Compassion can be misdirected against difficult people
Compassion is an amazing quality from God that enables us to foster deeper understanding and relationships, even with antagonistic people. By allowing the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with God’s loving compassion, we are able to move beyond anti-social behaviours to empathise with other people’s inner hurts and insecurities. This empowers us to respectfully address their real fears without succumbing to sin. When we rely on our own fleshly instincts, however, we tend to misuse our gift of compassion.
God calls us to put on compassionate hearts
God is good to all and has compassion for all people. Being made in His image, we too have great capacity for compassion. This is one reason why people enjoy hearing stories; because we can imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes and feel compelled to help or comfort those who are suffering.
Psalm 145:8-9 NIV The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Hence, our Heavenly Father reminds us to be merciful like He is, because He is “kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” In God’s eyes, our sins are no different from the sins of those who offend, attack, hurt or abuse us. We too have been ungrateful and done evil before God. God considers every one of us “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. He sees both the people who do good and who do evil as weak and vulnerable.
Luke 6:35-36 ESV But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Matthew 9:35-36 ESV And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
God expects us to consciously make an allowance for other people’s faults, because we are not perfect either. He calls us to “put on” compassionate hearts and demonstrate “kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.”
Colossians 3:12-13 ESV Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
The misuse of compassion; focusing on ourselves
When we are upset, however, we tend to only show compassion and feel sorry for ourselves. We ruminate on our pain and injustices and think about other people’s faults, and forget that we are imperfect too.
It takes humility to examine ourselves and admit that under different circumstance, we too are less than loving towards other people.
2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
Understanding godly compassion
Showing compassion towards difficult people is not a weakness, it is a powerful and correct representation of God Himself.
1. Godly compassion does not discriminate
The Bible reminds us, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?” God reminds us to behave like children of the Most High, not like “sinners” who only pick and choose those whom they love. We are called to not only show compassion for those we like, but those we don’t.
Luke 6:32-33 ESV “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
2. Compassion is not the same as tolerance, avoidance or indifference
It is natural to instinctually respond in a fight-or-flight mode when we feel threatened. Choosing not to respond in a “fight” mode and to “put away” any hostility, slander, and obscenities is a good thing.
Colossians 3:8-10 ESV But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Choosing not to do anything, however, is not good either. Godly compassion is not passive, it always leads to acts of kindness. To empathise with someone else’s pain, fears or insecurities and yet not do anything renders our compassion meaningless and empty. We are called to do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. These are active steps we take.
James 4:17 ESV So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Luke 6:27-29 ESV “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.
3. Godly compassion requires godly wisdom through the Holy Spirit
How we go about this takes wisdom and insight from the Holy Spirit.
What we see about someone’s actions is only the visible “tip of the iceberg”. There is always lots more going on below-the-surface and it would be too superficial of us to simply react based on what we can see. On the other hand, God sees through each person and knows the best plan for them. Therefore, we need His counsel on how to respond in a way that is life-giving but yet does not condone or enable their anti-social behaviour. For this, we must rely on God’s guidance, and not our own human wisdom or fleshly gut reactions. When our patterns are not submitted to Jesus, we can all behave selfishly and offensively too.
John 14:26-27 ESV But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
4. Godly compassion understands the anxieties behind the actions
God’s Word tells us that anyone who seeks true understanding is blessed.
Proverbs 3:13-14 ESV Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.
Difficult people are often slaves to fear and anxiety, and our most powerful response is to understand their subconscious hidden insecurities. This is particularly true for those who do not know Jesus as their personal Saviour. Here are some possible scenarios.
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
- Is someone arrogant and boastful? – Perhaps they are subconsciously compensating for something they lacked growing up. Pride is often used to mask fear and insecurity.
- Is someone behaving aggressively? – Perhaps they feel threatened and are simply trying to protect an area of pain or shame. Aggression is often related to the fear of repeating past injustices, such as being bullied, humiliated or taken advantage of.
- Is someone being controlling and possessive? – Perhaps they have been through volatile episodes in life. People resort to controlling others when they fear repeating traumatic experiences.
- Does someone gossip constantly? – Perhaps they are simply mimicking ungodly role models or trying to divert attention from their own anxieties by talking about others.
- Is someone bitter and jealous? – Perhaps they were denied acceptance in the past. Jealousy is often related to comparisons being imposed on people as they were growing up, so that they continue comparing themselves with others. To them, life feels unfair.
- Is someone needy? – Perhaps they have felt deeply rejected previously. Neediness is often related to feeling abandoned in the past, usually by one’s own parents.
- Is someone over-sensitive or over-reacting? – Perhaps we have done something to trigger uncomfortable emotions linked to someone else’s buried issues. Hypersensitivity is often due to the fear of revisiting old wounds.
Practical steps in showing godly compassion
Thankfully, godly compassion can be learnt and acquired as we obey God. He promises to bless us when we follow Him, instead of our fleshly desires.
Luke 11:28 ESV But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
1. Don’t fall for the temptation to judge others
First, we must be careful not to fall for the temptation to judge others. Rather, we are to show mercy so that we will also receive mercy from God. Everyone needs Jesus, not our judgment. Let us resolve to never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of someone else seeing Jesus’ love displayed through us. We are, afterall, called to do what’s right in God’s eyes, not in our eyes.
James 2:13 ESV For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Romans 14:12-13 ESV So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
2. Set time aside regularly for God’s comfort and restoration
Compassion requires us to make room in our hearts for other people. The more we push down and suck in negative emotions, the less our capacity to show true compassion to anyone.
We need to allow God to heal and restore us regularly, especially when we have been hurt in the past. God calls us to cast all our past and present anxieties on Him, so that our hearts, minds and souls can be fully restored. God’s Word promises that God’s comfort will be abundant when we suffer abundantly. Let us cry out and tell Him all about our pain and ask for His healing. Once we receive God’s gentle, loving and warm restoration, we will sense His love flow through us and we will not be so easily tempted by Satan to do evil.
1 Peter 5:6-10 ESV Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5 ESV Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
This is how Stephen, a young believer, who was full of the Holy Spirit, was able to show mercy and compassion to those who didn’t understand his mission and executed him as a result. He cried out as they attacked him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Acts 7:55,59-60 ESV But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
3. Resist self-victimisation, seek the victory God has prepared
Another constant temptation for those with compassion is to turn that inwards and victimise ourselves. This is a corruption of God’s will. His Word tells us that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Consider how the world looks at believers who walk around defeated by the words and actions of mere people, when we say we have the Saviour of the World guarding our backs. When we victimise or distance ourselves, people will doubt any testimony about Jesus Christ.
Romans 8:37 ESV No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We can trust that God does not allow us to suffer meaninglessly. God will often bring us into the lives of those who are spiritually lost and emotionally “tormented” because they desperately need His love and compassion. We may also be “tormented” by them for a while because hurting people hurt other people.
But instead of praying, “Heavenly Father, please remove these painful people from me,” we ought to be asking, “Father, what is Your purpose for bringing me into the lives of these hurting people? How can I represent You well?” As long as “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”, our acts of kindness and compassion will soften and open many hardened hearts towards the gospel.
Romans 5:3-5 ESV Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Also, see How God uses suffering in our lives.
4. Be a cleansed channel for the Holy Spirit
After we repent and are cleansed of any judgment, slander, and self-victimisation, we can surrender our hearts and our circumstances back to God and allow the Holy Spirit to work through us. God’s Spirit will give us the supernatural ability to respond in ways that are “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” God will make a way that brings Him glory and vindicates our humility. Our own self-centred compassion, pride, logic and scheming will not.
James 3:17 ESV But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
Galatians 5:16-18 ESV But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
5. Address the hidden insecurities and do the right thing
One of the most helpful ways to express compassion is to address the anxieties that lead people to act in negative ways.
We may respond to a demanding, bullying boss by saying, “I understand the pressure you must be under, let me see what I can do to help,” or to a controlling relative, “Please do not worry, I will not let you down because God is with us,” or to an emotionally abusive person, “I’m sorry you feel angry and hurt. I understand the need to consider what I just said. Shall we discuss this later?”
Whenever someone vents or gossips, recognise that it is usually because they don’t feel like they know of an alternative way out and may feel stuck. We can first pray and ask God to give us the wisdom to help them see further into His hope. We may then want to interrupt their distressed conversations to ask them probing or leading questions, so they are able to see beyond their own perspective and arrive at helpful alternatives for themselves.
Here is a list of steps we can take:
- Always stay calm
- Pray and ask God to reveal the inner workings of other people’s hearts
- Zoom out and objectively examine the bigger issue and empathise with their hidden fears
- Find areas we can agree on and start our response with that
- Avoid language that is confrontational
- Offer practical help
- When helpful, use questions that hold a mirror to other peoples’ actions that they may reflect on their behaviour.
- Be ready to offer gentle, loving and compassionate counsel
- Pray to cut ungodly soul ties after our encounters with hurtful people, especially those that worship idols, so we do not become unequally yoked (See Ungodly soul ties must be cut)
Proverbs 15:1-3 ESV A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.
Most people will soften up once we demonstrate God’s exceptional compassion and grace. God’s Word promises that even our enemies will be at peace with us when we obey and follow His ways. Even if they do not reconcile with us immediately, we are called to persist in behave in God-honouring ways. As this world becomes more and more chaotic and slanderous, let us remember that our role model is Jesus Christ, not the people who hurt us. Satan will always tempt us to follow bad examples, rather than our Saviour. Because we can be secure in God’s healing, love, and restoration, we can be compassionate and kind when others aren’t.
Proverbs 16:7 When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
Galatians 6:9 ESV And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
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