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King of Compassion

By David Feddes

The man was caught in the act of committing a crime. His crime was considered such a serious offense against society that the government executed him. What deed brought him the death penalty? He fed and cared for deformed and crippled children who survived attempts to abort or abandon them. It was thought that society would be better off without such children, so the man who saved their lives was an enemy of the people and had to die himself. This man, Benignus, was a Christian in the Roman Empire. His compassion clashed with accepted Roman practices of aborting, abandoning, or drowning children with disabilities. When he violated Roman standards by giving these children life, Benignus had to be punished with death.

Does it sound strange that Christian compassion would be a crime punishable by death? You may think caring and compassion are virtues valued by almost all civilized people in almost every culture. But that’s not so. The Greek philosopher Plato said that a poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die. The Roman philosopher Plautus declared, “You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for more misery.” In other words, you’re better off spending your money on yourself, and the poor person is better off dead. Greco-Roman civilization thought compassion for the weak would weaken the society, and various cultures have taken a similar approach, worshiping wealth and war and viewing compassion as bad.

Compassion toward needy people has not been valued in every culture or in every religion. Some religions smother compassion by teaching such ideas as karma and reincarnation. They say that if people suffer, their problems are due to bad karma resulting from bad behavior in previous lives. The bad karma can be removed only by letting people continue to suffer and pay for what they did in an earlier life. This type of religion tends to produce a caste system, where people in one level of society congratulate themselves on their good karma and consider it a very bad thing to connect with people at another level or to help them in any way.

If compassion isn’t a natural humanitarian impulse, and if it’s not valued by all religions and cultures, then how has it come about that millions of people live in societies that do honor the ideal of compassion and do think it’s important to care for the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged? It’s because of the impact of Jesus Christ on these societies.

Jesus’ Life and Teaching

When Jesus walked this earth, the dominant civilizations of his time did more to harm the needy, weak, and sick than to help them. But when Jesus saw crowds of needy people “he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). He helped the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. When he saw hungry people, he had compassion on them and fed them (Mark 8:1-8). When he sent out his disciples, he directed them “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). The words of the gospel were always to be accompanied by deeds of compassion and healing.

In the Roman Empire, the emperors and elite classes of society did not believe in compassion. If the government did anything at all to help the poor, it was only to prevent riots and to win political points from the people. If individuals helped others, they usually helped only their relatives or people with money or influence or reputation, because such people could pay back their help with even greater favors. It was considered foolish to help people who couldn’t offer anything in return, and it could be downright criminal to help those who were thought to be better off dead.

Contrary to such thinking, Jesus told his followers not to limit their kindness to relatives and rich neighbors who would pay them back. Instead, said Jesus, be generous with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).

As Jesus practiced compassion and taught it to others, he made it clear that compassion is closely connected to eternal destiny. Jesus told about a rich man who did nothing to help a poor, sick beggar on the street outside his house. The beggar ended up happy in heaven, while the rich man ended up burning in hell, begging for a drop of water to cool his burning tongue (Luke 16:19-24). Jesus didn’t mean that people earn eternal life for themselves by being nice, but he did mean that anyone who is truly rooted in Christ bears the fruit of compassion.

Jesus brings eternal life in the future world for those who trust and follow him, and his gospel also makes a difference in this world. Faith in Jesus has changed countless people and made them more compassionate and more eager to bring healing to others. Christ’s compassion has also made Christians pioneers in starting hospitals, orphanages, and many other charity organizations. The impact of Christ reaches even beyond Christians to people who don’t personally believe in Jesus as their Savior. Many such people value compassion, due to the ripple effect of Christ’s influence on culture, and they benefit from institutions and organizations that have Christian roots.

Compassion Conquers

Jesus came into the world as the king of compassion, and his kingdom proved superior to kingdoms that opposed compassion. As God’s kingdom in Christ grew and its influence spread, compassion grew and spread.

The church of Jesus grew rapidly in its first few centuries under the Roman government. This is amazing when we consider that becoming a Christian seemed to go against self-interest. If you became a Christian, the church taught you to share with people in need. Christians were expected to give at least a tenth of their income to charity. Who would want to become a Christian if it meant having less money to spend on yourself? Worse yet, becoming a Christian could get you killed! The Roman rulers harassed, tortured, and killed many Christians. Why would anyone become a Christian under such circumstances? But many did. They were drawn to the truth and love of Jesus. They preferred to show compassion and to suffer in fellowship with such a Savior rather than go through life without him, and they believed the promises of eternal life.

Roman culture had little use for compassion, thinking that kindness to the weak would weaken the whole culture. Only the strong survive, they thought. But as it turned out, the cold and cruel culture eventually collapsed, while kind and compassionate Christianity kept spreading. Christianity was supposedly weak, but it ended up conquering the mightiest empire in the world. Compassion was not a weakness but a weapon for winning.

When pagans aborted or abandoned unwanted children, they reduced the pagan population. When Christians cared for children and kept them alive, they expanded the Christian population.

Another way Christian population outgrew the non-Christian population was through compassion for the sick. In those times of fewer medical cures, contagious diseases often became epidemics and killed huge numbers of people. Pagans abandoned people at the first sign of illness, but many Christians stayed with the sick and cared for them.

The Christian bishop Dionysius told of a deadly plague in the city of Alexandria around the year 250. The worshipers of pagan gods and goddesses “thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died.” In contrast, said Dionysius, “Many of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

Now, it might seem that if Christians placed themselves at risk and caught fatal diseases from people they helped, there would be fewer and fewer Christians. But in fact, Christian compassion helped Christianity to keep growing, while paganism kept shrinking. Many Christians died while caring for others during these epidemics, but they also saved huge numbers of people by providing food, sanitation, and comfort. A historian estimates that Christian compassion cut the mortality rate by two-thirds. As a result, Christian communities had far more survivors than pagan communities. Also, many surviving pagans owed their lives to Christians who cared for them when their own families and friends abandoned them. Such compassion won many pagans to Christ. After each epidemic, Christians were a larger percentage of the population than before.

Even those who went on rejecting Christ still had to acknowledge the power of Christian compassion. Anti-Christian emperor Julian the Apostate noted that Christians cared for each other and for non-Christians too. Julian said it was shameful that pagans could expect more assistance from Christians than from their own families and fellow pagans.

Another non-Christian writer, Lucian, was downright amazed by the Christians and exclaimed, “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver [Jesus] put it into their heads that they were all brethren.” If Christians didn’t have resources to help a hungry person, they would fast for a day or two and then, with what they saved by not eating, they would help the needy person.

Those Christians in the early centuries of the church weren’t perfect, of course, but they belonged to the king of compassion, and it showed in countless acts of personal kindness: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick. Eventually it showed not just in personal deeds but also in institutions of compassion.

Institutions of Compassion

During the early centuries of terrible persecution, it wasn’t possible for Christians to set up buildings and institutions. But by the time of the great ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, persecution had ended and Christianity was legal. The Council of Nicea upheld the doctrine of the Trinity, but it didn’t just stand for accurate teaching. The Council also ordered congregations to establish a hospital in every city with a cathedral. These hospitals provided lodging for strangers who were traveling and a place to recover for people who were sick. In later centuries, the hospitals developed more and more skill in healing, but already in the earliest days they were institutions to provide basic care and show Christ’s love. Every hospital you see owes its original to Christian compassion.

Christians also established orphanages. This didn’t happen right away. In the earliest centuries of persecution and worshiping in secret, Christian churches couldn’t establish orphanages, but they did regularly take special collections during church services to assist orphans, and many orphans were taken into Christian homes and adopted. Disease was common and the average lifespan was short, so the church tried to protect children of the church from ever being left alone. When the church baptized babies, godparents were often involved, and a big part of the reason for this was that if the parents died, the godparents were to care for the children. Of course, if the parents lived, the godparents were supposed to pray for the children and support their development as Christians.

From the earliest days, Christians had a special concern for children and orphans, and once Christianity became legal, the church sought to help orphans on an even wider scale. Rather than let kids die on the street, the church established orphanages to provide housing, food, education, love, and Christian teaching. This was in tune with the biblical call “to look after orphans … in their distress” (James 1:27).

Historians point out that there were no orphanages before Christians started them. There were no hospitals for the poor or the general public until Christians started them. There’s a little evidence that the Romans may have had some medical facilities for military personnel and for rich people, but it is certain that nobody bothered building anything for sick people in general until Christians did so.

Sociologist Alvin Schmidt says, “It is an astonishing mystery that the Greeks, who built large temples in honor of their numerous gods and goddesses … never build any hospitals… The situation was similar with the Romans, who were great builders of temples, large arenas, impressive aqueducts, and the highly advanced Appian Way.” Why didn’t the Greeks and Romans build hospitals? It obviously wasn’t a lack of ability to build things, nor was it a lack of interest in anatomy and medicine. It was a lack of compassion.

The king of compassion changed things. As more and more people came to know Christ, more and more institutions of compassion appeared. Even in countries where a majority didn’t become Christians, a few Christians often made a big difference. India, for example, was so enslaved to false ideas of karma, reincarnation, and the caste system that few successful people wanted to help the poor and sick. Christian missionaries not only brought the gospel of forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ but also brought Christian compassion and institutions, such as hospitals and orphanages, to India. Mother Teresa is a famous example of Christian compassion at work in India, but there have been other Christians like her in many nations, all motivated by Christ.

The influence of Christ is responsible not only for hospitals but also for the nursing profession and for the International Red Cross. The first nurses were monks and nuns funded by Christian offerings. The person who took modern nursing to a new level was Florence Nightingale, who said, “The kingdom of God is within, but we must also make it so without.” The founder of the International Red Cross was Jean Henri Dunant, who received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Dunant said, “I am a disciple of Christ… and nothing more.” Later the Red Crescent was formed for Muslims who didn’t like the sign of the cross, but the fact remains that the Red Crescent wouldn’t exist if Christians hadn’t started the Red Cross.

Many churches have special organizations devoted to hunger relief, development, medical care, and other expressions of compassion. The Salvation Army was started by evangelical Christians in 1887. Leading people to faith in Christ and personal salvation has always been a basic motivation, but the Salvation Army also works with many churches to provide food, clothing, medical relief, rescue missions and rehabilitation centers for addicts.

Also, in 1887, Christian leaders met in Denver to start the Charity Organizations Society. This was the beginning of what later became known as the United Way. The United Way is no longer specifically Christian, but it was started by Christians.

Alcoholics Anonymous and various twelve-step recovery programs have their roots in Christian principles and were started by people whose thinking was shaped by Christianity.

Christians led the campaign for child labor laws, which put an end to exploiting children for cheap labor.

Christians pioneered ministries for prison inmates and their family members, showing compassion to people that few others care about.

Christians were the first to establish homes with special medical care for elderly people with needs too great to be met by themselves or their families.

I could go on and on listing innovations and institutions established by Christian compassion, but I trust it’s clear that Jesus, the king of compassion, has indeed been a world changer. In every age, Christians have been spurred on by the knowledge that Jesus takes personally our treatment of the poor and that when we serve them, we are serving him. At the end of the world, Jesus will say to Christians who show compassion, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

In My Name

We’ve seen that some civilizations had so little compassion that they actually treated compassion as a crime. The enormous influence of Jesus, however, has made compassion a valued and admired ideal, even by those who often fall short of the idea or are not Christians at all. One writer says, “Christian ideals have permeated society until non-Christians, who claim to live a ‘decent life’ without religion, have forgotten the origin of the very content and context of their ‘decency.’”

Many people—even those who consider compassion a good thing—don’t know Christ and don’t know the Christian roots of compassion in their civilization. They may just take it for granted that compassion is good, but that’s not something we can afford to take for granted. If we don’t know the source of compassion, we won’t know why people and their society are becoming less compassionate until it’s too late. We may even reach a point where society treats compassionate Christians as criminals, like the Roman Empire sometimes did. In fact, that point may be closer than we realize.

For instance, government officials sometimes investigate crisis pregnancy centers, requiring information on all their activities and on every client they ever served. What shady things are these centers involved in? They provide free pregnancy tests, free sonograms, baby clothes, nutrition, parental training, encouragement, and counseling to pregnant women in difficult situations. Government officials do not harass abortion clinics, but they do harass people who help pregnant women and their babies, saying they might be “practicing medicine without a license” or not following proper advertising procedures. When baby killers have official government approval while the forces of compassion are almost criminalized, it’s evidence that compassion can’t thrive without a living connection to Christ.

Faith in Christ is the root which nourishes compassion in society and in individuals. It’s a fact that most charitable organizations have Christian roots. It’s also a fact that at an individual level, compassion depends largely on faith in Christ. Committed Christians are far more generous on the average than their non-Christian neighbors. Surveys of giving patterns show that the most generous givers are either Christians or have a Christian family influence within a generation or two.

Jesus spoke of giving “a cup of water in my name” (Mark 9:41). Compassion doesn’t have the same quality if it’s not done in Jesus’ name, and in the long run, it won’t have the same quantity either. If Jesus’ name and reign are ignored, then sharing a cup of cold water and other acts of kindness become less and less common. So give thanks for all Christ has done to make his people and your society more compassionate. Give thanks for all that has been done and is still being done in Jesus’ name. And be sure to put your faith in that name. Believe in Jesus, the only name by which you can be saved. Trust the king of compassion, and enlist in his armies of compassion.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.