I once was invited to address some of the rising stars of the legal profession in Charlotte, some of the best and brightest young attorneys recognized by their peers as poised for city leadership. I was challenged to identify the quality that would empower these accomplished young minds to be effective servants. So I told them this story.
Near the Dead Sea there was (and remains) a Biblical badlands full of craggy landscapes and caves where a young upstart named David had fled with his cohorts to escape the wrath of King Saul. King Saul had been tipped by spies that David was hiding in the area, so he led an assault team of three thousand hand-picked soldiers to give pursuit. But when King Saul arrived in the area, he “turned aside into a cave,” which is a Biblical euphemism for finding the Port-A-John. It so happened that Saul was using the bathroom in the very cave where David and his cronies were hiding, and David’s men suggested to him that if he ever wanted to catch the king “with his pants down,” now was the time. They urged him, “Here is a chance to do with him as you desire.” As David snuck out and beheld King Saul answering the call of nature he had opportunity to place him in numerous negative categories: spiteful pursuer, treacherous enemy, ungrateful wretch, dangerous threat — but he declined to place Saul in any of them. He saw him simply as a flawed and tragic friend. His compassion for Saul transcended all categories, and instead of killing Saul, David did something mischievous: he snuck in and cut off a sliver of Saul’s robe and stealthily walked away. Saul’s life was spared – by David’s act of compassion.
I said to those young attorneys, “You have been blessed with great intelligence and superior training. You have been recognized as having leadership skills. But you will not be effective and outstanding agents for change unless you exercise an ethic of compassion. Only if you look with compassion upon the needy people of this community and pour out your talent to address their need will you make a positive mark with your life.”
Now “compassion” is one of those words we throw around without much forethought, but doing compassion well requires more than just a desire to help others. Skillful compassion demands mercy without condescension. Mercy without condescension! Compassion is not an act of the high and mighty stooping to aid the weak and powerless. Compassion is an act of solidarity with other suffering people, with kindred souls. When we fix a holiday meal for the folks at Macon Inn, or build a house in Haiti, or clean up a neighborhood near the church, or work on a mission site at Passport, we are not saying to those we help, ‘I am rich and you are poor. I am strong and you are weak. I am healthy and you are sick. I am righteous and you are evil.’ No, we saying, ‘God has blessed us with the opportunity to be of help to you, and you are blessing us when you allow us to minister to you in your need. We are mutually blessing each other. When you allow us to exercise compassion you are providing us with a moment of blessing even as we bless you.’ Indeed, when we exercise compassion for others, we are acknowledging that the time will come when we will be vulnerable, too, and we are treating others as we would want to be treated. When we see someone who has failed and extend grace to them, we are saying through our compassion, ‘I have received grace in the past and thereby live under obligation to be graceful – for I have received grace from others.’ Compassion is not the strong and mighty helping the weak and powerless. Compassion is invested love, love given without condescension, love that knows it is privileged to give of itself.
I think of Charles Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol, where he depicts the ghost of Jacob Marley dragging his ponderous chains, a manacle forged over a lifetime of selfishness, into Scrooge’s room. Scrooge sputters, “But Jacob, you were a good man of business.” Jacob Marley rattles back these memorable words: “Humanity was my business.” Humanity is our business, my friends! Whether we are lawyers or teachers or bankers or salespeople or students, we can never lose sight of the basic truth that humanity is always to be our business – the service of humanity is why God has placed us on this earth.
Look at David contemplating his old friend and mentor in his moment of extreme vulnerability. David looks at Saul and doesn’t see a man sworn to be his enemy, doesn’t see a man who has repeatedly repaid David’s kindness with evil. No, he sees before him a former companion. Do you know what a companion is? Literally, a “companion,” is someone with whom you have shared bread. (“Com” means “with,” “pan” means “bread,” hence Panera Bread.) A companion is someone with whom you have broken bread in fellowship. Saul and David have frequently broken bread together in happy times. Saul is the father of David’s best friend Jonathan. Saul and David have been boon “companions” over the years. David sees a companion when he beholds King Saul, and David can’t find it in his heart to kill a man with whom he has often broken bread in joy. Instead he looks upon Saul with compassion. What exactly does that mean? Compassion literally means, “to suffer with.” Compassion is not condescension; to show compassion is to be so invested in someone’s life that you “suffer with them.” David “suffers with” Saul as he contemplates this king in his decline, in his mental instability, in his paranoia. David “suffers with” Saul as he reflects upon the dissolution of this once great man. Having “suffered with” Saul in his loss, David cannot do violence against Saul or allow his friends to do violence against him. Having “suffered with” his companion, David acts toward Saul with love.
Now it might seem a great leap to you from David encountering Saul in the caves of Engedi to Jesus’ encountering a leper in Galilee a thousand years later, but the two passages are profoundly linked, I assure you. For this leper had said to Jesus, “If you will, you can make me whole,” and the text says that Jesus was “moved to pity.” What Jesus feels exactly parallels what David felt toward Saul in that cave. Both men are moved to compassion in the depths of their being. In the New Testament, compassion literally means “to be stirred in your bowels.” It is to feel emotion for someone in the depths of your being. The Hebrew people really saw one’s derriere’ as the center of tender affections. In their minds, the mercy seat really was a “seat.” (And some “mercy seats” are bigger than others!) When Jesus looked upon that leper in Mark 1, the writer says he was “moved in his bowels,” “stirred in his guts,” ”touched in the depths of his being.” It is a theme that permeates Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus looks out upon a crowd in Mark 8 and sees them not only hungry for the Gospel but hungry for food, he says, “I have compassion on them.” He is literally “moved in his bowels,” “stirred in his guts, “moved in the depths of his being.” He “suffers with them,” so he moves to feed them. When the Prodigal Son’s father sees his wayward son coming up the lane in contrition, Jesus says he is “moved in his bowels,” “stirred in his guts, moved “in the depths of his being.” When the Good Samaritan looks upon the battered Jew with compassion, Jesus says he is “moved in his guts,” “stirred in the depths of his being.”
Compassion is not merely an act of kindness. It is intensely, focused love, a powerful, transforming empathy. It is to “suffer with” someone, to see them as a “companion” in need of mercy. We recognize our kinship with them in the body of Christ and in the family of God. Compassion is intimate engagement, not surface pity. Compassion is directed involvement in another’s life, feeling stirred in one’s bowels so as to act in such a way as to perceive the neediness of others as an anguish within our own being, and we feel a corresponding need to meet that need in such a way that it becomes our need, too. That is the ethic of Jesus Christ.
One of the great modern parables of our time is J. R. R .Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Frodo, the story’s hero, says to the wise wizard Gandalf, “It is a pity that Bilbo didn’t kill that villain Gollum.” Gandalf answers, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand.” “But Gollum deserves death,” says Frodo. Gandalf responds, “Indeed he does; and a great many who die deserve life; but can you give it to them?” Indeed, over time Frodo came to appreciate something of the villain Gollum’s suffering as a fellow ‘ring-bearer,’ and his compassion toward him exercises a great redemptive impact upon the fate of their world. Let us not be too anxious to sit in judgment against others in their weakness, against others in their need, but rather let us answer Christ’s call to be stirred in our innermost being, to be stirred in our gut, to feel another’s need as our need and pour out our love in compassion.
David cut off the hem of Saul’s garment as a way of demonstrating two things – what could have happened, and what could happen yet. David soon shows Saul the piece of cloth to say to him, ‘Look, I could have killed you, but I didn’t.’ But he also shows him the piece of cloth to say, ‘We were once companions, and we could be so again.’ Saul is so moved by David’s compassion that he claims him as a son again and proclaims him as the rightful heir to the kingship over Israel. Alas, Saul’s psyche is so unstable by this point that he cannot stay consistent in his reconciliation, but David gains in his unwarranted kindness toward the king. When Saul dies, David becomes king, and he is accepted by virtually everyone, including Saul’s supporters, precisely because he showed compassion toward Saul in his weakness and decline.
The truth is, there will be times in our lives when we find ourselves in David’s position. We will be in an advantageous position with regard to someone, perhaps someone who has wronged us, who has repaid our good with evil, who has betrayed us, who has hurt us – and the temptation is to repay hurt with hurt. We can injure them, perhaps with a harsh word, perhaps with a graceless action, with a vindictive attitude. Perhaps we can destroy that person’s reputation or career – or we can rehabilitate them with a gesture of grace, an action of mercy, an investment of love. There will be times in your life when you stand in David’s position, and you can either “suffer with” that person and show compassion, or you can act in judgment and seek to destroy. You will have that power. How will you use it? If you choose the path of “suffering with others,” if you choose to be moved by another’s neediness in the innermost parts of your own being,” if you act with creative compassion toward them, you will have chosen to mirror the very ethic practiced by our Lord.
But is it possible to “suffer with others,” to extend compassion toward them, to reach out to them in their need, only to find that they are totally ungrateful? Absolutely. Compassion is always a risk. Compassion is always a risk! You can invest yourself creatively, redemptively, in someone else’s life, and they can completely ignore your efforts. They can turn a deaf ear to your words of mercy. You can show grace toward them only to find them completely ungrateful. People can repay even your best intentions, your creative mercy, with evil. Yet, know this: even if your compassion is not effective in changing someone else’s life, your compassion will effectively change yours. You cannot practice a consistent ethic of compassion and not be changed in the depths of your own being. When you “suffer with” someone in their need, when you are stirred in the depths of your being, and you respond with grace, even to someone who does not appreciate it, in practicing the ethic of Christ your own soul grows purer and more like the character of Christ.
When you pour yourself out for others, regardless of whether they receive it or not, you have followed the pattern established by our Lord, who, though he was with the Father, poured himself out in an act of kenosis, to suffer with us. Remember, our own salvation is rooted in Christ’s compassion, Christ’s willingness to “suffer with” us. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us – he “suffered with us in our neediness” and poured himself out for us in our frailty and imperfection. And yes, if you live a life of compassion, you will find yourself wearied by the world. To live a life of compassion is to experience “compassion fatigue,” because there is so much need all around us. You can pour yourself out for others until you have no more mercy to give. But that is when you hearken unto another word of our Lord: “Come unto me. Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” God’s mercy is fresh every morning, not just for those who need mercy but for those who seek to give it. God can renew our powers of caring and compassion if we look to Him to do so. And when we give ourselves to others, and when we allow them to give themselves unto us, then we truly understand the nature of God’s love. When we look upon the neediness of our world, when we feel in our gut the pain of others, when we “suffer with others” in their need, and we focus our energized empathy to transform their lives, then we have practiced the divine ethic of our Lord – and we are the better for it.