Lately I’ve been reading Bold Love by Dan Allender and Tremper Lomgman. Many of the truths in this book are transforming the way I think about sin and it’s damaging effects, and what real compassion looks like.
I’ve always been a compassionate person. I have the gift of mercy, but sometimes it’s to a fault. In my compassion, I often sympathize and even rationalize another person’s bad behavior. Mercy and compassion are tremendous gifts to give others. When Jesus walked on the earth, He was known for His great compassion.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Charles Surgeon in his sermon The Compassion of Jesus defines His compassion this way:
It is expressive of the deepest emotion; a striving of the bowels—a yearning of the innermost nature with pity. As the dictionaries tell us— Ex intimis visceribus misericordia commoveor. I suppose that when our Saviour looked upon certain sights, those who watched him closely perceived that his internal agitation was very great, his emotions were very deep, and then his face betrayed it, his eyes gushed like founts with tears, and you saw that his big heart was ready to burst with pity for the sorrow upon which his eyes were gazing. He was moved with compassion. His whole nature was agitated with commiseration for the sufferers before him.
The great compassion of Jesus is what drew my heart to His. The day I was on my knees beside my bed and recognized that Jesus had seen all the pain I’d suffered and had compassion on me to the point of groaning with me transformed my life and caused me to see that I was His.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
It’s taken a long time for me to even scratch the surface on understanding all that His compassion entails, but over the past few months I’ve begun to see it’s about way more than the superficial sympathy I have often felt for others. In some ways His compassion is contradictory to my own sympathy.
Let me explain. For several years I was involved in an abusive relationship with my former pastor. It began when he showed great sympathy for what I’d been through. When he cried tears of sorrow over all the pain I’d suffered. In his eyes, I thought I was seeing the compassion of Jesus. He told me he loved me and I made him a god. In my dissociative state, I forgot that Romans 8:24 defined our hope as unseen hope, and I sold everything I had for what I believed was my treasure.
I was very, very confused when my pastor confessed to me that he loved me with the kind of love a man would have for his wife. I excused his covetousness and my own with what I believed was compassion, but I see now that it wasn’t. Rather, it was Satan disguising himself as an angel of light in my own shallow sympathy that caused me to rationalize his and my own destructive behavior.
I sympathized with him over and over again. He was lonely. He was under pressure. People didn’t understand how hard his job was. He was needed by so many people that he deserved to have something good in his life. And so many other things…
As I sympathized with him, I also sympathized with myself. I was lonely. I didn’t feel understood. I was sick and tired of problems with extended family and the pain they’d caused our family. I was a victim and I needed relief, and the list went on….
Dan Allender says:
The fallen human heart is continually attempting to predict and control. As long as a person can be categorized and explained, his actions can be anticipated and dismissed. “You know of Frank. He’s a religious fanatic. Did you really expect him to go to the office party?” It is a sad thing that Christians are often so highly predictable.
I thought I was explaining and controlling my own bad behavior when I sympathized with him and he with me. When we prayed and asked for forgiveness from one another and God after we sinned. When we reminded one another there was no condemnation in Christ. I had tried to convince myself that our behavior could be anticipated and dismissed. But deep inside I felt unsettled and like there was always something missing.
Last year when Tullian was teaching on loving our neighbor as ourselves I realized what that was. It was the bold compassion of Christ that not only felt sympathy for the sin that had enslaved me, but also for all the other people that it had and was continuing to harm; my family, his family and the church. Though the outward sins we’d been involved in had ceased years before, the covetousness was still there as was so much deception. I realized that day God had called me to love my neighbor as myself, and Christ’s bold compassion was calling me to hate what I was doing that was bringing others harm.
Dan says we often minimize the damage done by sin with the coined phrase, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Is that God’s attitude toward His enemy? We often hear the biblical-sounding phrase, “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” The dilemma is that sin cannot be abstracted from the
sinner. Without the blood of Christ, what is sent to hell -the sin or the sinner? Hell is not a housing project for abstractions, but a place where sinners are left to live out the consequences of their unpardoned sin. For example, how is it possible to hate adultery without hating the adulterer? What is adultery? Is it merely sexual infidelity -sexual relations with the wrong person? Or is it a profound breaking of a covenant of trust, which cancerously devours the soul and relationships? If it is the latter, then adultery is a big deal. Sin is cancer personified; sin involves rebellious behavior, but it is more than a measurable, objective violation of the standards of God. Many will agree sin is more than an abstraction or a mere behavior to be condemned; it is a force, a malevolent energy in the soul that blights and destroys.
I realized that day that Christ’s compassion was for all and not just for me. I looked in the mirror and hated what the sin and deception had done to me and others. I knew I had to do whatever it took to stop it before any more damage was done.
When we sympathize with others to the point of disregarding the damage their behavior has done to others, this is not the compassion of Christ. The compassion of Christ calls us to hate the damage that sin has caused us and others and long for a better way…the way of love.
Today I’m asking myself exactly what does that look like? How can I sympathize without minimizing sin? How can I hate the damage caused by sin without judging the sinner?
One way I’ve learned, is by asking God to give me the grace to be honest with myself. So much of my own shallow sympathy was a result of the denial that I was in. I didn’t want to see the selfishness of my own sin, and the damage it was doing to others. I rationalized his behavior and mine, because it was the only way to feel like I could look in the mirror. But after a while this just didn’t work anymore. There just wasn’t enough affirmation and sympathy to remove the damage that had sucked me dry. I had to find another source.
Jesus had been waiting for me to come back to Him for a very long time, and when I did He didn’t turn me away. He loved me and covered me with His righteousness. In His eyes, it was as if I’d never sinned. He promised me He’d take every thing the enemy meant for evil and work it for my good and for His glory.
But this in no way meant minimizing the damage done to others who were harmed. And that meant I needed to be honest with others. And that’s where it gets difficult. I knew I was forgiven and in God’s eyes it was like I’d never sinned, but human beings are limited in their ability to forgive. God in His infinite wisdom heals others in His own good time. I have struggled to understand why people in the church couldn’t just forgive and forget when God did. Why they couldn’t understand all the reasons I did what I did? Why they couldn’t see their own sin and put themselves in my shoes? But reading this quote from Bold Love I realized that even what looks like judgment to me is often a tool used by God to reveal the damaging effects of sin to those who are doing the judging.
Nathan told David a story. He told about the evil deeds of a cruel and enormously rich land owner who stole another farmer’s only lamb. The story moved David, and he called for judgment on the man. Nathan, at that point, said, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Nathan tricked David into pointing the finger at himself. Nathan, through cunning and wisdom, gave David enough rope to hang himself and also escaped a dangerous mission with his own neck.
Wow. In the process of judging another’s sin, David saw his own. What an amazing and wise God we have! And I realize that none of what looks like a train wreck and a total mess to me has been wasted. Not only has He freed me from my own sin without minimizing it’s damaging effects, but He uses the judgment imposed by others to free them from their own.
We are all sinners saved by grace. And God hates our sins and the damage it does to us and to others. We cannot miss this. This is why He died. But we also do not need to miss His bold compassion that saved us from sin and its damaging effects before the foundation of the world.
It’s not our sympathy that saves. It’s His bold compassion that doesn’t leave us alone until we are honest with Him, honest with ourselves and others about the damaging effects of our sin and our desperate need for Him.
All because He loves us so very much.