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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5 Responses to The Complexity of Compassion

  1. As usual, fantastic commentary that makes me think carefully about my actions. Thank you, Pastor Steve! Although we may not be in the same church any longer, you still minister to my heart through your wonderful commentaries. I would like to share this with my church group that is studying Spiritual Mothering if that is ok with you. Best to your beautiful family! Chet and I miss all of you. We are now living full time in Florida.
    Clare Godleski

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, Clare! I am so glad that these posts are helpful to you. Absolutely share them with your church group. We miss you and Chet as well! We are very thankful for all the years that we had in NJ.

  3. Gina Lang says:

    It is always a strughle to know for sure what is helpful and what is hurtful.

    Joe and I broke every rule when we dealt with our son and his addiction. The people at AA told us we were creating more problems for him. But we truly believed that in those momemts, our job was to keep him alive until God could make.changes in his heart.

    We used to say, “There can be no hope where there is no life.”

    Eventually. my son did yield his life over to Christ snd His calling and he is a healthy, changed person today. But that was only able to occur because Joe and I did all we could to preserve him when he was too sick and wounded to preserve himself.

    Interestingly enough, one of the men from AA that was openly critical of our efforts to preserve life at all cost, lost his own son to overdose shortly after our son found freedom. That young man’s hope for change ended with his last breath.

    It is difficult to know whether we are extending compassion or simply looking to feel compassionate. And that is a serious question we must all ask ourselves.

    But there is no hope if there is no life. Once your child is dead, he is dead. And often times the most compassionate thing we can do is simply preserve life until the person is healthy enough to answer the call of the God who pursues.

    We never know if that one act of kindness will end up being pivotal. If we are to err, maybe err on the side of grace and mercy. Extend compassion that extends life. Like food, and water. And give the person the chance for a new day to bring forth new life through Jesus Christ.

    I have no regrets with doing too much. As my son was dead and is now alive. He was lost and is now found.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for sharing, Gina. Yes, your son’s story truly is a testimony of God’s power and grace through Jesus Christ! And it illustrates again how complex and heart-wrenching that compassion can be. I think the take away is that you knew your son better than anyone else, you prayed for God’s wisdom, you acted with love and with truth, and you were blessed to have great ministries nearby like Keswick. Why some yield and are healed and others keep going through the addiction cycle over and over is often hard to discern.

  5. Gina says:


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