Natalie Williams
Cut-off point for compassion

This article was originally written for the Confluence blog and was published on 21 December 2017.

Imagine the following people come to your church for help:

  • A widowed mother of three;
  • A homeless person asking for change on the streets;
  • A homeless person asking for change on the streets while sipping from a can of lager and feeding his dog;
  • An asylum seeker fleeing persecution;
  • An illegal immigrant who has come here to provide a better life for his family;
  • A woman who was made redundant after 10 years in her job and has now applied for 200 jobs with no success;
  • An unemployed person who has nine children and another one on the way.  

Who would you decide to help first? Which of them most deserves your help? And who is least deserving?

Our society, our media, even our politicians would say – in attitudes even if not in words – that there is a scale on which we can place people as to how much or how little they deserve our help.

Christians, if we’re not careful, can fall into the same habit. We can buy into the premise of the American Dream, which says that if you just work hard enough you will be able to succeed, to make money, to achieve, to lift yourself out of poverty. This sounds good, and we want it to be true, but it’s not biblical. Job lost everything through no fault of his own. We’re told that sometimes the wicked prosper.

Sometimes people do end up in poverty entirely through their own bad decisions. That’s what happened to the Prodigal Son in the Bible – he “squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13) or, as the older brother puts it, he “squandered [his father’s] property with prostitutes” (v30) – and then returned to father only when he “began to be in need” (v14) and was “starving to death” (v17).

The Bible doesn’t shy away from the fact that people sometimes fall into poverty because of the decisions they make. But it’s interesting that the response of the father in this story is unmerited mercy – exactly what we’ve been shown by Jesus.

There’s a challenge here for those who follow Christ. We have been shown incredible mercy and kindness by God, not because we deserved it, but despite the bad choices we had made. Yet so often we don’t treat others with the same mercy we have been shown.

Those who’ve encountered the wonderful mercy of God should be the most merciful people on the planet. We were once like the Prodigal son, but now our role in the story has changed. If you’re a child of God, you’re now called to be an imitator of Christ – so instead of seeing yourself in the role of the Prodigal, as you once were, you now get to see yourself in the role of the Father. You and I get the amazing privilege of being mercy-bringers.

And it has nothing to do with whether or not the person in front of us deserves it.

See, our society would look at the person in front of them and weigh up: “Do you deserve my help or not?” But the Christian is not called to look at the person in front of them, but to Jesus. We’re to look up!

In the Kingdom of God, mercy is never based on the recipient, but solely on the Giver. The mercy and kindness we show to people in need shouldn’t be based on the recipient, but on the One who has lavished His loving-kindness upon us.

Having a cut-off point for our compassion is not only unbiblical – imagine if God had a cut-off point for His compassion towards you and me! – but it’s also illogical. In Western countries, study after study shows that the single biggest factor on the chances a child will have in life is whether they grow up in relative poverty. It is likely to affect their health, educational attainment, life expectancy, job prospects, and more.

So at which age do we switch off our compassion for the child in poverty? Where’s the cut-off point between our compassion for the child and our outrage at the adult who keeps making bad decisions? Do we expect the child growing up in poverty to magically change on their 18th birthday to bear no resemblance to the upbringing they’ve had? Or is it when they turn 21? Or 30?

It doesn’t make sense!

A biblical attitude isn’t “you made your bed...” – thank God! A biblical attitude towards those in poverty (whether as a victim of circumstances or their own choices) is to imitate the beautiful Saviour who, when he saw the crowds, “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

Society treats people based on their behaviour; Christians are called to treat people based on God’s behaviour, on His character, who He is.

We’re not to look at the same things as the world. Our question must never be: “Do you deserve my help?” It must always be: “How can I show you God’s mercy and kindness today?”