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by Pastor Chris Williamson
This morning, I opened my Bible and felt compelled to do a word study on the word “compassion.” This word is found numerous times in the New Testament and it literally means “to have one’s insides move,” or “to have one’s bowels yearning.” In Hebrew thought, your bowels, that is, your heart and all that is within you, is expected to move when you see and feel the pain of others.
The word “compassion” is primarily associated with Jesus in the gospels. For instance, Matthew 9:35-36 says,
35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. 36But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.
Consider also Matthew 14:14,
14And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.
Believe it or not, hanging out with Jesus on a daily basis doesn’t necessarily mean that His qualities will rub off on us—at least not immediately. The disciples looked at the same harvest fields and needy people that Jesus looked at, but somehow they came away with a different perspective and response.
Matthew 14:15 goes on to read,
15When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.”
Send the multitudes away? Really? Had they so quickly forgotten why they were chosen to hang out with Jesus in the first place? The disciples looked at the same people that Jesus looked at and they had contempt for them. To have contempt means that a person or a thing is beneath your consideration because you see them as being worthless and deserving of scorn.
When our hearts aren’t moved with compassion, our tongues usually move with criticism. Jesus saw the people’s legitimate thirst for spiritual knowledge and their literal hunger for physical food. He chose to move, meeting their needs, but His disciples however, wanted nothing to do with “those people.”
What does all of this have to do with the controversial events surrounding Ferguson, Missouri? Everything. As we watch the news to see the multitudes marching, mourning, protesting, and even rioting, what emotion rises up in your heart? Is it compassion or contempt?
The bickering between Christians on social media has been a poor witness to say the least. Pastor Bill Hybels once said that the local church is the hope of the world. I agree with his assessment, but how can the church be the hope of the world when we are just as hopeless and divided as the world is on this situation?
As an African American pastor of a multiracial church in the south for almost twenty years, I have to preach and teach with tremendous care, thoughtfulness, and balance on volatile issues. The depth of my relationships with people on both sides of the proverbial fence keeps me accountable, sensitive, and open to understanding differing perspectives. When I personally get out of balance on these kinds of happenings due to the fact that they often strike a deep, emotional cord within me, I need the Lord and His people to recalibrate me.
When I see my nearly 50/50 black and white congregation struggle in these moments and get out of balance, I ask the Lord to recalibrate them because a divided church cannot make a difference in a confused world. We are learning as a church that we can be one without being the same. Once God’s people get recalibrated through love, prayer, humility, healthy dialogue, and repentance, we can minister effectively to the multitudes instead of making harsh judgments about them.
Of the numerous things I’ve read, watched, and discussed surrounding Ferguson, I have found that few people have kindness in their views. Embattled rioters may have wrongfully set buildings on fire, but incendiary and inflammatory speech from “level-headed Christians” only adds gasoline to the fire. It is nearly impossible to share the hope of the gospel with people we have little to no compassion for. The prophet Jonah tried this with the people of Nineveh and was rebuked by the Lord for being heartless towards people that He loved.
Jesus had so much compassion for the multitudes that He fed them even though He knew they would attempt to use Him and even walk away from Him moments later (see John 6:15, 66). He knew their duplicitous hearts, yet He still chose to lovingly serve them. The disciples’ hearts, on the other hand, were hardened (Mark 6:52). They were ready for the people to move on, but thankfully Jesus stood ready to minister to the conflicted masses and so should we.
If you call yourself a Christian and you look at Michael Brown and other young black men who make questionable decisions, and you view them with contempt as “thugs” worthy of death—you need to have the Lord’s compassion.
If you call yourself a Christian and you look at officer Darren Wilson, other law enforcement officials, and white people in general with contempt—you need to have the Lord’s compassion.
If you call yourself a Christian and you look at the demonstrators in Ferguson, whether peaceful or disruptive, with lenses of disdain—you need to have the Lord’s compassion.
If you call yourself a Christian and a grieving mother’s tears do not move you, whether it’s Darren Wilson’s mother or Michael Brown’s mother—you need to have the Lord’s compassion.
We need the kind of compassion that the Good Samaritan possessed in Luke chapter 15. When the religious community walked by a man in desperate need, one unexpected outcast stopped and took a risk because he was fueled by the Lord’s compassion. The Samaritan crossed racial and cultural barricades to be a neighbor.
Christians will be divided over the various social and systemic ills that led to the shooting of Michael Brown. We will also be divided over the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Wilson. We will not see eye-to-eye on the topic of race. Different opinions are to be expected, but what is to not be expected is a lack of compassion. No matter what side of the debate you may find yourself on, you are called to be compassionate. Being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to accept what you disagree with, but it does mean that you will be kind and considerate.
Seeing God’s image in people we disagree with should help us change our attitudes. Peter, who was once full of contempt, wrote in his first epistle, saying,
8Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; 9not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. (I Peter 3:8-9)
It’s been said that compassion is having other people’s pain in our hearts. When this happens, we become less critical and more sympathetic. Compassion puts us in other people’s shoes even if we wear a different shoe size. So the next time you enter into a discussion about Ferguson, may you be quick to listen, slow to become critical, and intentional to bring compassion into the conversation.
POSTED: November 29, 2014