©Douglas Beyer 2000


growing in my COMPASSION
1 John 3:16-17

Every Christian knows, and most Christians can quote John 3:16. But how well do you know 1 John 3:16? It is an interesting coincidence that when the Bible was divided into chapters and verses, 1 John 3:16 became the living commentary and personal application of John 3:16. Read them together. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life… This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers" (John 3:16 & 1 John 3:16 NIV).

To lay down our lives for our brothers sounds like heroic martyrdom that few of us will have to suffer. But 1 John 3:17 brings this teaching home to each one of us. Commit it to memory so you will not forget what the gospel expects of you in personal human relations: "But whosoever hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassions from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" (1 John 3:17). This verse speaks to us of those who have what others need, those who need what others have, and those in whom God's love dwells.

Those Who Have What Others Need

Who are these people? They don't know who they are. Those who have what others need rarely see themselves in that category. Like an oak comparing itself to a giant redwood, they may feel downright poor. But let us attempt to look down on our world from God's point of view. Of course it's very hard to conceive of the six billion souls who inhabit planet earth. It would be easier to do if we scaled everything down so that we can see the Those Who Have What Others Need world as a global village of 100 people. Of those 100 people, 70 would be unable to read and only one would have a college education. 50 would be suffering from malnutrition and over 80 would be living in substandard housing. Six of the villagers would be Americans and those six would possess half of the village's entire income. The rest of the 94 would exist on the other half. And, incidentally, most of those six would claim to be Christians.

The goods of this world are distributed unequally. The two most asked questions by Americans today are: "How can I lose weight and where can I park my car?" The rich young ruler and the rich man in Jesus' parable (Luke 16:19-22; 18:23-25) did not enjoy the level of comfort and privileges I take for granted every day. He did not have air-conditioning in the summer, and central heating in the winter. He did not eat fresh fruit and vegetables all year round. He could not travel with comfort and speed to distant parts of this world. He could not talk to loved ones 1000 miles away by simply dialing eleven digits. He couldn't have a decayed tooth filled or even take an aspirin for a simple headache.

Of course I have all these advantages not because I am rich, but because I was fortunate to be born at a time when the whole family of man is technologically richer. But the point is that our age is accountable to the Creator for much greater opportunities than any other age, especially when we have what others need.

The goods of this world are distributed unequally. It seems to have always been this way. Jesus said, "You have the poor always with you" (Matthew 2611). And Christians have always struggled with their response to the needs of the poor. In 350 A.D. St. Basil in his fourth homily on Luke 12:18 wrote: "The bread that remains uneaten in your house is the bread of the hungry. The tunic hanging in your wardrobe is the tunic of the naked. The money that you keep buried away is the money of the poor."

More recently Thomas Merton wrote: "It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God's will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about rent — try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God's will yourself!"

A preacher's wife was ill and couldn't attend church one Sunday. When her husband got home she asked him how the sermon went over. "Oh, about half-way," he said.

"What do you mean, 'half-way?'"

"Well, I told them the rich ought to share with the poor. The poor were convinced."

Those Who Need What Others Have

In America the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The U. S. Census Bureau reports that the number of people living below the poverty line has gone from 11% to 15% since 1979. We not only have more poor with us, we have a greater percentage of our population who just aren't making it any more. Meanwhile, the number of millionaires continues to grow.

People are poor for different reasons. Some are poor because of sloth. Others are poor because of disease, famine, or catastrophe. Still others are poor because of exploitation.

Those who are poor because of sloth deserve God's judgment. The wise Solomon advises, "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, or overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man (Proverbs 6:6-11).

Paul admonishes, "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us… For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat'" (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).

Those who are poor because of disease, famine, or catastrophe deserve compassion. "This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor'" (Zechariah 7:9-10).

Those who are poor because of exploitation deserve justice. "'What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?' says the Lord, the Lord Almighty. "(Isaiah 3:15) "He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God" (Proverbs 14:31).

Half of the people of this world live on less than $200 a year. You could too. How? By doing it their way. First, get rid of all your furniture except one chair and one table. Throw out all TV sets, lamps, and radios. Dispose of all your clothing but your oldest dress or suit. One pair of shoes may be kept for the head of the family. Shut off the water, gas and electricity. Remove all appliances from the kitchen. Keep in the pantry only a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, a few moldy potatoes, a handful of onions, some dried beans. Take away the house and move the family to the tool shed. Your neighborhood will be a shantytown

Move the nearest medical help ten miles away. It will be staffed by a midwife. Get rid of the car. Forget newspapers, magazines, books. You won't miss them, because you must also give up literacy. Count your emergency fund at $5.00. You'll have no bankbooks, pension plans, or insurance policies.

Cultivate three acres as a tenant farmer. Provided there is no drought, you can expect from $100 to $300 a year in cash crops, paying 1/3 to the landlord and at least 1/10 to the moneylender. You'll make a living, but you must lop off 25 to 30 years in life expectancy.

Those In Whom God's Love Dwells

We have seen those who have what others need and those who need what others have. Now consider those in whom God's love dwells. John asks, "Whosoever hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassions from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" The answer is obvious: with great difficulty.

To have God's love dwelling in us means we love those God loves. Of course, God loves everybody (John 3:16), but especially the needy (Psalm 107:39-41). And so must we!

The word John uses for "compassions" is a very earthy term in the original Greek. It literally means, "guts." It is the feeling deep in the pit of your stomach when you see someone in need — a feeling you can listen to or "shut up."

It all depends on how much of God's love dwells in you. For you it is a spiritual issue. If your neighbor is broke, he or she has a financial problem, but you have a spiritual problem. What do you about his or her need depends on how much of God's dwells in you.

God promises to help those who help the poor. "Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him in times of trouble. The Lord will protect him and preserve his life; he will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes. The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness" (Psalm 41:1-3).

On the other hand, God will refuse to hear the cries of those who refuse to hear the cries of the poor. "If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered" (Proverbs 21:13).

Foy Valentine wrote, "The God of the Bible, the God Christians know through personal faith in Jesus Christ, is no abstract First Cause or Prime Mover, or Great Unknown out in the abstract Great Somewhere who can be placated by a bit of discrete crying in the chapel. He is a personal God who is very deeply and very definitely concerned… God cares and God is concerned. And since God is concerned, his people have an obligation to be concerned too."

Paul writes, "The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant" (Philippians 2:3-7).

If God's love dwells in us, we are more than mere helpers; we are servants. Servanthood is not just giving greater help (100% instead of 10%), but giving help in a different way. It goes beyond giving to becoming — becoming one with the oppressed, the lonely, the poor and the needy.

Public servants dole out service and then in the process often become the masters of those who receive their service and end up losing their servant role. Christian servants, on the other hand, remain servants of the servants of God (John 13:15-16). Their charity to the poor is not even their own love; it is God's love dwelling in them. They give not out of guilt, but out of gratitude — not because they must, but because they may — not from high pressure, but from high privilege.

It all depends on how much of God's love dwells in you. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, understood the source of her celebrated charity. She said, "Pray for me that I do not loosen my grip on the hands of Jesus even in the guise of ministering to the poor."

Those who have what others need and those who need what others have must strike a vital balance through the indwelling love of God. Paul writes, "This does not mean that to give relief to others you ought to make things difficult for yourselves: it is a question of balancing what happens to be your surplus now against their present need, and one day they may have something to spare that will supply your own need. That is how we strike a balance: as scripture says: 'The man who gathered much had none too much, the man who gathered little did not go short!" (2 Corinthians 8:13 JB).

My conclusion is the same conclusion John drew from this teaching: "My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action."


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