surge in COVID cases).

Like any medical decision, each person has to weigh the potential risks on both sides of the equation, talking with their doctor, assessing their particular vulnerability, praying for wisdom, and making the best decision they can for their own health and for the sake of their family. And each person should be able to do so freely, without coercion, and without guilt or shame or blame.

What has turned this whole issue on its head is the insistence that it is somehow a moral decision rather than a medical one.

We have vilified people on both sides.

We have self-righteous advocates on both sides.

What we need is sanity, honest discussion, understanding, and privacy on both sides.

No one is 100% sure of anything. And no decision is 100% without risk.

That is the one fact that we should all be able to agree on.

If nothing else, that should give us some grace and humility as we walk through this pandemic.

The virus is the enemy. Not one another.

Israel is a case in point.

For many in the anti-vaccine crowd, who are mostly pro-Israel, the fact that Israel was one of the first nations to embrace the vaccine and has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world should give them pause.

And for many in the pro-vaccine crowd, who are mostly convinced that vaccinations would avert all crises, the fact that Israel is having its own COVID surge with hospitals and ICU’s being overwhelmed with vaccinated patients should also give them pause.

Vaccinations in Israel have only been 40% effective. Nationwide booster shots have already started and probably will become the norm.

Nadav Davidovitch, director of Ben Gurion University’s school of public health, noted:

There is always the illusion that there is a magic bullet that will solve all our problems. The coronavirus is teaching us a lesson.

Yes, it is teaching us a good dose of humility…and reminding us that we are not in control and shouldn’t act like we are.

The other kicker from Israel is that natural immunity is showing itself to be 6-7x more effective than the vaccines.

Thus mandating vaccinations, without acknowledging the long-term duration and effectiveness of natural immunity, would seem to be not only poor policy but also poor science.

We can do better.

We can treat each other better.

And we can respect each person as they may wrestle with this decision for their own particular reasons or health concerns.

Yelling at each other or demeaning each other online certainly doesn’t help convince anyone (usually it does the opposite)…nor does it help stop the pandemic.

It only moves our culture closer to disintegration…not from the virus but from one another.

Thus, as a pastor, the best thing I can encourage people to do is to follow the words of James.

So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)

Listen. Seek counsel. Seek understanding. Be informed but always check the credibility of your sources.

Be calm. Use discretion in your words. Guard your mouth and speak with grace.

Avoid anger. It only stirs up conflict and division and hardens our own hearts. Instead, pursue love which always displays patience and kindness to others.

And if you are facing a decision in this matter, ask God for wisdom and seek wise counsel from others, particularly your doctor.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5)

Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14)

And most importantly, don’t think, speak, or act in fear. But rest in the Lord.

Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!

The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah (Psalm 46:10-11)

After all, even though I am not a medical doctor, I can say that trusting Him is the best prescription in every circumstance of life.

Posted in Random Thoughts | 3 Comments

The Complexity of Compassion

Compassion is a tricky thing.

It isn’t always what you think.

Recently my family and I saw a man asking for money on the side of the road. We have experienced enough to know that giving money is usually not the best solution. So we found a local restaurant, bought a meal, and brought it to him. I spent time talking with him and found out that his name was Bert. I asked the usual questions that I do when someone comes to our church for help.

Do you have a family? Do you have a church family? What assistance have you sought from local charities and ministries?

Bert told me that he had a sister who was convinced that he was on drugs and so she had stopped giving him assistance and encouraged the rest of the family to do the same. As he talked about his sister, I could sense the anger rising up in his voice. He thought his sister had actually put a curse on him and on his family.

Bert’s eyes had a glaze to them. He said that he had medical issues. It’s possible. It also could’ve been the after effects of alcohol or drugs. It was hard to tell. I encouraged him to go to a local ministry not too far from where he was asking for money. He thanked me and turned away indicating that he was ready for me to leave.

I took the cue and left, saying a prayer for Bert and realizing how hard it is to truly know what compassion looks like in such situations.

Providing a meal seems like the one of the simplest acts of compassion. But what if Bert really does have a drug issue and his sister is trying to break him by letting him experience the depths of his addiction? Did my meal just prolong his time on the streets?

Did I really help him or did I hinder him from facing the consequences that may lead him to true recovery?

As a pastor I have been involved with counseling those with addictions. It is never easy. On the one hand you want to show compassion. On the other, you know that many will not change unless they are faced with the stark realities of their choices. As they often say in addiction ministries:

Unless the pain of where you are is greater than the pain of change, you will never change.

I know a man who is currently destroying himself with his addiction. After numerous trips in and out of rehab centers and many “second chances,” his family and friends have decided to pull back on their assistance until he enters a long-term program. But, as of now, he is still figuring out how to survive while keeping a firm grip on his addiction…most likely through the assistance of compassionate individuals who don’t know his whole story. People who give him money or a meal on the side of the road, for instance.

Recently several books have explored the complexity of compassion.

When Helping Hurts, written by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, two professors of economics with a long history of charitable ministry, argues that true compassion must go beyond relief into rehabilitation and development. To give relief only often creates dependency, confirms a person in their helpless mindset, and tends to lead to a “god complex” in the person giving aid.

Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton, founder of FCS Urban Ministries, presents a similar argument. Lupton contends that “top down charity seldom works.” The further the giver is from knowing the receiver, the less likely that true change and compassion will be shown. Lupton states:

Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations. …Anyone who has served among the poor for any length of time will recognize the following progression: give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you establish dependency.

Of course, it is easy to take the arguments in these books and use them as an excuse to do nothing. That is always the danger. The pendulum always swings from one extreme to another. But the bottom line is that neither the cold selfishness of doing nothing nor the look-good self-righteousness of a seemingly charitable deed really captures the heart of compassion.

Jesus is the model of compassion.

He loved people. He met them where they were. He saw beyond their outside appearance to their true inner value. He became a servant to meet their real needs. But Jesus’ goal was to change people not make them comfortable.

Jesus forgave sin to free people toward holiness.

He healed sickness to restore their soul.

He fed people to open their eyes to their spiritual hunger and need.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing questions Jesus asked a sick man who had been crippled and infirmed for over thirty years was “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6).

“Of course he wants to be made well, Jesus! He’s been sick and in desperate need for over 30 years. Why would you even ask such a question?!”

Because, to be quite blunt, deep down some people do not really want to be healed. By healing this man, Jesus would be changing his way of life for the past three decades. Yes, being burdened by his sickness (whatever it was) was a type of prison…but it was a prison that he was used to.

As Red says in Shawshank Redemption:

Prison walls are funny. First you hate ’em… then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes… you get so you depend on ’em. That’s institutionalized.

The nation of Israel was commanded to love the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow (Deut 10:18) and to protect them from injustice (Isaiah 1:17). Compassion was shown by not gleaning the corners of the harvest so that the poor in the land had the opportunity to work and collect their own food (Lev. 23:22). Thus, compassion is the provision of protection and opportunity…it is not the enablement of poor choices and self-destructive behavior.

The proverbial “hand up” rather than a “hand out.”

Paul shows the same balance when he challenges believers to not grow weary in doing good (2 Thess. 3:13) but also reminds them of a general principle: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat (2 Thess. 3:10).

So compassion is more than just feeling like you did a good thing. It is actually doing a good thing. And “good” can only be determined by a standard of truth that differentiates between good and bad, between what is beneficial to the person in the long run and what is ultimately harmful.

If I give temporary relief that ultimately prolongs a person’s destructive behavior then is it real compassion? Or is it my attempt to feel compassionate?

For the follower of Jesus Christ, true compassion means continually saturating your mind with God’s Word, walking in dependence on the Spirit, softening your heart with grace, taking time to listen, praying for wisdom, speaking the truth in love, and realizing that sometimes the hand of mercy has to be coupled with a loving kick to the seat of the pants.

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