Those who are most passionate about God should be the most compassionate towards people.
Paul is an example of that.
You don’t get much deeper than the apostle Paul. This was a theologian’s theologian. Even Peter thought some of what Paul wrote was difficult. He was a man who loved truth. And yet at the same time, when you read Paul’s letters you see very quickly he didn’t only have a head stuffed with knowledge, he had a heart filled with love.
He cared deeply for people, and he let them know it.
I actually get a little embarrassed sometimes by the way Paul speaks to people. Take what he tells the Philippians, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you with all the affection of Christ Jesus.” Now yearn, you have to admit, is a pretty intense word. I can’t imagine using it to describe my feelings for anyone other than God and my wife. Yet Paul did.
And this deep affection for people impacted the way he ministered to them. He didn’t keep his feelings hidden away in his heart. He let them spill out all over the people he was serving. He says to the Thessalonians, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-9) It is not every man’s way of relating to people that can be compared to a nursing mother. If you compared some men to a nursing mother they might take it as an insult. But not Paul. He was happy to remind the Thessalonians how his love for them produced such gentle and tender care.
Some people had questions about some of the things Paul wrote, but there is no one who could question his passion for truth and his compassion for people. If you ever want an encouraging exercise, you might just work your way through one of Paul’s letters and underline every way he expresses his love and concern for the people to whom he’s writing. It’s stunning. There is really only one person in Scripture I can think of who is a better example of how tightly connected love for truth and love for people should be than Paul actually and that is Jesus himself.
I don’t think I need to convince you of Jesus’ passion for truth, given the fact that He is the truth. But perhaps I can remind you of Jesus’ deep compassion for people. Now, I understand, we have to be careful how we say that because so many in our day have a wrong-headed idea of what it means to be compassionate, but still we need to say it. If we don’t, we are closing our eyes to a very important part of what Jesus was like.
After all, as the theologian B.B. Warfield once pointed out, compassion is the emotion Jesus is most often described as experiencing. How profound! When we look to the gospels we see God become man and feeling deeply for people. Unfortunately, when we look around us we see men pretending to be God and caring only for themselves.
This deep concern for people was one of the biggest differences between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. It would be difficult to mark the Pharisees down for not having enough religious zeal. They (at least in the eyes of their contemporaries) had passion for truth. The difference was that the religious leaders proclaimed the truth and denied themselves, for themselves. That is what fueled their zeal for religious activity. Their passion for the truth was nothing more than passion for self dressed up in religious disguise. Jesus, on the other hand, emptied Himself because He was filled with a passion for the glory of God and the good of others. What we find in Jesus is a person whose heart has so much room for concern for other’s good, because it is not filled up with all kinds of concerns about his own.
If you ever have any doubts about that, you need to spend some time reading one of the gospels. You might just start with Luke and what you will find Luke writing time and time again is that Jesus saw, Jesus felt, and Jesus acted. What an example! Jesus was much more than a walking sermon. God sent something a whole lot better than a set of mp3s when He sent His Son into this world. He sent a person who loved the people to whom he was preaching so much that He entered into their world, felt their pain, was moved emotionally by their problems, and gave Himself up for their good. Jesus loved the truth and Jesus loved people and if we are going to serve Him, we need to do the same.
If we say that we are passionate about the truth, we need to look long and hard at the one who is Truth, Jesus. We need to see the Creator becoming a servant on the very earth He created. We need to watch as He serves not only His glorious Father but also His unworthy creatures. We need to listen as He speaks to them and weeps with them. We need to notice just how far his love for people took him, all the way to dying on a cross in their place. Is there any limit to Christ’s self-sacrificing love? Can you think of anything more shocking than this? That the dearly loved Son of God would care so deeply for the stubborn rebellious enemies of God that He would gladly choose to bear the wrath of God so that these enemies could enter into fellowship with God as dearly loved children too!
We need to see Jesus like this, because Jesus like this, is our example. Imitate me, Paul says, as I imitate Christ. This is who we say we follow. We serve a Savior whose heart was broken by the needs of people and whose body was broken for their good and something is drastically broken in our hearts if we say we are passionate about the truth while we are not compassionate towards people. How dare we claim to represent Jesus without being deeply and emotionally concerned about the good of the people He came to save?
Passion for truth has to produce compassion for people. It is important to be right but something is definitely not right if we don’t feel deeply for people the way Jesus did.
Most likely what is not right is that you are too man-centered. We often think of a lack of compassion as a personality problem or a people problem, when really at its root it is a God problem. One of the reasons I am so passionate about being compassionate is because of what a lack of compassion reveals. When compassion is missing so is true worship.
Compassion is always connected to worship. That may be one of compassion’s best kept secrets. Sometimes people act in compassionate ways because they are worshiping themselves. They use compassion as a means of exalting themselves or protecting themselves or trying to justify themselves. False worship produces false compassion and you can usually identify this false kind of compassion quickly as it is less concerned with the long term good of the person and more concerned with the short term approval of people.
The worship of self like any other kind of worship demands sacrifices and when someone is worshiping themselves through trying to appear compassionate the sacrifice it most often demands is truth and sincerity. When compassion for people isn’t connected to a passion for the truth it is because it is produced by a passion for self not God.
What some do with people, others do with truth. That is, they use the truth to exalt themselves. This, like compassion for people, may look externally good. How can you argue with someone who is serious about the truth? But when passion for truth does not produce compassion for people you know that it is fueled by passion for self. When you use people to worship yourself you sacrifice truth, when you use truth to worship yourself, you sacrifice people.
Oh, wretched people that we are! Do you see how we even take wonderful things like compassion and truth and use them for our own idolatrous purposes? How tragic. What can keep us from taking these very things that should help us worship God and using them for worshiping ourselves? We need truth. We need a glorious vision of God! Only worship of God can drive out worship of self. But truth is not enough if we are going to be turned from self-worship. Leading a blind man to a sunset won’t impress him with its beauty. We need compassion. We need mercy. We need God to care about us enough to do a miraculous work in our hearts and lives and cause us to see the explosion of glorious beauty to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It takes truth about God and compassion from God to transform a worshiper of self into a worshiper of God, which is why it is no surprise to find these two characteristics repeatedly emphasized as defining marks of true worship. Wherever you find genuine worshipers you find individuals with hearts for people and minds for God.
One way to see how inextricably linked both truth and compassion are to genuine worship is to try to imagine religious activity without one or the other. It is not hard. We see it happening all the time. What do you have when people are religiously active without truth? You have idolatry. Now imagine religious activity without compassion. Do you have anything better? No, you actually have the same exact thing. Read the Old Testament prophets. This was one of the first signs the people of God were worshiping false gods. It wasn’t that they stopped coming to temple. It was that they had cold hearts.
Compassion is not only a sign you are worshipping God, it is actually an important way you worship God. You can begin to get an idea of how important a way of worshiping God compassion is by comparing it to other ways of worshiping God, like say attending church. Which is more important? Worshiping God through the external religious activity or worshiping God through loving one’s neighbor, through mercy, compassion and all of that? In other words, worshiping God by listening to a sermon on Sunday or worshiping God by caring about your wife? Which is more important? Worshiping God through meekness, gentleness, living humbly, compassionately with others all week along or worshiping God through public prayer, attending religious meetings, engaging in theological debates?
I understand that sounds like kind of a funny question and honestly it may not even be the best question to ask because both are required and if you stopped either, that would be a problem. Whatever you do, you must not speak in a way that minimizes the importance of either. We need to shout out, both are vitally important!
But still, if we stop and think about it, Jesus does kind of answer this question actually, because there were a group of people who were super good at the externals in his day. These people were the kind who would never “miss a church service” if you know what I mean. They were called the Pharisees. Yet, Jesus confronts them time and time again and sometimes when he does confront them he says some very shocking things.
Take the time that Jesus told the Pharisees that God desires compassion not sacrifice.
“If you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)
This if you think about it, is a seriously surprising thing to say.
Because of course God desired sacrifice. He’s the one who instituted it. He’s the one who wrote books of the Bible about it. So what does Jesus mean? He means that if you think you can truly worship God through external acts of worship alone without a heart of compassion and mercy, you are missing the point, because of these two, Scripture places even more of a priority on worshiping God through mercy and compassion than simply showing up at church left to itself.
Now there are a couple important things to notice in that last statement.
It’s not that worshiping God through external acts like public worship is not a priority. It is a big priority. And it’s not that we are talking about simply doing acts of compassion and mercy. We are talking about worshiping God, deliberately showing compassion because of a desire that wants to honor God. Not trying to earn favor with God, but obeying God’s commands out of faith. Both acts of compassion and acts of public religious activity are necessary and required, but here’s the deal, the former is even more abundantly insisted on in the Word of God.
It, according to Jesus in Matthew 23:23 is one of the weightier matters of the law.
What a grave mistake to think of compassion for people as something small, something trivial, something light. Compassion is weighty because showing compassion towards people is about worshiping God.
I really hope you are able to hear that. I have found as we talk about these kinds of things, sometimes people think of compassion, as just like a personality trait. You’re just, like, into this. Some people are, some people aren’t. While it’s true that someone may be more gifted, obviously, when it comes to mercy and compassion, and sure, personality may affect that we show mercy and demonstrate compassion, but at the end of the day, this is not so much about personality.
It is about having a God centered way of looking at the world. It is about worship. We become like what we worship. If we want to become more compassionate the first step is not looking at people but looking at God. The bigger our view of God is the larger our hearts become.