Faultless compassion: is it a realistic goal? — Phillip Barnard, PhD

In the last few weeks, I’ve been able to work alongside a church member as they sought to help someone experiencing poverty. A young man had come along to one of their church’s outreach events, and during conversation, had revealed that he had been living on the streets for some time. As someone who took seriously the words, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Me”, the church member wanted to help him.

But her church didn’t seem to want to help her, to help him. (For what it’s worth, the church’s reason for not engaging was essentially ‘if we can’t do it excellently, we won’t do it at all.’ )

So at her own family’s expense, the woman and her husband bought the young man new shoes and clothes, helped him get to doctor’s appointments, and even took him into their home for a few weeks to give him a safe, warm and dry place to stay. In return, he was a polite, respectful and gracious guest.

I can understand the church’s hesitation, because as they rightly said in their correspondence, there have been many ‘stumbling blocks to faith caused by well-meaning people who have inadvertently stumbled into areas that are more complex than they first realized.’ I applaud their honesty, their recognition that the experience of poverty can be complex, and their ultimate desire to ensure people’s journeys of faith are not hindered by our own shortcomings.

But I find this argument for non-engagement raises an important question: does our compassionate care for others have to be perfect, complete and impeccable? I’m not convinced that it does.

Firstly, we must remember that small acts of thoughtful kindness can have a large impact. One of the more nefarious aspects of experiencing poverty is the likelihood that, without intervention, it will get worse. Life can very quickly deteriorate (and in many ways, become even more expensive) when you are vulnerable (I call this the corrosive vulnerability of poverty). Your only shoes are worn, weary and wet from the winter rains? Not only are you uncomfortable, you now run the risk of a multitude of foot problems and diseases, limiting your ability to walk and potentially adding pressing medical expenses to your immediate outgoings. You’re a single parent looking for work? It can be really difficult to make the best professional impression with a small child accompanying you to your interviews — because the costs of childcare for the day was beyond reach.

But small acts of kindness can help prevent this slide into deeper poverty. A $50 pair of shoes (with a few pairs of socks) can help prevent foot problems from developing into those expensive (and painful) medical conditions. A gift of a forty dollars might cover babysitting can allow someone to get to the interview that will get them the job that will allow them to be self-sufficient. The Biblical Israelites knew the importance of small acts of compassion: it was a written law that you could not keep the cloak of a poor person overnight, even if they gave it to you as a pledge (Deuteronomy 24:13). Why return a cloak to a person at night? Because sleeping cold is not only uncomfortable, but it could lead to further sickness or a lack of sleep — both of which prevent someone from working to their full capacity the next day. No work equals no pay, and no pay causes further poverty. A small act of thoughtful kindness prevents a further slide into poverty.

Secondly, while the Bible is clear that God’s people should be actively involved in His work of restoring and rebuilding society, we are hard-pressed to find any caveat that we must do it perfectly. In fact, when God was guiding the Israelites as to how His new nation of redeemed people should act towards those experiencing poverty, He directed them to be neither ‘hard-hearted’ nor ‘close-handed’ (Deuteronomy 15:7). This is fascinating: by giving a negative command (‘don’t do this’) God is actually opening the possibility for an infinite number of positive responses that are acceptable to Him. Instead of being hard-hearted, we can be soft-hearted, kind-hearted, warm-hearted and tender-hearted. We can also be charitable, compassionate, merciful, sensitive and sympathetic. Instead of being close-handed we can be open-handed, free-handed and loose-handed. We can be generous, liberal, munificent, unsparing and unstinting. There was no instruction to perfection, just an instruction to keep an open heart and then let your creativity and resources guide your response.

Let’s go back to that church member from the beginning of the story. Could she fix all of the young man’s problems? No. But she could buy him shoes to protect his feet. She could help him clean his clothes, so that he could present himself that little bit better at potential job opportunities. And she could be creative with her compassion — last I heard the two were still getting together for coffee every week or so, to chat about life and be there for each other — just like family would.

The point: there are a multitude of acceptable ways that we can serve those experiencing poverty. Perfection is not one of them. Let’s not allow our fear of failure to overwhelm our call to creative compassion.

Originally published at https://www.phillipbarnard.com on September 9, 2019.

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