Why Compassion Is Not Enough
By Doug Petersen
Sept. 23, 2012
When you see a child suffering — whether as a victim of abuse in North America or a victim of poverty and hopelessness in Latin America — your response is one of compassion. You want to help. You want to feed the hungry little ones; you want to bind up their wounds.
It turns out, though, that compassion simply isn’t enough when it comes to relieving the suffering of children. This truth is at the center of all theological and ethical reflection and action.
This is why it is critical, before we respond in compassion, to acknowledge that our God is like no other. He is loving, just and holy. He created us in His own image, and He desires to make himself known to every person, reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ, His own Son.
God entrusts to us this ministry of reconciliation. Jesus has called us to be His witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But before we can do the work of God, we must be the people of God. How does this happen?
First, we recognize that all people are created in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) and endowed by Him with the right to be treated with dignity, respect and justice based solely on the reality that they bear His image.
Our actions as believers are then modeled on an imitation of God’s character. The basic ethical principle predominant in the Old Testament was that as God is, so God’s people should be. As God acts, so God’s people ought to act. Actions that demeaned, devalued or otherwise diminished the dignity of any of God’s created people were contrary to the nature of the character of God.
The Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20) and the Law codes (see Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) spelled out in concrete terms that the ethical principles of love, justice and holiness were inherent in God’s character. God’s people, therefore, were to freely extend compassion to the poor and needy, including the displaced farmer, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the stranger, the hired servant and the debtor.
On the basis of this unfolding revelation of God’s moral character and the prescriptions for moral behavior in the Law and the covenant, the people of God developed a corresponding ethical view by which they could judge the quality of their social and ethical lives. When their actions did not measure up to God’s character, and injustice prevailed, the prophets reminded Israel that to be God’s people, they were called to act like God’s people.
Jesus firmly rooted His teaching in this ethical tradition. He taught and embodied what life in the Kingdom should look like. With His coming, the kingdom of God that will consummate at the end of this age has already broken into the present.
This supernatural reign is active within and among us. Those who have submitted to the rule of the King can expect to be agents of the Kingdom for love, justice and holiness, bringing good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. This redeemed community, in its actions to bring about spiritual and social transformation, declares that the kingdom of God has pressed into the present.
Similarly, the principles of love, justice and holiness served as the moral foundation for the ethical structuring of the Early Church. In the Book of Acts, for example, the community of faith was to break down the entrenched barriers of gender (chapter 2), economics (chapters 4,5), culture (chapter 9), and religion (chapter 19) that divided the world around them.
The coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and the experience of Spirit baptism were to provide the power to make these ethical demands operative. By the time the story of Acts concludes, this Spirit-empowered community had taken the good news of the gospel to every nook and cranny of the Roman Empire.
Actions and social practices that embody love, justice and holiness, reflecting God’s own ethical character, constitute the nor-mative moral structure in a social ethic reflective of Old and New Testament teachings.
For Pentecostals, Spirit baptism provides access to empowerment to evangelize and experience miracles, divine healing and other supernatural interventions of the Spirit. Yet the Spirit’s power also enables us to demonstrate in tangible terms God’s own character, empowering us to be living examples of everything Jesus said and did.
A theology of mission focused on Jesus and centered in the Cross is integral to every aspect of our endeavors. The Cross provides us with the authority for what we do. The enemies of sin, suffering, sickness, poverty, oppression and injustice are defeated and destroyed because of the power of the Cross.
Whatever methods we might use to address the needs of people, we must ultimately include God’s answer to the human predicament: the good news of the gospel. This good news, foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament through Jesus Christ, is the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life offered to all persons who repent of their sins and by faith declare Jesus Christ is Lord.
When we preach to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, and release the oppressed, our actions stand as a signpost, declaring to the world what life should look like in God’s kingdom. For the Pentecostal community, a social ethic saturated with spiritual discernment and supernatural empowerment becomes a powerful tool for creative thinking and action to practice all that Jesus said and did.
Latin America ChildCare has ministered faithfully to children and families for nearly half a century. And it has done so God’s way.
DR. DOUG PETERSEN was president of LACC from 1978 to 2000. He and his wife, Myrna, served as missionaries in Belize and Costa Rica until he became the Smith Distinguished Professor of Missions at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif.
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