Confession: When I read, I get so wrapped up in the story, I forget the characters aren’t real. If at the point I need to stop reading and the characters aren’t doing so well, I find myself vaguely depressed without being sure why. I’ve actuallybegun to pray for a person only to remember she doesn’t exist except within the pages of a book.
Your reaction to story—in book or on the screen—might not be so severe, but you’ve probably felt a wave of compassion swamp you for someone unknown or maybe even unreal.
Compassion, I think, is implanted in us by God. It appears to be an almost universal human emotion and according to some studies is hard-wired within us.
The emotion of compassion often motivates us to act, for the benefit of our family and friends but also for the benefit of strangers. That’s good. That’s biblical (see Matthew 25:31–45, for example).
Today, though, I got thinking about compassion “fails.” Sometimes we don’t handle or show compassion in the most “compassionate” way. Here are four fails I recognized (mostly in my own life):
- Do-nothing compassion
Too often I feel compassion, but I don’t act compassionately. I move on and do nothing. Sometimes I mean to do something (that counts, right?), but life gets in the way and I never get around to it. The emotion fades and I don’t really feel the need to act anymore.
- Once-and-done compassion
This is the step up from the first. A hurricane devastates Haiti, and I send up a prayer and jump online and make a donation. That’s good. It matters. But I have trouble with sustaining long-term compassion. Tragedies like that aren’t solved in a day, or a year. They need sustenance, long-term commitment to finding solutions.
The homeless in my hometown don’t just need emergency housing tonight (as we talked about in last week’s blog), they need permanent housing, a solution that is harder to bring about.My friend with a chronic illness doesn’t need my active compassion only once. Neither does the church member who is unemployed. Or my neighbor who is grieving. They need people to care for the long haul. They need ongoing prayer, ongoing support, maybe ongoing financial assistance, ongoing love in action.
- Selfish compassion
Sometimes we act compassionately, but we want something in return. It might be our friends undying gratitude. We want them to acknowledge how important we are to their surviving their struggle. I always thought it was odd when I was growing up that etiquette dictated those who had lost a loved one were to send thank-yous to everyone who sent them an expression of sympathy. Really? Who has the emotional energy for that?! I’m thankful that custom died (no pun intended).
Recently I noticed the selfish compassion streak after a friend’s child was in a serious accident. In writing a Facebook post 36 hours out from the accident, with their child still in a medically induced coma, the parent asked friends for their patience for not getting updates to them quickly enough. I’m guessing he had been bombarded with messages asking for updates. Yes, we were all praying. Yes, we were all concerned. But was our need to be informed, to have our concern acknowledged, putting undo pressure on parents already in a stressful situation? Yes, as a matter of fact. Can’t I pray without knowing the details this minute, this hour? The next day, he had to ask people to limit their visits to before 8 o’clock at night! I’m not sure why anyone who isn’t family (or invited by them) needs to be there in the first few days, let alone after 8 in the evening. I’m not saying the visitors didn’t care for the child, but perhaps they cared more for their own peace of mind.
I know at times I’ve been hurt when I did some act of kindness for a friend and they never thanked me for it. To be truthful, I struggle with leaving it unacknowledged and even more with giving anonymously. And yet that’s what Jesus asked us to do:
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1–4)
- Strings-attached compassion
This is the “do it my way or I don’t play” giving. It shows up in big ways (like when a donor to a university or a church dictates exactly how the money must be spent and tries to control the process). It shows up in small ways (for instance, when I give a person money for food and they insist on spending a portion of it to buy their kids a treat they haven’t had in a very long time). It rears its head when I don’t give because I disapprove of any life choice of the person I feel compassion for. It’s another form of selfish compassion.
Yes, I believe in due diligence, particularly when giving to charities, and recommend checking them out on Charity Navigator or, for Christian organizations, ECFA. But when donating to fiscally responsible organizations, I suggest we avoid dictating the terms. Allow them to use our gifts in the way that makes the most sense for their work. They know that; I don’t.I don’t know what will most refresh my friends, either. Maybe she is so weary of life that a manicure (or ice cream!) is the very thing that will give her the strength for another day. Be generous with no strings attached. If you really want your money spent for a certain thing, buy the thing and give it to them. Then there’s no resentment.
Compassion reflects the heart of God. Can I offer it as he does—freely, repeatedly, with open arms, accepting the receivers right to respond as they choose—in other words, with grace?