The Bible has much to say about the importance of giving generously, caring for people in need, and defending the vulnerable. The Christian faith isn’t one that can be lived at arm’s length, but in our modern culture, it’s easy to detach from the sufferings of others—consciously or unconsciously. We spoke with Paul Borthwick, co-author of The Fellowship of the Suffering: How Hardship Shapes Us for Ministry and Mission, to better understand how exercising great compassion helps us carry out the Great Commission.
JAMIE A. HUGHES: You say that “Christians sometimes try to live a one-handed lifestyle, but a complete Christian lifestyle requires both hands.” Could you elaborate on this?
PAUL BORTHWICK: We are followers of Jesus Christ, so our lives must include the verbal sharing of our love of Jesus, how we’ve been forgiven and redeemed. But we also have to live it out. Jesus shows us what this looks like. He preached the gospel but also demonstrated it by His healings, by the way He touched poor people. He reached out to Samaritans or Gentiles. His demonstrated life was actually the foundation for His preached life. Lesslie Newbigin said, “Do your work in such a way so as to stimulate questions for which Jesus is the answer.” In other words, your non-verbal witness is part of your overall witness. The way you treat people in poverty, the way you treat your neighbor, the way you look out for somebody’s concerns beyond just yourself—that has great potential to point people to Christ.
JAMIE: You admonish people to “stay soft.” People can be soft for a season, but how can we stay this way? Practically speaking, what does this look like, and what’s the value of it?
PAUL: It’s a great challenge because, in many respects, we are deluged with needs. We don’t just hear about a hurricane; we see a live report from a village being destroyed. So it’s easy for us to get apathetic. The word apathy doesn’t mean you don’t care. It means you don’t feel. We get so desensitized to seeing this flood, or this earthquake, or this refugee camp that eventually it doesn’t bother us anymore. And so the challenge is to try to stay soft. For me, it means praying, “Lord, help me to see people in front of me, whether it’s on TV or in my daily life. Help me to see them the way You see them” every day. Most of us are exposed to way more needs than we can possibly answer, but we do have an avenue to express our concern by talking to God.
JAMIE: You say that the world isn’t made up of statistics—but of people who have names. How does knowing someone’s name keep us from getting desensitized?
The Bible tells us that God knows our names; it means we’re not just some sort of unidentified statistic in the great mass of humanity.
PAUL: The Bible tells us that God knows our names; it means we’re not just some sort of unidentified statistic in the great mass of humanity. So we should try to emulate that great love. It’s the reason I encourage Christians to “go into their closet and pray the way Jesus commanded” because on almost every piece of clothing, a tag tells us where it was made or assembled. China’s in your closet; India’s in your closet. Buddhist countries, Hindi countries are there. When you realize that that shirt or those slacks or that blouse was made by another human being, it becomes your connection point to him or her. You can stop and pray for the person who made your shirt. We have to take a very depersonalized world and make it more personal.
JAMIE: You’re a proponent of maintaining an ongoing posture of learning and discovery. How does this help us be more compassionate?
PAUL: We get global news in 20 minutes, and as a result, everything is oversimplified. Going a little bit deeper into an issue helps us understand more. The word disciple actually means “student.” The world is vast. The world is complicated. And there are a lot of things that tend to divide us. The only way we can bring those things together is to do our research and strive to understand both sides of stories.
JAMIE: Our society is focused on getting more. However, you believe that we should simplify our lifestyles instead. How can we, as you put it, “live more simply so that others can simply live”?
There are a lot of things that divide us. The only way we can bring those things together is to understand both sides of stories.
PAUL: In Proverbs 30:8-9, the writer says, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.” In other words, he’s praying for a sense of balance. If your credit card has mastery over you, if your addiction to Starbucks has mastery over you, something needs to change.
JAMIE: Christians serve out of a desire to do good in the world, but if we aren’t careful, we can do great harm. What do we need to know in order to avoid hurting those we’re trying to aid?
PAUL: Americans tend to be very generous sometimes without thinking. We’re what Robertson McQuilkin calls “Zacchaeus givers.” We give impulsively, without asking, “Is this the wisest way to do it? The most efficient way? Will it be sustainable?” Those are questions that need to be voiced. Also, we need to make sure we’re giving out of compassion rather than sympathy or pity. Compassion literally means “to come alongside of; to suffer together with someone.” When you give compassionately, you join with people because you realize that except by the grace of God, you might be in the same situation they’re in.
Photograph by Matt Kalinowski