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Compassion from the Gut

Can you recall a time in your life where you were compelled toward someone or something in a deep, perhaps even unexplainable or inescapable way? Maybe you’ve made a life decision about a job, or a house, or a move, and it was a choice that was motivated from somewhere deep inside of you, a choice where in that moment you knew it wasn’t really a choice because you were so compelled toward this decision that it was impossible for you to do otherwise.

Maybe that’s how you felt, and have felt, about a spouse, or loved one. Maybe it’s how you’ve felt about a child. Maybe you can recall a time seeing someone in need and you felt so drawn to help that you were willing to go to the end of your own resources to aid them.

I trust and I hope that each of us can recall such a moment in our lives, although I’m sure we could admit such moments are rarer than we would like.

I had one such moment myself the other night. It has been our recent practice to leave the light on in our sons’ bedroom at night so our oldest can read until he falls asleep. When I went in to turn out the light, I was overtaken with a sense of awe as I watched my boys sleep. I stood and watched them sleeping for a few minutes. I knew from deep down in my gut that I would do anything for them.

Such moments in my life are characterized by a magnetic force from deep down inside of me that drew me toward a person or action in a way I could not resist.

This is the level of compassion which is characteristic of our Lord. However, unlike our fleeting desires and convictions, the deep well of Christ’s compassion never runs dry.

There are several passages which describe Christ’s compassion to us. One of the most well-known comes to us from Matthew 9:35-38 which reads,

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

In this passage – as elsewhere – we see a unique characteristic of our Lord, one that all of his disciples must also share: a deep, deep compassion from the gut.

This is the level of compassion which is characteristic of our Lord. However, unlike our fleeting desires and convictions, the deep well of Christ’s compassion never runs dry.

What is Compassion from the Gut?

In our passage we read that Jesus was going about Galilee teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and performing great deeds of mercy and healing. These actions are characteristics of Jesus’ ministry. When he was not in prayer, training his boneheaded disciples, or arguing with religious leaders, you can bet that you would’ve found Jesus among the people: teaching, healing, and showing mercy.

Such a life of external deeds was motivated by what is internal to the person of Christ. Matthew says that when Jesus looked upon the crowds, he had compassion for them.

In his wonderful essay The Emotional Life of our Lord, 20th Century theologian BB Warfield said that it is this emotion, that of compassion, which we find most frequently attributed to Jesus. The great London preacher C.H. Spurgeon once said in agreement,

If you would sum up the whole character of Christ in reference to ourselves, it might be gathered into this one sentence, “He was moved with compassion.” (The Compassion of Jesus, No. 3,438)

This word that is used to describe Christ’s compassion is an interesting one. You might recall that the biblical authors often used physical parts of our bodies to describe emotional or psychological realities. For example, the heart is often said to be the center of our loves, our affections, and our desires. This is not uncommon practice in our own language today, as we often use expressions like “broken hearted” to describe great sadness or disappointment.

The word that’s used here for compassion is similar. As a noun, it means our bowels, our most inner parts. Or as we might say in modern speech: our gut. We read of Judas in Acts 1:18 that when he fell headlong and died his bowels came out.

This word was also commonly used to describe deep emotions of mercy, compassion, pity, and sympathy. Like the heart, it is said that such a level of compassion compels us from the deepest part of our being. When Paul said in Philippians 1:8, “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ”, he was quite literally saying, “I yearn for you all with the gut of Christ.”

However, what makes the usage of this attribution of compassion to Christ unique is that we see this word being used as a verb, not a noun. This is no small detail. As far as we can tell, such use of the word is unique to the gospel writers, with no evidence of it being used by other contemporary Greek writers, and perhaps only one use of it in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

What this tells us is that when the Gospel writers were trying to describe Jesus to us in their own account of him, they searched their own language and found no words adequate to describe the depth of Christ’s compassion for his people. So, they either made it up, or they found a word so rare that it could be used to uniquely describe the character of their Lord.

What a sight it must have been to watch Jesus in action, to be so moved by the depth of his compassion for others. To see him agitated by great need, his face crushed with sorrow, his eyes gushing forth with heavy tears, his own body wrapping around sufferers as they collapsed with grief upon him, his own gut ready to burst forth with great love on the crowds which he gazed upon.

Jesus Christ was moved with compassion (see also Mark 1:41, Luke 7:13, Luke 10:33, Mark 8:2, Matthew 14:14, Matthew 15:32, Matthew 20:34).

There is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus Christ.

We might be tempted to get this idea in our head that behind this Jesus stands a God who is angry, brooding, unpleasant, and displeased with us. This is not uncommon I find among many Christians today. Christ may be full of love and grace, but behind him stands the Father who stands ready to execute wrath and punishment against me.

Let us be rid of all such notions. There is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus Christ.

In Luke 15 we find the wonderful parable of two brothers, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Verse 20 tells us that when the younger brother came to himself, he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion (Luke 15:20). Yes, the same verb that is otherwise only attributed to Christ is here attributed to the father in this parable.

Who is this father in the parable intended to give us a picture of? God the Father! The Father is moved from his innermost being – his infinite presence and splendor – with compassion. In his compassion he came to us by sending his one and only beloved Son into the world not to condemn it but to save it through him.

You see, Jesus Christ was not only moved with compassion; Jesus Christ is compassion. Jesus Christ is the compassion of God. He is the image of the invisible God, making this compassion from the gut tangible and real to us.

Who Will Give This Compassion from the Gut?

The real question I’m digging at here is, “What is the connection between the compassion of Christ and the mission of the church?”

The answer is…everything!

Christ has said the crowd are those who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It’s clear that he is accusing the religious leaders of his day of failing in their responsibility to shepherd the people. Jesus is making a not-so-subtle reference to, where God rebuked the religious leaders of that day saying,

“The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered.” (Ezekiel 34:4-5)

Upon making this accusation, Jesus gave another metaphor to his disciples to describe the problem: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). While Jesus does not spell it out for his disciples, it is clear he was speaking of people who are ripe for inclusion in the kingdom of God. They had great need: physically, spiritually, emotionally. They were ready to be brought in. But a crop needs workers to bring the grain to the barn. Without laborers the crop cannot be reaped.

The problem is not just that those who were supposed to shepherd have failed, but those who could shepherd are too few.

What Jesus was trying to get across to his disciples is that they would be the ones to care for the sheep. His followers must be those who care for the harassed and helpless, the downtrodden and ashamed.

While this may be a more direct application for those whom we call pastors and elders today, it’s clear from a full reading of Scripture that all followers of Christ are to be those who are sent out into the harvest. After all, Jesus commissioned all believers in Matthew 28 to go out into the whole world.

The problem is not just that those who were supposed to shepherd have failed, but those who could shepherd are too few.

Who will give this Christlike compassion from the gut? You! Me. Us. We must.

What is the connection between this compassion of Christ and the mission of the church? Everything! We can quite simply conclude from this short text that if Jesus had no compassion for the crowds, there would be no harvest. If Jesus had no compassion on us, he would not have been moved to do anything about our plight! If there was no compassion, he would not send shepherds to tend his sheep! If there was no compassion, there would be no laborers for the harvest.

Therefore, all those who claim the name of Christ are those who have been sent into the harvest bearing the compassion of Christ. Compassion from the gut.

We must be careful when drawing application from the early church not to romanticize them. They weren’t perfect, nor are we. But if you study early church history, one thing seems clear: this was a message and a charge that they understood. Despite every trial and persecution that came their way, they were known for showing deep compassion for everyone in their city (Read more here and here).

Is this what our churches are known for today? I fear it is not.

How Do We Get This Compassion from the Gut?

Verse 38 of this passage reads, “…therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

In a world like ours, with such measured metrics and exacting principles, we might expect a more vigorous action to be demanded of us. But Jesus says the most effective thing to do is to pray. No matter how skilled we might think ourselves, no matter how able, no matter how great we might think our zeal is, we cannot do the work of the harvest. Only the Lord of the harvest can. Therefore, we pray to the one who is able to send out laborers into his harvest.

In a world like ours, with such measured metrics and exacting principles, we might expect a more vigorous action to be demanded of us. But Jesus says the most effective thing to do is to pray.

Here are four prayers I believe this text impresses upon us to pray:

First, pray for your pastors and other church leaders. Pray for the other church leaders you may know elsewhere. Pray for your denomination, including its many planters, chaplains, and missionaries. Please pray that we might be known as those who have a deep compassion from the gut.

Second, pray that the Lord of the Harvest will raise up more laborers. As our family has begun our journey toward church planting, I have often heard a similar message from other pastors and churches who are looking for a planter.

While there are always places with need for church plants, and while there is always funding to make church plants happen, what is most difficult to find is church planters. Some leaders I’ve talked to have been looking for a planter for nearly 10 years.

I know this struggle is not unique to my denomination. When I look out and see the many churches and denominations across the United States, I see a great need for Christians to step forward to serve and lead in the church. The need is great, but the laborers are just too few.

Yet according to some of the best statistics, there are over 200 million Christians in the United States alone. Am I to believe that we cannot find enough Christians who are willing to sacrifice their own ambitions or dreams in order to see the mission of Christ’s church move forward? To see the compassion of our God extended to a needy, broken world?

Third, pray that the Lord would send you into the harvest. Pray the prayer of Isaiah: “Here I am, send me.” Maybe God will answer this prayer by sending you into a formal, official leadership role in our churches. However, you don’t need to be an ordained pastor or appointed church leader to be sent into the harvest. All you need is faith and Christlike compassion from the gut.

I don’t know how the Lord will answer this prayer. But he does, and he will.

Fourth, pray for a deeper sense and assurance of the compassion of Christ for you. The only way you and I will grow in our own compassion for others is if we grow into a deeper experience and knowledge of Christ’s compassion for us.

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Compassion from the Gut

by Ben Hein time to read: 10 min
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