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 ourselves you sacrifice truth, when you use truth to worship ourselves, 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 the 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 can easily see how inextricably compassion and truth are linked to genuine worship by trying to imagine religious activity without one or the other. What do you have when people are religiously active without truth? You have idolatry. But what about religious activity without compassion? Do you have anything better? No, you have the same exact thing. If you wonder about that 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.
A lack of compassion is a big deal because a lack of compassion is a sign you are not truly worshiping God; at least, not the God of the Bible.
How is it possible to come before God the Father, to enjoy this amazing privilege of access to the throne of grace, knowing that it’s solely because of God’s kindness through Christ and His work on the cross and not become more kind and compassionate as a result?
We always become like what we worship, which is why a lack of compassion in those who say they are worshiping God as Christians is so especially shocking. Those who have been shown much compassion, show much compassion. If someone is not showing radical and sacrificial compassion to others, it is because they are not really enjoying God’s radical and sacrificial compassion themselves. It is as you grow deeper in our appreciation for God’s compassion towards you that you become more loving and more compassionate towards people.
This is how Paul motivated believers towards compassionate, forgiving love in Ephesians 4:32ff.
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph.5:1 and 2)
It is a deep gratitude for being forgiven that produces love.
Paul is saying because God in Christ has forgiven you, therefore, you should seek to imitate God in your relationship with others by forgiving them and loving them sacrificially.
When you meet someone who has a hard time loving other like this, you are meeting a person who doesn’t appreciate the greatness of God’s forgiveness and when you meet someone who doesn’t appreciate the greatness of God’s forgiveness you are meeting someone who doesn’t appreciate the greatness of God.
It is that simple.
Jesus himself puts it like this in Luke 7:47, “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Now since there is no one who has been forgiven by God who is forgiven little, Jesus has got to be talking about a deep gratitude and appreciation for forgiveness and what he is saying is that the person who lacks a deep appreciation for forgiveness, lacks love, which means if you want to grow in your love for God and others, one place to start is to get on our knees and ask God to help you grow in our gratitude and thankfulness for how much He has forgiven you.
And if you want to grow in your gratitude and thankfulness for how much God has forgiven you, you need to get on your knees and ask God to help you grow in your understanding of your own sinfulness. When you don’t understand how sinful you are, you don’t appreciate how much you have been forgiven, and when you don’t appreciate how much you have been forgiven, you are cold and hard towards others.
You will always be hard on others when you are soft on yourself. As John Calvin once put it, “There is never excessive rigor without cruelty, nor cruelty without pride.” The more you look up to yourself, the more you look down on people. Pride in self and contempt for others always go together. If you are having trouble feeling compassion for people, you can be sure it is because you are too busy feeling impressed by yourself.
Never underestimate how deep this pride goes. Apart from the grace of God, you and I are always looking for opportunities to exalt ourselves. This is part of what makes genuine compassion such a rare thing. When someone is having a problem, instead of feeling badly for them, we will use their problem as an excuse for feeling better about ourselves. Shocking! We are so intent on exalting ourselves over others that we will even use their sin to do so. How sad! You will find this becomes especially tempting when other people are struggling with different sins than you do. When whatever is tempting them isn’t as tempting to you, you will begin thinking of yourself as being a little better than they are and if you are thinking like that you are setting yourself up for a big fall because though you may be a different kind of sinner than they are, you are still are sinner like they are.
Feelings of self-importance based on self-ignorance are a major hindrance to compassionate relationships. If you are going to feel correctly about others, you have to think correctly about yourself. Apart from Christ, we are all nothing spiritually. Imagine standing in a cemetery and looking at all the gravestones and shouting, look at me, I am so much better than you, I am alive! No, physical life is a gift and so is spiritual life. Instead of being proud when we are around unbelievers, we should be overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s grace. The same is true when you are with those who know Christ. If you have moved ahead spiritually or know more than they do, it is only because of help you have received from Christ. Every gift is grace. How can anyone become proud of themselves for that? If you have more gifts than someone else it is only because you have been shown more mercy, and so you of everyone have the most reason to be humble because you have received more grace.
It is such a tragedy when someone who has been rescued out of a pitiful position because of someone else’s kindness uses that kindness as an excuse for pride and becomes hard and cold towards others who are in the same situation he was once in. And yet, that’s exactly the way you are being when you are not compassionate towards others. It is proof you have forgotten where you came from and how you got to where you are. When you think little of others, it’s certain you think too much of yourself.
You simply will not find people who are gripped with a sense of their own unworthiness before God and are overwhelmed with gratitude for their forgiveness by God who are not also at the same time extremely gracious and compassionate and forgiving and loving people themselves. A heart that is broken over its sin is a heart that will break for others.
This is why Paul calls your attention back to God’s treatment of you as he challenges you to show forgiving love. God’s forgiveness of you and your love for others are tied together. If you want to become a truly sacrificially loving and compassionate person, you will find motivation not by looking first and foremost at the people around you but instead by continually looking up to God the Father through Christ in worship.
It’s good theology that drives biblical mercy.
I love how Paul puts it here in verse 1, “Therefore be imitators of God.”
Because how do you imitate someone?
To imitate someone you have to watch them. You have to study them. You have to know them! We must not talk about compassion as if it were somehow something disconnected from our knowledge of God. To love other people the way you ought, you have to know God so well, that you understand how to imitate Him in the nitty-gritty issues of our daily lives.
Compassion that doesn’t flow out of knowledge and love for God like this, doesn’t flow out for every long because when you look straight at people you can find all kinds of reasons not to feel compassion for them or reach out to them in love. It is when you are looking up to God that all of those reasons quickly disappear. You will never have to love anyone who deserves our love less than you deserve the love of God. You will never have to forgive someone more than God has already forgiven you and that’s why forgiveness and compassion and love towards others is such a test of how well you as a believer are understanding the gospel and maturing in the gospel and truly worshiping God as a result of the gospel because these attitudes reveal what you really believe and whether you really understand how holy God is and how sinful you are and how much you need Jesus.
If you have a hard time feeling for people, it is because you are ungrateful for the goodness God has shown you and you need to go back to the basics again and better appreciate God’s compassionate treatment of you. Before you heart will go out towards people, it must go up to God. It is Christ’s blood that softens hard hearts. The reason you and I are not more compassionate is because we are not God-centered and gospel-saturated enough. The reason we are not more compassionate is because either our view of God is too small or our view of ourselves is too big. Little love for people means little love for God and lots of love for self. When we are gripped by God’s greatness and our sinfulness and the forgiveness we now have through the cross, we become kinder, more tender-hearted and forgiving ourselves.
Compassion is about something much bigger than simply treating people nicely. Compassion is about worshiping God sincerely.
When you are overwhelmed with the greatness of God and the grace of God, you want to make Him look great. As believers you don’t need to make up ways of doing that, because God’s actually told you how He wants you to worship Him. One way He’s prescribed is through going to church and engaging in public acts of worship. But another way He’s laid out is through showing compassion, sacrificially giving to those who are in need, and loving others, for His glory.
When Christians think about those two ways of worshiping God, we often place a greater priority on public acts of worship. But we must not forget that God places a great emphasis on worshiping Him through compassionate love and sacrificial obedience as well.
In fact, sometimes God talks about that as if it were more important.
Just listen to what Jesus says to the Pharisees.
“If you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)
That is shocking. It’s jaw dropping. 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 if anyone thinks they can truly worship God through external acts of worship alone without a heart of compassion and mercy, they haven’t read their Bibles closely enough, because of these two, Scripture places even more of a priority on worshiping God through mercy and compassion than simply showing up at church by itself.
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 forms of worship, but here’s the deal, the former is even more abundantly insisted on in the Word of God. This means it is a grave mistake to think of compassion towards people as something small, something trivial, something light. Compassion is one of the weightier matters of the law and it is weighty because it is about worshipping God the way He wants you to.
I hope you are able to hear that.
I have found people sometimes think of compassion as nothing more than a personality trait. Or worse, sometimes people think of compassion as something only women are interested in. While it’s true that some may be more gifted in showing compassion, and certainly, personality may affect the way you show mercy and demonstrate compassion, at the end of the day, this is not so much about personality or giftedness or gender, it is about having a God‑centered way of looking at the world.
It is about worship.
Worship always requires you to give something up. Unlike the worship of self, the worship of God does not demand you to sacrifice other people or truth. Instead it demands you sacrifice yourself. One of the great proofs you have truly died to self is that you begin to live for others, which is ultimately what compassion is about.