I was challenged at a conference today in a surprising way. We were there to consider issues of identity in our culture, especially questions of gender and transgender. It's a topic where I feel like a cultural dinosaur. Because I am. There is a world out there that I know so little about. Which I find easy to condemn and hard to understand. A world that I am called to love in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The problem is compassion. Compassion is from the Latin meaning "suffer with". It is when you feel for someone in their suffering. You hurt because they hurt. We feel compassion for people when we can understand their problems. When we have sympathy for them. Sympathy is from the Greek meaning "suffer with". We generally only feel compassion for people that we feel are victims. We don't feel compassion for people who we feel are criminals. This is because of our self-righteousness.
We like to put people into 2 categories. Good people like us. And bad people who do things that we would never do and don't understand. Of course as Christians we'd say that we're all bad people according to the Bible. Lots of us could quote Romans 3:23 off by heart... "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". We'd agree that we're all sinners. It's just some of us are nice respectable conservative Christian middle class sinners and others of us aren't! And the nice middle class Christian sinners with our nice conservative middle class Christian sins struggle to have compassion on people not like us.
The way that we get round this is to say that they are ill. Physically or mentally. Or that they are the product of their terrible education or their poverty or their parents. We take them out of the category of criminal and put them into the category of victim. Now we feel sorry for them, so we can have compassion on them!
But this is anti-gospel. Because the gospel is all about the God whose very character is compassion. The God who has compassion on sinners. Who loves criminals. Who shows mercy to the guilty.
So I need to repent of 2 equally wrong attitudes. Firstly that my nice conservative Christians middle class sins are any less offensive than the sins of the rapidly changing, increasingly licentious culture around me, where anything goes. They're not less offensive to God. They're just less offensive to me. And that's wrong.
But secondly I also need to stop excusing people who behave in ways I don't understand or have not experienced. I am not helping them by suggesting that they can't help it. Because in the end having compassion on people is not determined by how people behave or by why people do the things they do. Having compassion is about a deliberate decision to show love to those who are bound in sin and desperately need Jesus Christ. Just as God had compassion on me.