Much has changed in the world. One day we were going about our business, and the next day we suddenly had a crash course in biology and the need to wash our hands, “flatten the curve,” “social distance,” and quarantine. Individuals, churches, and even countries are experiencing a collective distress as we deal with this pandemic of COVID-19. We are bombarded with the bad news of not only the health challenges and the death tolls, but also how this has unleashed a pandemic of economic devastation as upwards of 30 million Americans are unemployed, and many small businesses have closed.
How do we respond in the midst of such challenging, fearful, and distressing times? Many of us are crying out to God in prayer, and rightly so. We pray for an end to the pandemic. We pray for the sick. We pray for those on the frontlines who put themselves in harm’s way every day. We pray that we would not be overcome with fear and anxiety.
There is one more thing we need to pray that the Lord would give us: compassion not only for those who are suffering from the disease and the families of those who have died, but also for those who are and who will be suffering from the economic devastation that this virus has brought about.
I’m thankful that most Americans have complied with the mitigation protocols in an effort to protect the most vulnerable from contracting this vicious disease, and to keep our healthcare system from collapsing. Our hearts collectively break for those who are suffering physically and clinging to life, and for those families who have lost loved ones to this microscopic monster. For the most part, there’s been no lack of compassion for them.
In the case of the unemployed, however, I have detected a different mindset. They are the forgotten ones who at times are even berated if they dare raise a voice of alarm to their plight. While this time of self-quarantining is an unwelcome inconvenience for some, for others it is disaster. For them, the shutdown doesn’t mean that we just work from home, and where our most pressing concern is deciding which mind-numbingly stupid show to binge-watch after Tiger King. For millions of workers and their families, this means total devastation. They can’t just work from home. Rather, the shutdown means that the small business that they either started and managed for years, or worked for, is closed permanently, and they are looking at the reality of losing their home in the near future. The stimulus check for them doesn’t bail them out; it’s just a band-aide being applied to a hemorrhaging artery. The Titanic of their lives has been torpedoed and is sinking, and we’re giving them deck chairs that they can rearrange.
For these multiplied millions and their children, their concern isn’t where to stock all of the toilet paper and food that we in all of our prosperity—for which we are ungrateful for and seem to assume is owed us—have horded to get us by the next few months until things “get back to normal.” Their concern is how will I be able to provide even the barest of basic necessities for my family: what’s to come of me, my wife, and our 2-year old baby girl and 5-year old son? Where will we be when the money runs out, and everyone else is “getting back to normal?”
As for getting back to normal, for many that means getting back on the same hamster wheel of chasing the fleeting and lying wind of the “American dream” while living in willful suppression of the truth of the eternal realities that are ever before us. Let’s get this over with so that I can get back to serving the gods of materialism and consumerism and the almighty self, living as if I’ll never die and stand before a holy God and give an account. But, I digress…
I appreciate and value the arts, but maybe nothing else symbolizes more the tone deafness to the plight of the unemployed than the $25 million that self-absorbed and self-serving politicians—Democrat and Republican—decided to give to the Kennedy Center while people are staring abject poverty in the face. At least the fiddlers will be able to fiddle while ballerinas gleefully and gracefully leap across the stage so that elitists can give their pinched-lipped applause at the show, while those who could use those funds sink to the bottom of the ocean floor of destitution. Surely those wealthy socialites, celebrities, and politicians who are concerned about the Kennedy Center can scratch out a check to donate to the Kennedy Center if it needs financial assistance. But, no, let’s take it from the American taxpayers in their time of desperate need.
The tone deafness isn’t just to be found among celebrities, politicians, and political pundits who keep lecturing (!) us on why we need to just “stay home and save lives” while the lives of millions are destroyed. It is even found among Christians. I have seen some Christians speak not of their fear that millions might be engulfed in incalculable suffering unless the government intervenes, but, that our constitutional rights are being infringed upon and we are embracing Socialism.
I am deeply concerned about this as well. I love our constitutional rights—I served 21 years in the military in defense of them. And some governors and mayors are indeed threatening, and even violating our constitutional rights, all the while hypocritically doing the very things they scold us not to do. We must be vigilant to ensure that temporary measures aimed at protecting the population do not become permanent measures, and we should shudder when we hear governors such as New Jersey’s Phil Murphy say that they have no concern for the Bill of Rights.
As for Socialism, it has shown itself to be an oppressive governing and economic system, as the sad trail of poverty stricken people and dead bodies over the past 100 years demonstrates. For those who think Socialism is so great, hopefully the empty shelves in our grocery stores, soon to be food shortages, and the draconian authoritarian policies that some have enacted will be etched upon our minds, because that dear friends, among other things, will be the new normal.
My concern here, then, is not that we are concerned about the infringement of our rights and a drift toward authoritarian and economic Socialism, and the sky-rocketing national debt. These things are alarming! My concern is that this seems to be the only concern for some of us. There’s no balance. Where’s the compassion for the sick and the suffering? Where’s the compassion for those who desperately need the financial assistance of we the people (i.e., the government)? By all means, raise the alarm about our constitutional rights—I’m doing it right now—but, we must not let that be the only thing, or even the primary thing that the world hears coming out of our mouths.
On the other side, I’ve seen some Christians pontificate and bristle at those who have the audacity to suggest that we need to reopen the economy soon, or the cure most certainly will be worse than the disease. They self-righteously lecture us from their economically stable and safe (for now!) perches that we just need to, and I quote, “suck it up.” Since you’re so selfish worrying about something as silly as your livelihood, don’t come crying to the healthcare professionals if you get sick! After all, in this war all you need to do is lay on your couch and watch T.V.—as if those who are now unemployed will have a couch to lay on, a T.V. to watch, and a house to live in within the coming months. Instead of railing at their supposed insensitivity, stupidity, and selfishness, maybe we should try looking into the eyes of a single mom who has lost her job and has no savings and tell her to stop being so insensitive, and “suck it up!”
I have seen Christian scholars that I respect write about how the culture is morally unprepared for this pandemic because it is a selfish, narcissistic “you do you” culture that will likely not comply with mitigation protocols to protect the most vulnerable among us. I agree we live in such a “you do you” culture, but surely such cultural analysis is pastorally misguided for “such a time as this.” Thankfully, and maybe even surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Americans have complied with recommended protocols, and all at the cost of their livelihoods. But even if we wish to shine the light on the comparatively few that have not complied, what are we to make of so many of us Christians who seem to have the same “you do you” mindset, and are deaf and blind to the suffering of our neighbors, i.e., the millions who have and will suffer due to the economic tidal wave that has drowned them?
As I examine my own heart, I confess that I can relate to each of the responses that I have mentioned above from one degree to another. These are complex times that stretch our thinking and defy simplistic solutions, and as always it’s in the crucible where our hearts are revealed. My plea in all of this is that the Lord would fill me (us) with His compassion for the suffering—not merely for those who are sick and their loved ones, but also for the forgotten millions who have lost their jobs and are gripped by anxiety, fear, and hopelessness as they have no idea what will become of them and their children.
So, what is the Lord’s compassion for the suffering? The word compassion is a compound word that literally means “to suffer with.” This doesn’t mean that God suffers, for He cannot suffer. What it does mean is that God is not aloof and detached from our plight. Rather, because He is sovereign over and in our circumstances and “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11), He knows, cares about, and actually enters into and is with us in the midst of our plight, most profoundly so in the person of Jesus Christ. Out of His great love and compassion for us, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became fully human without ceasing to be fully God, and as one who was fully human He entered into our experience, yet without sin. So, our Lord sympathizes with us (Heb 4:15). He knows our human limitations, our temptations, and our suffering, pain, and tears.
Thus, I think we could define biblical compassion as the Triune God’s mercy and love, demonstrated most significantly in the person of Jesus Christ, working in and through us by the Holy Spirit so that we sympathize with the plight of others and are moved to action for their good and God’s glory. Or, more concisely, it is the outworking of God’s mercy and love through us displayed in acts of love for the good of others and the glory of God.
Jesus is the embodiment of God’s compassion, and we see His compassion on display throughout Scripture. Just one example is in Matthew 9:36 “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed (distressed, worried) and helpless…” In a sermon on this text, Charles Spurgeon says, “…his internal agitation was very great, his emotions were very deep…his big heart was ready to burst with pity for the sorrow upon which his eyes were gazing. He was moved with compassion. His whole nature was agitated with commiseration for the sufferers before him.” This is the example our Savior has set for us. Thus, we must, as the apostle Paul tells us, put on, among other things, “compassionate hearts.” (Col 3:12)
So, how do we demonstrate this compassion? Like everything else, we recognize that we cannot do this apart from Christ. Thus, as the author of this article says, “The compassion of Christ embraces us, transforms us into his likeness, and then empowers us to the ministry of compassion.” The first place we must turn then is to prayer. We must ask God to give us sympathetic and compassionate hearts. We pray for the suffering, that God would help them. We pray for wisdom to know how to be conduits of His love and compassion to others for their good and His glory: what acts of mercy and love can I do for those in distress?
This applies to the church as well. How will congregations respond to those in need? How can we help those that are unemployed? There are no easy answers, but we must have the mind of Christ and look for ways to show compassion to those who are distressed. In his sermon Spurgeon exhorted his congregation: “…persons come in and out [of our church] in want of someone to speak with them, to condole, to console, or to commune with them in their loneliness, and they find no helper…I have met with several cases in which persons would have given anything for half an hour’s conversation with any Christian…They came…and no one spoke to them…If you have any bowels of mercy, you should be looking out for opportunities to do good. Oh! Never let a poor wounded soul faint for want of the balm. You know the balm. It has healed yourselves. Use it wherever the arrows of God have smitten a soul.”
The balm that Spurgeon speaks of is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is here where we see that the compassion that moves us to help others is not merely focused on relieving some temporary distress. Rather, we must minister to the whole person. Our tangible acts of love toward others open the door for us to express the most important aspect of our compassion for others as we put their need of a Savior before them, and lead them to the arms of our loving and compassionate Savior who outstretched His arms on a Roman cross for us.
Jesus’ compassion didn’t drive Him to merely alleviate our temporal distress, but our eternal distress. In His compassion for hell deserving, hell bound sinners like us, He came into the world to save us as He suffered, bled, and died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead so that those who trust in Him alone could be delivered from the eternal distress of hell and be brought into union with the Triune God. This is the healing balm that humanity needs, and that we are commanded to dispense to a hurting, sin-sick and broken world. All of our acts of love and compassion toward others are grounded in, flow out of, and point to the infinite love of God that He demonstrated in the cross of Christ.
So, let us have compassion for those who are sick and suffering, and for the grieving families who have lost loved ones. Let us also remember the poor. Let us have hearts that break with sympathy and compassion for the millions of those whose livelihoods have been shipwrecked by the tsunami of this pandemic. And as we seek to show tangible acts of love to those in distress, let us remember to apply the healing balm of the gospel to lost souls. Much more to say, but I will close with the prayer from Pastor Scotty Smith:
“Lord Jesus, there are so many reasons to love you. Today we’re particularly stunned by your compassion—greatly convicted by it, longing to feel more of it. When you looked at crowds of “harassed and helpless” people, you didn’t ignore them; they didn’t irritate you; you made time for them. Sympathy beat within your breast; kindness overflowed; caring was concrete. Help us know this is what you feel for us today—indeed, for me…Come and shepherd our hearts today, Jesus. We praise, bless, and adore you for suffering for us on the cross, once and for all. We stake our living, and our dying, on this glorious gospel. But it’s also comforting to know that you share in our sufferings right now, as well. No one understands us like you—no one is closer and kinder, more patient and more grace-full. We are thankful. So very Amen we pray, in your holy and loving name.”