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Trade Paperback
106 pages
Apr 2006
Barclay Press

Compassion: The Painful Privilege

by Dan Nolta

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



I could feel the sting—and my defenses going up—as I read the letter from my good friend Gil, a former missionary and now a pastor, a position I had held before I became a police chaplain. I had written an article for our church magazine challenging Christians to “pry their hands off their eyes” and get out into the “real world” and see the things I was seeing as a police chaplain—out where God was really needed. Gil lovingly typed me off this private response:

I submit to you that to see “life the way it really is,” one would be better off to stay in the pastorate than to seek such in other ways. Are the problems that pastors deal with any less real because there are no sirens or lights flashing, though most pastors have been involved in many of those kinds of events as well?…I believe in you, and I believe in the ministry you are performing as a chaplain. But let me leave you with a standing invitation that if at any time you decide you would like to have the hands pried off your eyes and experience life the way it really is, I’m sure we can find a place for you as a pastor. I’m smiling, Dan…honest, I’m smiling!

As I read these words I felt his indignation over my air of superiority in the spiritual “pecking order.” Well, I didn’t mean it like that...or did I? I thought. Do I really think I am the only one out there exercising the gift of compassion...that I am “doing it right” but others are not? Have I developed such an air of spiritual superiority that others, including my own friends, are beginning to talk about it among themselves?

All of that whirled through my mind as I read Gil’s letter. Though it was gently worded, and from a friend who cared about me, I got the point. I was not the only one doing God’s work. Others were doing real, compassionate ministry as well.

Now feeling thoroughly chastened, I realized that my appointed ministry is just that—my appointed ministry. It was where God has planted me, and it was where I had the privilege of loving people for his sake. It was God who had so graciously given me the wonderful gift of compassion, and it was God who had appointed me as a police chaplain. From that position, I had exercised that gift. And I hadn’t done it any better than anyone else—just differently.

I had started my years of ministry as a very new Christian. I had become a pastor right out of college, too eager to get started in ministry to be bothered with getting more education. That would have to come later.

Still fairly new in the pastorate, I volunteered to be a police chaplain. It was then that I entered into an intoxicating world where adrenaline is the “drug of choice” for guys like me. Now, some thirty-five years later, I can look back at my years in that particular ministry and think of all I have come to know and believe about the God of compassion who gifts his children with compassion. I have realized that God gifts his children that way so that others may be blessed with the presence of those who are willing to suffer with them the insults, the tragedies, and the pain that life so often deals out.

I have also learned that for every person who has the gift of compassion, God provides a “life context” in which that person can carry out compassionate acts for the good of others. For those appointed to ministries like mine, these contexts are often filled with crisis, tragedy, suffering, and sometimes death. Within my God-appointed role as a police chaplain I have been privileged to act as a compassionate helper both to victims and to those dedicated to assisting them—the men and women who work in the police and fire services.

Relatively speaking, few are called to exercise compassion as police chaplains. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t countless opportunities, even for the “layperson,” to demonstrate compassion in this world so full of tragedy and suffering. For the typical Christian, opportunities to demonstrate compassion may present themselves in “everyday” situations, such as comforting a next-door neighbor suffering from cancer, offering kind words and encouragement to a friend who is going through a painful divorce, or letting a child who wanders aimlessly around the neighborhood know that there is a friend who truly cares whether he or she lives or dies.

As my friend Gil so lovingly pointed out, compassion isn’t always exercised in the context of “front-page drama.” It is sometimes demonstrated just as effectively in “just between you and me” situations. Compassion exercised is the neighbor who sees a family without enough food and provides a pot of chicken and dumplings for dinner. Compassion exercised is the public school teacher who senses the neediness of her second-grade student and makes sure he gets to Sunday school. Compassion exercised is the family who loves a needy young man so much they dip into their own funds to anonymously provide a scholarship so he can go to college. Compassion exercised is a “veteran” minister mentoring a struggling young pastor so that he finds his way and is able to minister effectively. Compassion exercised is giving support to one God has called into a faith ministry.

I personally know the value of exercising these kinds of acts of compassion because they were all lovingly showered upon me during my lifetime. I know that without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Whatever the context, God’s work of compassion is done because people, the crown of his creation, interact—helper and helpee, victim and rescuer—and share in need and in the weight of suffering.

If we as Christians want to see a perfect picture of one who demonstrated God’s compassion, we need look no further than the Gospels—the four books of the Bible that tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus was the ultimate Helper and Rescuer because he was perfectly obedient to the will of his Father, who had sent him to rescue the lost and provide them a way to have fellowship with God.

Of all Jesus’ demonstrations of compassion, I am drawn to this profound story found in Matthew’s Gospel:

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.” Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and fol-lowed him. (Matthew 20:29-34)

This instructive story draws us in with its simplicity. We can apply its principles to situations that prompt us to exercise compassion.

This book is thus devoted to those traveling down the road of life with their own Jericho in their “rearview mirror.” It is devoted to those who—though they are surrounded by noisy, clamoring crowds—hear the voice of one in need and, instead of just moving on to get to the destination on time, stop to get involved, hear the need, be moved with compassion, and reach out and touch.

To hear the voice of one in need is one thing, but to stop and confront the source of the voice is quite another. To allow yourself to be pulled into the suffering of the “blind” one is yet another. And finally, to reach out and touch is compassion exercised. The rheumy eyes—swollen, red and runny, crusty with the discharge of infection—you reach out and touch them, and to do so is a painful privilege.

The arena for the exercise of compassion is different for each of us, and likewise, the crowd that clamors for our attention is different also. For you, the clamoring crowd may be the cry of your child who needs a diaper change, the harried work to get dinner on the table so Junior can get to ball practice on time and spouse can get to the church meeting. It may be the long list of phone calls or e-mails waiting to be answered or another deal waiting to be closed. It may be a sermon that needs to be written for Sunday morning, and it is already Saturday. For many, this “clamoring crowd” can drown out the voices of the “blind” around you and compete for the time it takes for you to get “involved.”

But for those who are truly gifted with a compassionate spirit, the clamor is never loud enough to completely shut out the cries of those in need. And the needy are never so unlovely or unclean that you do not stop beside the road, reach down to them, and apply the gentle touch.

Those who find themselves frequently hearing, stopping, and touching know (as I do) that it can make for a very expensive “side trip” in life. To get involved in sharing the pain of another is indeed costly. The hours given, sleep disturbed, and vicarious pains endured are all parts of the cost paid as we emulate Jesus, the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3 KJV).

Those who have made hearing, stopping, and touching a way of life will discover the great rewards that come as the Lord showers back into their own lives the love given, the mercy shown, and the compassion demonstrated. They will personally enjoy a richness in their lives as well as the deep assurance they are divinely privileged to be a blessing and gift for those in need and suffering. God has chosen some of us and entrusted us with the responsibility of crossing the yellow “crime scene tape” in the lives of others and standing with them in their pain.

If that resonates in your heart, then this book was written for you.