Compassion in Exhaustion

I was struck by the set up to the story of the feeding of the 5000 in the book of Matthew. (Mt 14:13ff.) Jesus had just heard about the death of John the Baptist. The text tells us that Jesus got in the boat attempting to get away to have some alone time, presumably to grieve, but people somehow heard what Jesus was up to and followed him.

Jesus-compassion-motivation-anger-sadness.jpgBy the time Jesus landed a large crowd had followed. Looking over the crowd he had compassion on them and began to heal their sick. How on earth, in the midst of his own grieving, did he have the strength to have compassion?’

Jesus mom and John’s mom were relatives. Luke tells us that Mary spent three months of her pregnancy with Elizabeth (Luke 1:56). John played a key role in Jesus’ ministry as the Isaiah-like announcer of Jesus’ arrival. John preached in the wilderness of Judea saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near… After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear this threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Mt 3:2, 11-12). Matthew tells us that John was the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mt 3:3) In other words, John was Jesus’ biggest cheerleader. So when Jesus hears of John’s beheading at the hand of Herod, it’s’ no small deal. He’s devastated when he gets in the boat to withdraw to a solitary place. And yet, even when evening approaches and it’s legitimately time to send the crowd home, he feeds them so he can continue to pour himself out to them.

Exactly how Jesus had compassion is not stated in the text. Was there something about his relationship to John that triggered compassion for people? Was he predisposed to gravitate toward compassion when grieving? Is he simply always compassionate because he’s God in the flesh? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But I do think Matthew is pointing us to the necessity of compassion when serving others. I would go so far as to say that compassion is a necessary motivator for any effective ministry.

Compassion has to be a key motivator in our ministries. Reaching people and growing our churches has to be more about compassion for people far from God and less about building our own mini-kingdoms where we get to pat ourselves on the back for all the people we’ve reached. We all know this, but how do we pull it off?

In my opinion, one of the key metrics for motivation is monitoring what makes me angry versus what makes me sad. I’m a work in progress on this, but I try to allow my anger to turn to sadness and compassion before taking action. For example, I get angry when I hear the complete and total garbage that gets taught on Genesis 1-11 and then see our young people leave the church when they get to university because the faith has become intellectually untenable for them. But my writing and teaching on the topic has to be born out of a severe compassion for people. When my anger has turned to a sadness over disillusioned young people then I know it’s time to write.

Easier said than done.

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