AFGHANISTAN: Six subtle dangers when Christians confuse compassion with pity

AFGHANISTAN: Six subtle dangers when Christians confuse compassion with pity

It was encouraging to witness how the global community, Christian and non-Christian alike, united their voices in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan.  Social media was inundated with calls to prayer, heart-breaking pictures, and shattering stories.  Few global events over the past decade have gripped the hearts of the global community as intensely as did the invasion of Kabul and Afghanistan falling into the hands of the Taliban.  The global outcry of compassion stretched beyond borders, across nations, and into the hearts of anyone who felt the pain of the vulnerable and unfortunate.

But, the voice of compassion for the people of Afghanistan, even though sincere and mostly with pure intentions, did not always reflect a Biblical definition of compassion.  And, as commendable as it is, it is important for Christians to identify the subtle dangers that can so easily turn compassion into compromise.

Feeling sorry for the people of Afghanistan is not Biblical. Having compassion is. And there is a big difference.

The difference between feeling sorry for someone and having compassion with someone is not a matter of semantics, and the nature of this difference is amplified once we start posting messages on social media that result in an opposite spirit of what we should be aiming for.

So, what is the Biblical nature of compassion?

COMPASSION – DEFINITION

2 Corinthians 1:3  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.

The one virtue, the one character trait, the one habit, and the one action that embodies a transformed Christ-consciousness more than anything else is INDISCRIMINATE COMPASSION.  But sadly, we often confuse compassion with pity and empathy with sympathy

I can imagine that most of the global calls of pity stem from hearts of sympathy and not compassion.  And that’s OK.  Statistics, numbers, pictures, and stories simply don’t bleed and it’s nearly impossible to use academic or numeric arguments to mobilise people into a sense of compassion.

And this brings us to the root of compassion.

The Latin root for the word compassion is pati, which means to suffer, and the prefix com- means with.  Compassion, originating from compati, literally means to suffer together with. The connection of suffering with another person takes compassion beyond sympathy into the realm of anguish.

This also explains how we can be confronted with the numbers of people suffering without feeling the anguish of those who suffer.  Sympathy and pity are feelings for someone.  Compassion is feeling with someone.  Pity results in feelings.  Compassion results in action.  And this is why it is so much easier to pity the Afghan people than it is to have a deep compassion for them.

And this is why 2 Corinthians 1:3 is so profound.

God has the ability to have compassion with the multitudes.  When God saw the lostness of His creation and the brokenness of those in it, He didn’t just feel a sense of pity or sympathy – He had compassion.  God is able to identify with statistics and numbers to the extent that He feels the sorrow, hardship, and pain of every individual.  And from His character of compassion, heaven was moved into action.  … for God so loved the world that He sent His Son…

Yes, INDISCRIMINATE COMPASSION is one of the key character traits of God.  The ability to look at the multitudes and recognise every soul for what it is worth.

But what makes this compassion so divine is that it is indiscriminately available to all – to the women of Afghanistan, the children, and, profoundly so, for the Taliban.  When we are confronted with people suffering, we tend to assist those with whom we can identify.  We help someone who is of the same culture, or of the same country or the same faith.  We tend to tend to those we belong to.

Not so with God.  Not only do we know our God does not discriminate because Romans 2:11[1] and Acts 15:9[2] tell us so, but we also know that God does not discriminate because He displayed it when He sat with the tax collector, when He defended the prostitute, when He touched the leper, when he listened to the Roman centurion, and when He answered the rich young man.  He never served with a self-righteous attitude. He became a servant to all – man, woman, rich, poor, marginalized, wealthy, sick, healthy, Jew, and Gentile – no one excluded.

Wow, what a Saviour.  Not like the one who says he is compassionate but demands submission at all times but the One who is known by this trait: INDISCRIMINATELY COMPASSIONATE

So, what are the Six subtle dangers we need to look out for when we are confronted with pictures and stories of deep trauma?

  1. Biased compassion

There are two dangers when we consider a biased compassion.  Firstly, we choose who we have pity with, and secondly, we choose who does not deserve our compassion.

Firstly

In the same week that Afghanistan was invaded by the Taliban, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti, killing some 2,200 people, with hundreds still missing. Thousands more were injured and displaced as preliminary government assessments estimated that more than 60,700 homes had been destroyed and another 76,100 damaged. Two days later, a severe tropical storm lashed the Caribbean nation with rain, bringing flash floods and hampering humanitarian efforts in the worst-affected southwest of the country. The two disasters could not have come at a worse time for Haiti, which was still reeling from the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on 7 July and escalating gang violence which has resulted in the internal displacement of around 19,000 people.

And yet, very little was reported on social media, and few prayers were offered or requested for the people of this ravaged nation.  Haiti is an obscure island and obviously not as prominent as Afghanistan and therefore deserves less attention?  Well, not in the eyes of God!

God himself emphatically declares that He shows no favouritism and that His plan of salvation is to bless all people and all nations (Act 10:34  Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism  but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.).  God has as much compassion on the people of Haiti as He has on the people of Afghanistan, and He seeks the souls of Taliban fighters as much as He seeks the souls of the Afghan women and children.

Secondly

The Taliban deserves our prayers as much as the women, children, and persecuted Church of Afghanistan.  This is a difficult principle to embrace but part of the DNA of anyone who chooses to follow Christ.

1 Peter 2:17  gives a near impossible command – “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

The words “show respect to everyone” and “honour the emperor” in  1 Peter 2:17, are both the same word and translated from the Greek word tim-ah’-o which literally means to “fix a valuation upon; by implication to revere: – honour, and value.”  A more literal translation of this text can therefore read as follows: “Place a proper value on every soul you encounter, even the emperor”.

I find this profound.  Respect, therefore, refers to the value of a soul and not the evaluation of a person.  And if we want to place a value on every soul we encounter, we need to calibrate it according to the value system of the One we represent.

Scripture provides the answer in this regard:  In 1 Timothy 2:1  we are urged to petition, pray, intercede, and give thanks for ALL people — for this is good and pleases God our Saviour,  who wants ALL people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

We show respect to EVERYONE, not because they deserve it but because they are valued by God.  The emperor, who could well have been Nero, one of the cruellest people who ever walked on earth, was as much an object of the cross as we were.  Because God fixed a value on souls, to the extent that He sent His Son to redeem us, we understand that respect should be given to all people, without any strings attached.

No, you’re right, this is not easy.  But if you seek an easy faith then find another religion.  Christ showed the way and the early, persecuted Church, embodied the way.

When our posts result in pity for one group and hatred for another, we completely miss the message of the cross.  “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” is ultimately the timeless message of grace that Christ embodied on the cross. Sharing how the Taliban is raping women and killing Christians might be true but will not achieve what Christ intended to achieve on the cross – that all be saved.  Villainizing one group and victimising another might be the way we as humans dissect global events, but this is not how God looks at Afghanistan. Our God, the Father of all compassion, sees the injustice done against the vulnerable and weeps. But he also sees the lostness of the perpetrators and weeps

What message does your post convey?

Does your post also appeal to prayer for the lost, the cruel and the unsaved?

  1. Sensationalized compassion

There is always the subtle danger that compassion and anguish could be replaced by sensationalism.  Sensationalism is often revealed in the “first-to-know news’ of an attack, a bomb explosion, the excitement of a large gathering, the joy of a new convert, a testimony of deliverance, healing, a vision, or simply another miracle.  These are all legitimate news items and worth sharing but the snare in this well-disguised folly is often found in the fact that the incident takes preference over the individual.

Just read that again:  Sensationalism lies in the fact that the incident takes preference over the individual.

Consider the message that is doing the rounds about 22 Christians to be executed in Afghanistan.  Apart from the fact that this message is nearly 14 years old and long forgotten in the memories of all who posted it the past decade, the question needs to be asked if we are more concerned about the beheadings than the individuals.  And the answer is revealed in the fact that few people ever enquire about who the people are, where they come from, what their names are, and if they have any family members.  But we are concerned about the event, more than we are about the people.

Whether we want to believe it or not, we are all sensation seekers.  At one point or another, we all succumb to the subtle sin of sensationalism; the silent sin that is often disguised as sincerity.

Think about Paul.  This persecutor, the Jew, the Convert, the Apostle of fire found himself surrounded by people who shared the sensation of affiliation.  But when Paul had to defend himself in court the sensation seekers were nowhere to be found (2 Tim1:15, 2 Tim 4:16), not even his faithful friend Demas (2 Tim 4:10).  Sure, everybody referred to him when they spoke about the saving grace of Christ.  Of course, everybody used him as an example of the mighty works of God.  Naturally, Paul became a template of the victory we have in Christ.  But Paul as an individual was meaningless without his testimony in the eyes of sensation seekers.  It was his testimony that mattered more than anything else.

Today, nothing has changed.  The Church thrives on the testimonies of others who bear the cross on our behalf.  The greater the sinner, the greater the miracle.  The greater the salvation, the greater the sensation.  The sensation of a Muslim who comes to know Christ through visions and dreams outweighs the need of the same convert who will now lose family, job, and even life for the sake of this decision.  When a whole village shares a common dream about Christ it serves as a tremendous boost for our feelings of faith, but little is shared about possible persecution, isolation, ostracization, and hardship that follows.  This is the subtle sin of sensationalism.  We pray for the persecuted Church in Afghanistan, but we then leave them to die, never inquiring about their well-being again.

I have met them.  I am one of them.  I am part of this sin.  Lord forgive me.  I have cried with converts; I have shared their testimonies back home and too easily I have forgotten them.  The sensation of the persecuted Church trapped me.  Lord have mercy on me!

  1. Pitied compassion

If we pity the persecuted Church in Afghanistan for their expansive hardships and feel sorry for Christians who are suffering under the Taliban, we are showing spiritual ignorance, and nullify the cross.

We really need to understand this.

The most amazing experience from a personal point of view is that in more than 40 years of serving the “Church in restricted areas” I cannot remember one incident where persecuted believers saw themselves as being victims of persecution. It was “normal Christianity” to those we met in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and an absolute joy to share the cross of Christ.

One specific incident involved Pastor Labib Madanat, the previous Executive Secretary of the Palestinian Bible Society.  After an attack on the Bible Society in 2006 he said the following:

“Death – we have to face it, one day or another.  It is inescapable.  But the sting of death has been broken by the cross of Jesus, by the love of Jesus Christ. I know it is very difficult for the Church worldwide to see other Christian believers being harassed, threatened, and persecuted.  And out of this concern they want to be involved.  They want to come to the rescue of the family.  And this is wonderful because this is the spirit of the fellowship.  BUT, we need to be careful.  Do not rob us of the courage which Christ gives us.  Stand with us to grow even stronger and stronger in this courage.  Refrain from any act which might look like strengthening any trace of self-pity.  Do not highlight the Muslims as the enemies.  Muslims are not our enemies; they are our beloved.  Do not let Satan define your vision.  Let the love in Christ define your vision.  Again, we are not naïve, but this is what we are called for.”

This point alone deserves a three-day seminar but suffice to say there are two points to understand when observing the persecution of believers in Afghanistan through the lenses of the cross of salvation.

Firstly,

Colossians 1:24 shares an amazing insight into persecution is so necessary in the Gospel we proclaim:  Paul writes the following:  And now I am happy about my sufferings for you, for by means of my physical sufferings I am helping to complete what is still lacking of Christ’s sufferings on behalf of his body, the church.

The picture that Colossians 1:24 paints is extremely significant.  Jesus died and he suffered for people all over the world in every tribe, language, and nation. Then he is buried and, according to the Scriptures, raised on the third day. Then he ascends into heaven where he reigns over the world. And he leaves a work to be done.

Paul’s self-understanding of his mission is this:  That he is called by his suffering to complete the afflictions of Christ on the cross.  That’s a design.  This does not mean he atones for anybody’s sin or that Christ’s atoning death was in any way deficient.  It means this.  That the afflictions of Christ, acted out by Him in FULLY atoning worth are meant to be displayed and portrayed by his suffering Church for the ingathering of the nations.

The one thing lacking in the sufferings of Christ Jesus is that His fully atoning love offering needs to be presented in person through missionaries to the peoples for whom he died. And Paul says, “I do this in my sufferings. In my sufferings, I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”

This means that Christ intends for the Great Commission to be a presentation to the nations of the sufferings of his cross through the sufferings of his people. That’s the way it will be finished. If you sign up for the Great Commission, that’s what you sign up for.

John Piper says the following:

More and more I am persuaded from Scripture and from the history of missions that God’s design for the evangelization of the world and the consummation of his purposes includes the suffering of his ministers and missionaries. To put it more plainly and specifically, God designs that the suffering of his ministers and missionaries is one essential means in the joyful triumphant spread of the gospel among all the peoples of the world.

It’s the means and the design for the persecuted Church within the Kingdom of God, to reflect the cross to those who are longing for forgiveness and salvation.  Think about this.  The Taliban will only witness the crucified Jesus and the message of forgiveness and grace in the way that the Persecuted Afghani Church display the cross.  Don’t rob them of this

Secondly

Our Western theologies and human democracies have made the cross something to fear and not something to embrace.

Wounds for the sake of Christ are an honour you have to earn.  In all his sufferings Paul describes this as a gift from God.   In Philippians 1:29 Paul refers to these sufferings as an honour.  (For you have been given the privilege of serving Christ, not only by believing in Him, but also by suffering for Him. – GNB)

Persecution does not come to those who compromise.  It is an honour that will be bestowed only upon the faithful who refuse compromise.  When reading the story of Daniel, one asks the question: Where were the other 100 000 Jews?  Why were they not in the furnace?  Did they bow down to an idol?  Only three men chose not to bow before a false god and because of that, we still know their names and courageous act.  And they themselves had the greatest privilege of their lives – to walk with an angel of God here on earth and to feel a completely different sensation from the fire that killed the soldiers.

  1. Clicktivating compassion

This one is the worst of all.  It lulls us into a sense that we have done our duty while in fact we have done nothing.  Sadly, It has become far too easy to send WhatsApp messages of tragedies, dangers, or disasters for the advance of ministry activities more than a concern for those who are affected.

“Clicktivism” (The use of social media in supporting a cause) has become a conscience soothing alternative for “activism” and sensationalising persecution will ultimately result in “clicktevating” persecution.   When the 200-plus schoolgirls were kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014 it drew international outrage in the early days after the news hit the global media. In a short space of time, the social media Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls became a top trend among international leaders like Michelle Obama as well as numerous celebrities – by 11 May it had attracted 2.3 million tweets and it has been described as one of the world’s biggest social media campaigns. But Boko Haram did not bring back the girls, and the unresolved kidnapping saw a massive decline on social media platforms as well as mainstream news media reports.  Today, seven years later, few can even remember the incident, let alone ask questions about the girls

‘clicktivism’ creates the appearance of ‘doing something’ by signing online petitions that have little impact in reality. The disillusionment by the Afghan people and the suffering of the vulnerable highlights a secondary challenge – the tendency for flares of emotional engagement and concern that is soon forgotten. On one hand, the media can be accused of pursuing sensationalist stories that play on human emotions in order to generate a temporary public response, but the reality is that our human nature is drawn to the ‘big stories’ until something else claims our attention and emotion.

Dan Hodges, in an opinion piece for The Telegraph, comments on this tendency:

“Our basic sense of compassion and intolerance of injustice should enable us to embrace more than one worthy cause at a time. Except it’s quite clear that in the social media age, we can’t… [Facebook and Twitter can] bring to people’s attention vital issues that would previously have been ignored, or if communicated via traditional media outlets, [would have] resulted in a giant global shrug. “That’s terrible. But what can we do?” But as we’ve seen, what Twitter and Facebook give with one hand, they take with the other. As soon as their focus shifts, so does ours. And the very nature of the medium – fast, transient, superficial – means that focus never stays in the same place for long.”

  1. Escapist compassion

This kind of compassion stems from a heart that has the ability to feel sorry for others without the desire to emotionally enter the lives of those who suffer.

The countless believers who have been martyred before the invasion of Kabul went unnoticed in many Christian Churches – Sunday, after Sunday, after Sunday.  All of a sudden social media is flooded by messages of prayer for the Church in Afghanistan – but this is not the beginning of their suffering.  Why only now?

A recent poll by Barna Research Associates survey reports that nearly half of all the pastors in America’s churches today do not want to tell their congregations that there are forces in the world that persecute Christians for their beliefs, because it’s a “downer,” according to the results of this startling poll.

This might not be true in all western nations and definitely not true for all Western Churches, but it does send a warning signal to anybody who serves the Lord in freedom, safety, and abundance.  The Barna Research Associates says a significant majority of American Christians, some three out of four, want to hear about the persecuted church. But the same study showed that 52 percent of America’s pastors don’t want to talk about persecution and have no plans to talk about it.

Christian human rights group International Christian Concern’s Middle East Area Specialist Aidan Clay believes the problem comes from the pulpits.

“The persecuted church reminds us that the decision to follow Christ is all or nothing,” Clay said. “It reminds us that Jesus promises persecution in the Scriptures and that the Christian life was not intended to be easy.”

Clay said the reality about Christian persecution isn’t popular.  “That’s a difficult teaching to swallow in some American churches today that are centered on self-improvement and feel-good sermons. And, perhaps pastors fear that the topic of Christian persecution will drive complacent Christians or those who are unsure what they believe out of the church,” Clay said.

We all profess that sacrifice is a Biblical virtue that builds and reveals character.  But most of us pray that someone else will have the privilege to experience this.  Escapism is a sin that needs to be addressed, not only during times of sensational events

  1. Timeline compassion

This one is quite simple and needs little explanation.  The question we need to ask ourselves is this:   A month from today, will we still feel the pain in our hearts for the people of Afghanistan or is this a temporary feeling hyped by social media.  True compassion is never found on a timeline, here today and gone tomorrow.

Christians in the ‘free world’ are increasingly immersed in a culture that constantly draws our attention and emotions from one thing to another.  The words of a couple who were fleeing for their lives after converting to Christianity in Egypt pierced my heart:  “A convert to Christianity is not just a testimony to be told, but a real person. We are not just a story to be used to boost your faith; we are alive and need your actions more than your words.”

Oh, may God have mercy on us.  May we feel the pain with the people of Afghanistan to such an extent that we are moved into action, beyond our own comforts where we share sacrificially for their benefit.  May our posts on social media be more than just sensational information, but messages of transformation and action

 

[1] Romans 2:11  For God does not show favouritism.

[2] Acts 15:9  He did not discriminate between us (Jews) and them (Gentiles), for he purified their hearts by faith.

 

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