Following Jesus to Compassion

You may have noticed a trend in my work this year: truth and compassion. I’m constantly using that language when I write and speak on topics ranging from Islam, abortion, homosexuality, and recently transgenderism. I often subtitle my talks “truth and compassion” or write about the importance of incorporating those elements into whatever I teach. Am I out of ideas? Do I lack originality? I don’t think so. Rather, I emphasize these two ideas because that’s what I see in Jesus’ ministry.

The Gospel writers routinely describe Jesus as exhibiting a combination of truth and compassion. Whenever Jesus learns the truth about a person or situation, He is moved to compassion.

In Matthew 9:35–36, for example, Jesus is going through all the towns and villages, healing diseases and sickness, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Matthew writes, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Notice the order. Jesus learns the truth and then is motivated by compassion. He sees that the people are distressed, dispirited, and like sheep without a shepherd and, because of that truth, He is driven to compassion.

We see another example in Luke 7, where Jesus comes upon a widow whose only son has died. This is a difficult situation for the widow since she has no husband and now her son—the other male in her life—has died. Luke writes, “When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Then, He raises her son from the dead. Notice again that when Jesus learns of the widow’s predicament, He is motivated to compassion. Truth leads Him to compassion.

I’ve found my own experience to follow a similar pattern. Whenever I learn the truth about someone, especially if his circumstances are dire, it evokes compassion in me. It’s that emotion that then affects what I say and how I treat that person. It doesn’t matter if he holds views that are contrary to mine. I’m still moved to care about him.

There are several advantages to this approach. First, it treats human beings as image-bearers of God that are inherently valuable and worth knowing. When we take the time to learn the truth about people we interact with, we’re more likely to be moved by compassion. That leads us to treat them like Christ: uncompromising in our convictions, but compassionate in our manner.

Second, it helps to prevent us from seeing other people as the enemy. When we’re ignorant of people’s lives, it’s easier to vilify them, especially if they’re espousing unbiblical views. When we learn the details of their life and struggle, we naturally become more sympathetic to their plight. The truth of their situation leads us to have compassion for them. We no longer see them as the enemy, but as image-bearers of God who desperately need the truth of the Gospel.

Third, it helps change culture’s impression of Christians. This is important because the world believes Christians are hateful, intolerant, and opposed to people on the “other side.” When we take time to hear someone’s story and are compassionate in our manner towards them, the world takes notice. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the world’s perception of believers is paramount, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the culture think positively about our faith.

That’s why truth and compassion influences my teaching so dramatically. I see it as an essential part of what we, as ambassadors for Jesus, are supposed to be like. This is especially true with controversial topics I address like Islam, homosexuality, transgenderism, and abortion. Even though I teach that Muslims, homosexuals, and abortion-choice advocates espouse ideas that are hostile to the teachings of Jesus, I don’t want my training to instill a hostility towards them. I want believers to develop a compassionate heart that is eager to share the Gospel with anyone who doesn’t know Christ.

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Alan Shlemon

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