Fountain of Life
Wisdom of Compassion
Good morning Chapel family! Great to be with you today. I hope everyone survived the storm last week okay! Nothing like a pandemic, and a heat wave, and a tropical storm all at the same time, right? Bring it on—we can take it! But seriously—I know a bunch of Chapel people have been out serving their neighbors through this, and if you have any needs that we can help with, please just reach out to The Chapel—we’d love to help you out. If you drive by the Lincoln Park Campus, there’s a big sign out front that says “Love Thy Neighbor.” And it seems like God keeps giving us new opportunities to do that.
So…we’re taking the summer of 2020 to walk through the book of Proverbs. As I have studied Proverbs over the years, I would say the most unexpected theme is the one we’re going to talk about today. And it’s the theme of compassion. I counted about 20 different times where Proverbs talks about how we respond to people around us that are weak or needy or suffering in some way.
But, before we hear what Proverbs says about compassion, I want to set this up by talking about one of the most important principles in all of Proverbs, and really in all the Bible. Proverbs 4:23 says this:
Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
Now: when we see the word “heart,” what do we immediately think? Emotions, right? This must be talking about our feelings. But it’s not. In the Bible, your “heart” is the deepest part of who you are. So it involves your emotions, but also your mind and your attitude and your affections and your deepest beliefs. So the heart is really the control center of a person’s life. It’s your truest self. So here’s what this Proverb is saying: pay close attention to what’s going on in your deepest self—know yourself well—guard your heart—because more than anything else, that’s what gives direction to your life.
So what does that have to do with compassion? Everything. Let me give you an example. Last week, Norma Jean and I were visiting friends in Newark. And several times, when we pulled up to a stoplight, a guy came out and offered to wash our windshield for money. These were people who, obviously, had had a rough life. So here’s the question: how should we respond at times like that? Some of you would say, “Roll down the window and give him a couple of bucks.” Some of you would say, “Definitely not! He’ll just buy drugs! Just give him whatever food you have in your car.” Some of you would say, “Don’t do that either—you’re just enabling the behavior. Ignore the guy, and maybe he’ll learn to get a real job.” So: how should we respond? Go ahead and debate that in the online chat if you want. But I’m not going to answer it, because there’s actually a more important question.
More important than what you do, outwardly, is what’s going on…where? In your heart. Because ultimately, long-term, your heart drives your behavior. So here’s the real question—not whether you give the guy a couple of bucks or ignore him—the real question is, “How are you regarding that human being standing in front of your car?” Is he a nuisance or a threat that needs to be avoided? Is he a project that needs to be fixed? Or is he somebody’s son…somebody’s brother…maybe somebody’s dad…who needs to be loved? Is he a creation of God, whose name is known personally by God, and whose pain God weeps over? When you see that guy, or anyone who’s hurting or needy, what goes on in your heart? That’s what God is most interested in, and that’s where compassion starts.
So today, as we look at what Proverbs says about compassion, let’s frame it like this: The Signs of a Hard Heart, The Danger of a Hard Heart, and The Softening of a Hard Heart. Okay? The Signs of a Hard Heart; the Danger of a Hard Heart; and the Softening of a Hard Heart.
So, first: The Signs of a Hard Heart. And the first sign is Arrogance. Proverbs 14:21 says:
It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor,
but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.
To “despise” someone means you regard a fellow human as less valuable as you are. So you encounter someone who’s weak or poor or addicted or struggling, and you might not blatantly show it, but deep inside you look down on them.
And then look at Proverbs 17:5…
Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.
So one of the symptoms of a hard heart is that when you see someone who’s poor, instead of taking the time to hear their story, you quickly form an opinion of how they must have gotten into that position, and you feel like you have the right to mock them. Not to their face, but in their heart. “Don’t come crying to me because your house got flooded…again. You’re the idiot who bought a house in a flood zone—right by the river! What did you expect to happen?” “I don’t want to hear about how all your food is melting and getting spoiled in the power outage. It was your decision not to buy a generator.”
Years ago there was a young man who had been addicted to heroin for years, and the Chapel family reached out to him and helped him to connect to the power of Christ, and he got clean. Just an amazing transformation. So after he’d been off drugs for a while, we asked him if he’d be willing to share his story. So one Sunday morning, he stood in front of the congregation, and he talked about how his life had turned around. And the church family cheered and celebrated with him—or at least some of the church family. Because after that service, someone reached out to me, and they said, “Why would we celebrate that? He got into the trouble he was in through his own bad decisions. And now he stops using, and we treat him like a hero? It’s ridiculous.” That’s what I mean by arrogance. Quick to judge. Quick to label. Slow to listen.
This is the older brother in the Prodigal Son story. Remember the older brother? His younger brother had run off and wasted his share of the inheritance on partying and womanizing, and finally, he came to his senses and came back home. And the father was overjoyed to see his son return! Remember how the older brother responded? “This punk goes and wastes your money on prostitutes, and when he comes home you kill the fatted calf and throw a party?” And he father says, “This son of mine was lost, and now he’s found. How could I not celebrate?” See, it all flows from the heart. The father’s heart was compassionate; the older brother’s heart was arrogant and proud and resentful.
The second sign of a hard heart is Oppression. Oppression. Proverbs 14:31 says:
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
What does it mean to “oppress” the poor? Well, it means that you have some kind of power—some kind of social advantage or economic advantage over that person—and you use that position to belittle them or exclude them or use them for your own personal gain.
The business owner who employs a lot of immigrant factory workers, and he treats them just slightly better than animals; pays them the absolute minimum; never bothers to get to know them on a personal level; doesn’t think twice about firing them. That’s what it means to oppress the poor.
I think of the kid back in high school whose family didn’t have much money, so the kid always wore the same old sweater and pants, and the pants were a little too short. And we would make jokes and laugh at him. That’s what it means to oppress the poor. I did that in high school, and I’m ashamed of it.
In his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller talks about a friend of his who owned a chain of car dealerships. And so, like most car dealerships, customers would come in and negotiate the price of a car. So the salesman had a pretty big window of what they could sell the car for. Somebody did some research, and they found out men tended to be better negotiators than women, and for whatever reason, the least effective negotiators were black women. So the exact same car would be sold to a black woman for significantly more than a man, and in effect that black woman was subsidizing the price of what the men were paying for their cars. Now: nobody set up this system to oppress black women—that wasn’t the intent—but that was actually what was happening. And when the owner of the dealership, who was a Christian, realized this, it bothered him. His heart was soft. So he changed the model of how they sold cars—they changed the whole approach. And his profits went down, but people are treated more justly, and he feels so much better about himself.
And then this is maybe the most common symptom of a hard heart: Avoidance. Let me read two Proverbs here. Proverbs 21:13 says
Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
will also cry out and not be answered.
And then Proverbs 28:27 says
Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,
but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.
So in both of those Proverbs there are socially disadvantaged, weak people around you, but you choose to shut your ears and close your eyes to those people. You’re vaguely aware they’re there, but you tune them out. Keep your head down. Focus on your own life. Lock the car doors and don’t make eye contact. It’s actually really easy to do.
Arrogance. Oppression. Avoidance. Do you see any of those patterns in yourself? I do—in myself. But is it really that big of a deal?
Let’s talk about that: The Danger of a Hard Heart. Look again at Proverbs 14:31.
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Did you realize that all through Scripture—Old Testament and New—God has a special thing for the weak? He is passionately interested in the orphan; the widow; the poor; the immigrant. It’s all through the Bible. Deuteronomy 10:18 says that God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you. So when we outright mistreat, or even just ignore the fatherless and the widow and the foreigners residing among us, God takes it personally.
But there’s also another danger. Jesus talked about what will happen at the end of the age, when he comes to judge. And here’s what he says—Matthew 25, starting in verse 41: 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Does that rock you the way that it rocks me? Jesus takes the way we treat disadvantaged people as if we’re treating him like that. And here’s the thing: nobody will earn their way into heaven or earn their way out of hell by treating poor people well. Right? We are saved totally by God’s grace, through our faith in Christ. BUT, the way you treat poor and weak people is a very accurate barometer of whether you’re actually a saved person. So much so, that Jesus can say, “If you’re a person who has gone through your life consistently ignoring the hungry and the stranger and the poor and the prisoner…in other words, if you really don’t live with much compassion….you obviously never knew me.”
Just let that sink in for a minute.
So the question is: when you realize your heart has been hard, how do you soften it? Let’s talk about The Softening of a Hard Heart. Three ways to make a hard heart soft.
First, Rediscover Grace. Rediscover grace. 1 Corinthians 4:7 reminds us of this: For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? Think for a minute about some of the things you have. Do you have a home? Do you have a car? Do you have a job? Okay, so here’s the question: Why do you have those things? At some level, it’s because of you, right? You worked hard; you studied, etc. But take it back a step further: who gave you the mind to be able to learn? Who gave you a family that supported you and maybe helped you get an education? Who gave you a body and certain raw talents and intelligence so you could work certain jobs? Take it back a step further: Who arranged for you to be born in North Jersey, and not in a slum in Calcutta? Who arranged for you to have the right number of chromosomes so you didn’t have a birth defect? Did you accomplish all that stuff?
Why is it that Norma Jean and I were sitting at a stoplight in Newark, in the comfort of an air-conditioned Honda CRV, and that guy was on the street asking for handouts. Was it because we’ve made all the right decisions, and he’s made all the wrong ones? I’m not naïve enough to think so. The older I get, and the more life I experience, the more I’m convinced that anything good in my life is directly traceable to the grace of God. And when I realize that, it raises my level of compassion significantly. Grace is a powerful thing.
Some of you probably need to discover grace for the first time. Because you’ve always looked at life in a very cause-and-effect way. People get what they deserve. Karma. And the great news of the gospel is that God offers us something we don’t deserve. We deserve to be judged for our sins, but Jesus went to the cross, and received judgment in our place. It’s that simple. We can never earn it; we just have to believe in him and receive his grace. Have you ever taken that step? Maybe that’s actually the most important thing you’re going to hear today: you can be forgiven and reconciled with your Creator, simply by trusting in Christ and his finished work on the cross. Receive his grace.
Or maybe…you need to rediscover grace. Because even though you believe the gospel, you’ve drifted into a view of life that’s very graceless. When you see good things in your life, you give yourself all the credit. And when you see other people suffering hard things, you have a hard time feeling compassion. So it’s time to remind yourself how powerful and beautiful grace is. Every day, take a few minutes to thank God for his grace, and to receive it afresh, and then you’ll be equipped to give it out to the people around you.
Next, Open Your Eyes. Proverbs 28:27 says:
Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,
but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.
So God invites us to open our eyes to the poor around us. Not even necessarily go looking for them. Just open our eyes.
Patricia Miller worked as an admissions person in the emergency room. And she said after five years in the E.R., she had actually learned to close her eyes to the pain. Maybe some of you in healthcare can relate to that. It just became a job.
So one night, she was registering a young woman who had overdosed on drugs and had attempted suicide. So the mother of this girl was giving her information and Patricia was typing it in. And of course the mom was kind of bleary-eyed—she had been woken up in the middle of the night by the police. And Patricia was typing the information, and here’s what she wrote about that night:
My impatience was raw as I finished the report and jumped to the machine to copy the [insurance] cards. That's when God stopped me—at the copy machine. He spoke to my heart so clearly: You didn't even look at her. He repeated it, gently: You didn't even look at her.
I felt his grief for her and for her daughter, and I bowed my head. I'm sorry, Lord. I am so sorry. I sat down in front of the distraught woman and covered her hands with mine. I looked into her eyes with all the love that God could flood through me and said, "I care. Don't give up."
She wept and wept. She poured her heart out to me about the years of dealing with a rebellious daughter as a single mom. Finally, she looked up and thanked me. Me…the coldhearted one with no feelings.
My attitude changed that night. My Jesus came right into the workplace in spite of rules that tried to keep him out. He came in to set me free to care again. He gave himself to that woman through me. My God, who so loved the world, broke that self-imposed barrier around my heart. Now he could reach out, not only to me in my pain, but to a lost and hurting woman.
You know, when I heard Patricia’s story, and when I reflected on these Proverbs, I realized there’s probably a lot that I’m missing, because I’ve just got my eyes closed. And God invites us to open our eyes and see.
And then—last thing—Extend your hands. Proverbs 31 is the famous passage of the virtuous woman. And listen to what it says about her—Proverbs 31:20…
She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
In case you’re not familiar with the context…this is a woman who’s highly skilled and highly successful. She’s investing in real estate; she makes clothing by hand. She’s taking the skills and resources that she’s been given, and she’s offering them to the poor.
So part of this compassionate wisdom is to look seriously at what God has put in our hands, and to freely extend it to others.
About two years ago something amazing happened in a convenience store. A 20-year-old young man named Jordan Taylor was working at the store, and he was stocking bottles of orange juice in the refrigerator case. And ask he worked, he noticed someone staring at him. It was a 17-year-old autistic boy named Jack Edwards, and he seemed fascinated with what Jordan was doing. Stop for a minute. What would you do—if you were the guy working at the store? Most of us would probably ignore the guy starting at us, right? Or maybe say a friendly hello. But Jordan Taylor asked Jack if he’d like to help him. Jack eagerly agreed, and for the next several minutes, the two young guys worked together stocking orange juice, and then they went on to milk. It was a beautiful moment of compassion. But I don’t think Jordan Taylor had any idea what it would lead to.
The father of autistic boy was so impressed that he filmed the whole thing on his cell phone. (This is an actual screen shot from the dad’s video). He struck up a conversation with Jordan Taylor, who told him he wanted to go to school to become a teacher. The sister of the autistic boy set up a crowdfunding account to raise funds for Taylor’s education, and it raised enough for him to enroll in college. And then, get this: the convenience store offered the autistic boy, Jack, a part-time job stocking shelves, since he was obviously good at it. And then one more thing: right before Jordan’s first semester at college, a local credit union contacted him and told them they saw the video, and they were giving him a new Chevrolet Cruze.
And I know what some of you are thinking: great story, but how rare is it that our compassion gets recognized like that? And you’re right—when we show compassion it usually doesn’t get recognized like that…but it doesn’t matter. Because the person you’re showing compassion to always recognizes it. And far more importantly, God always recognizes it. In fact, Jesus says, “Whatever you’ve done for the least of these, you’ve done for me.”
Rediscover grace, open your eyes, and have the courage to extend your hands.
Let me share one more story with you. Ed Salmon was a pastor from South Carolina. One day he went out to lunch, and there was a very dirty, disheveled man standing on the corner holding up a sign that said, "I'm homeless." He was walking by the cars, and of course nobody made eye contact with him. So he got to Ed’s car, and Ed rolled down the window, and said, "I don't have any money with me, but my wife is going to take me to the airport in about an hour and a half, and I'll have something for you then.” And here was the most memorable part of the story: this homeless man stopped and he didn’t say anything about money or food or anything like that. In a very thoughtful way, he said, "Thank you for looking at me." Those were words that Ed never forgot.
I can promise you this: this week, there will be people that you have the opportunity to avoid—to not look at. It’s so easy to do. But this week you’re not going to avoid them. You’re going to be so filled with the grace of God that you’re going to open your eyes and see them. And in some way, you’re going to extend your hands and show compassion. And as you live that way, you will be a really wise person.
Life can be so confusing—especially in a pandemic. At a time when everything seems to be changing, let’s root ourselves in the unchanging wisdom of Proverbs. Throughout this 3,000-year-old book, wisdom is referred to as “the fountain of life”—exactly what we need when we’re exhausted, empty, and dry. Come and drink deeply from the fountain of life.