Ministry of Compassion

Several times during the Annual Conference meeting of the Alabama-West Florida UMC Conference, as deacons were talking among themselves I heard references to “compassion”. Compassion is part of the specific ministry of deacons, according to our church’s Discipline. What, exactly does that mean? Research on the “ministry of compassion” yielded some thoughts worth sharing.

The ministry of compassion is an important element of the church’s ministry. Paul outlined four elements of the ministry of compassion as revealed in Jesus’ life in Hebrews 2: 9-18. These are the characteristics that should be present in our churches.

Jesus’ example:

  1. He became a partaker of human sufferings by tasting death for every man. As a result, He showed us how to overcome the spirit of death and the forces of hell. All of their power are in His hands.

For compassion to grow, one may go through experiences in which his/her flesh has to become subdued, weak, die through suffering, fasting, prayer etc. so that the spirit can live.

The experience of suffering may cause one to live a disciplined life of power as the spirit becomes fully alert and learns to combat the spiritual and physical assaults that come at us. It also becomes a reference point by which one can aid others who are suffering.

Paul spoke of his struggle with the flesh in Romans 7, but taught in the subsequent chapter that the secret to overcoming is to walk in the spirit OR to walk according to the word and according to spiritual revelation. As He described his struggle with a weakness, God told Him that he should live in the strength of God.   As a result of suffering, one becomes more competent in bearing the burdens of others in the way of Christ.

  1. Jesus also was tempted in his humanity, having taken on flesh and blood. He was subject to the same opposition that Adam and Eve experienced in the garden of Eden. He showed us how to live righteously and to crush the devil’s head in resisting temptation.

Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brethren and His children and also rejoices over us with singing (Heb 2: 9-13).

c . He became the Captain, chief leader or Prince of our salvation. The Captain of a team is an expert, leader, visionary, head in the business of the team. We therefore look to Jesus as the example, as the author and finisher of our faith.

Our salvation in Heb 2: 20 refers to our soteria, meaning deliverance, preservation, safety, salvation; deliverance from the molestation of enemies, the eternal safety of our souls or salvation. He shows us through His word, example and revelation how we can be saved in every sense of the word.

This is what we are to do in the church, continue in the Word, live by the example of Christ, and testify to the revelation of truth in our lives. We look to Jesus for guidance in helping one another live out our salvation in Christ.

  1. Because He shared our life, sufferings and death, He became a merciful and faithful High Priest, able to help those who are tempted or afraid or who suffer. We can therefore come boldly to Him asking for help on any matter and He will not condemn or turn us away (Heb 4: 14-16).


Jesus himself reveals the reason for his anointing in Luke 4:18-19 in terms that reveal the ministry of compassion, too. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.” [Luke 4:18-19]

It is interesting what Jesus left out of this list of reasons for the anointing. The things that are left out of Jesus’ statement are, sadly, often made the primary reasons for the anointing in some circles. But Jesus says nothing about being anointed so he can be happy or rich. He says nothing about being anointed so he can have peace, be wealthy, speak in tongues or prophesy. He says nothing about being anointed so he can have a really exciting experience with God. None of these are included by Jesus as his reasons for being anointed. The things he left out are not bad. These may be good things, resulting from or leading to wonderful religious experiences. But they are not the primary reasons for the anointing of the Spirit. They are designed to be secondary. When secondary things are made primary in God’s Kingdom, good though they may be, they become profaned. When things that exist as a means to an end become the end, they are counterproductive to God’s Kingdom. Most idols are not bad in themselves. They are bad because they supplant their proper place – the penultimate replaces the ultimate. This displacement of priorities has sidetracked many moves of God. Jesus said that the reason for the anointing by the Spirit is missional. It is given so that the mission of the church can be achieved. This means that a people who are full of the Spirit will announce good news to the poor, proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind. Spirit-filled people will release the oppressed and announce that the Kingdom of God has come, proclaiming the year of God’s favor.

These ministries must not be spiritualized. They are real life, concrete engagements with the poor, the imprisoned, the disempowered, and those the rest of the world rejects. This is the definition of missional ministry. This is the stuff we are called to do, and the people upon whom we are to focus. The church that is living in the dynamic of the coming Kingdom is being renewed by the Spirit has the following in her ministry description:

  1. Start, build, strengthen, and mature missional, compassionate churches. (Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 41:8-10; Isaiah 43:4-7; Isaiah 49, esp. 5-6; Ezekiel 37; Matthew 10:1-41/ Mark 6:7-12/ Luke 9:1-6; Matthew 22:34-40; Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 28:18-21; Luke 10:1-24; John 20:19-22; Acts, passim)
  2. Preach the gospel for the intent of the spiritual transformation of individuals by the power of the Word and the Spirit. (Isaiah 55:10-11; Jeremiah 31:31-33; Joel 2:28-32; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 4:43; Acts, passim; Romans 1:15-18; Romans 10:14-15; Romans 12:1-3; Romans 15:17-20; I Corinthians 1:17 – 2:5; II Corinthians 4:5-6; II Timothy 4:1-5)
  3. Heal the physically, emotionally, and spiritually sick. (Isaiah 30:26; Isaiah 33:24; Isaiah 35:3-6; Isaiah 57:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-3; Jeremiah 33:6; Matthew 4:23-24; Matthew 10:8; Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:19; John 20:21)
  4. Work to bring healing to families and other social units that will result in peace and freedom for their members. (Psalm 68:5-6; Isaiah 2:2-5; Malachi 4:6; Matthew 19:13-15/ Mark 10:13-16/ Luke 18:15-17; Luke 11:17; Ephesians 5:22 – 6:9; Colossians 3:18 – 4:1; Philemon 1-25)
  5. Speak prophetically in word and deed to the social and political systems that imprison, abuse and destroy human life so that they might fulfill the purpose for which they were intended by God. (Exodus 1-14; Isaiah 1:1-31; Isaiah 55:7-23; Isaiah 65, 66; Daniel, e.g. 5; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:8; Luke 10:25-37; Ephesians 6:10-12)
  6. Feed the hungry and clothe the poor. (Isaiah 58; Amos 2:6-16; Matthew 25:31-46; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 12:22-34; James 2:1-7)
  7. Work for the release of slaves whether they are sex slaves, underpaid workers, employees in sweat shops, children enslaved in abusive labor conditions, kids forced into military service, or any other kinds of slavery that destroys human dignity. (Leviticus 25; Nehemiah 5; Isaiah 1:1-31; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 7:22; Luke 10:25-37; James 5:1-6)
  8. Work for reconciliation between races, cultures, economic groups, churches, and religions.2 (Isaiah 2:2-5; Isaiah 19:18-25; Matthew 5:23-26, 43-48/ Luke 6:27-36; John 17:1-26; Ephesians 1:9-10; Ephesians 2:11-22; Galatians 3:26-29; James 2:1-11)
  9. Tend the earth so that it can sustain human life and be enjoyed by all according to God’s intention for his creation. (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:15; Isaiah 65, 66; Matthew 6:9-13/ Luke 11:2-4; Romans 8:18-27; Revelation 21:1-5)

These are the things that are on God’s heart. These are what God is doing in the world – the Missio Dei. These are the ministries of the church that is living in the dynamic of the Kingdom of God. These are what our Lord has called, equipped, and commissioned people within the church to do. The church’s goal is not simply to build churches and get people to heaven. We cannot shrink from the example of those who led in the reform of child labor laws, prisons, women’s suffrage, the fight against slavery, and other social ills. We must pursue holistic ministry that focuses on both personal transformation and social involvement. Pursuit of a greater and more glorious experience with God and making the experience the end is not our purpose.   Such experiences are not primarily to make one feel better, but to equip each person to do ministry.

To be effective requires an attitude of Holy Spirit-inspired Christian compassion. Not just any compassion will do. It needs a special kind of compassion – the kind of compassion that comes from the heart of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. This special kind of compassion is the motivating factor for Kingdom ministries. Compassion does not simply mean that we feel with the lost, the poor, the victims of injustice, the aliens, the sick, or the bound. Christian compassion is to have God’s heart for these people. God is a God of compassion. This theme runs like a golden thread both through the Old and the New Testaments (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 111:4; Psalms 116:5; Jonah 4:2; Isaiah 54:10; Matthew 5:45; Romans 11:32). It is a primary identifier of who God is. As Stanley Grenz says: At the center of the faith of the Hebrew community stood a declaration of God’s compassion, which the book of Exodus describes as having its source in God himself. After revealing the divine name to Moses on Mount Sinai, Yahweh declares, “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)8In fact, it was the compassion of the Father that motivated Jesus. He knew how the Father felt about the lost, the poor, the victims, and the traumatized. He shared God’s heart. He had compassion with the Father. And “being moved with compassion” he preached the gospel, fed the hungry, identified with the lepers, set the captives free, healed the sick, and challenged the structures of injustice with a powerful counter-culture message of love and grace. (Matthew 9:36; Matthew14:14; Matthew 20:34; Mark 1:41) The compassion that comes from the heart of God is not pity. Pity is what you have when you feel for someone in need, but do nothing to help. Pity is feeling sorry for the victim. Compassion, on the other hand, is something that grips you down deep in your gut. It grabs you so deeply that, even if there is risk and loss, you must do something to help the victim, whether they deserve it or not. Compassion is a work of the Holy Spirit – a true test of renewal. It is evidence of a Spirit-filled life. If God is a God of compassion and if the work of the Spirit is to give us God’s heart, then how could we be renewed and not care about those things that are on God’s heart? If compassion is an evidence of the Spirit’s presence, then the Spirit is alive and well. Like our Lord, we are “moved with the compassion” that is in the heart of the Father. We feel with the Father and we act with the Father.

There is no substitute for evangelism that results in transformed lives. Secondly, we want every church to have a vibrant and vital healing ministry to those physically, emotionally, socially, or spiritually sick. Healing was central to the ministry of Jesus and the early church. There is nothing that the church does to reflect the compassion of Jesus more than when she extends healing to the sick. Compassionate ministry that takes us into the streets of our communities, to the places of darkness, suffering, injustice, and poverty all over the world. Compassionate ministry must bring good news to the poor, the bound, the bleeding, the chained, the rejected, the weak, the strangers, and the victimized. This is the ministry God has given us.

Help us, Lord, follow your perfect example!


(Adapted from lesson by Coleen Mercedes in her weblog, Dec. 2007 - and from the description of “compassionate ministry” defined by The Vineyard Church