When a friend of mine wrote a book titled Smart Compassion, I thought, Is there an un-smart version of compassion? Apparently, there is. In 1998, for instance, after Hurricane Mitch tore through Honduras, planeloads of supplies couldn’t land because bales stuffed with heavy winter coats were clogging the runway. The temperature in Honduras runs between 71 and 87 degrees Fahrenheit—not exactly winter coat weather. Disaster relief experts often report how people seemingly motivated by “compassion” donate items that hurt more than help—including but not limited to prom gowns, wigs, used teabags, expired medications, tiger costumes, and even frostbite cream for Rwanda, where the lowest temperature on record is in the low 50s. Relief workers call the deluge of unusable gifts "the second disaster."
But if you’re like me, it feels heartless to accuse someone of bungling compassion. We’d like to believe that any attempt at compassion, even inefficient or botched attempts, must be good and noble. It’s like 4-year-olds working on a coloring book—sure, it’s messy and outside the lines, but at least they’re trying. When it comes to compassion, people make mistakes (like sending frostbite cream to Rwanda), but it can’t hurt to try, right?
Actually, yes, it can. Compassion, wrongly understood and wrongly practiced, often leaves people in poverty without the resources they really need. It also creates an unloving relational imbalance between “us” (the people who have all the resources and know what’s best) and “them” (the deprived people who need and should appreciate our generosity). Ever so subtly, compassion has become about our needs and wishes.
Bob Lupton, a Christian community development expert, calls this “us” versus “them” mindset “toxic charity,” and this distorted “compassion” is downright dangerous. The giver remains in control; the receiver has nothing to give back. The giver feels superior (although he would never admit it); the receiver takes another hit to his dignity. The giver jabbers and moralizes about how to fix the issue; the receiver silently resents becoming someone else’s project.
The giver remains in control; the receiver has nothing to give back.
In his book Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life, Lupton notes, “There is a blessedness in this kind of giving ... [But] something seems to go wrong when one with valued resources attempts to distribute them to others in need. The transactions, no matter how compassionate, seem to go sour in the gut of both giver and receiver ... Perhaps the deepest poverty of all is to have nothing of value to offer in exchange.”
How do you untangle this knot of un-smart, unloving, us-centered version of compassion? It’s complicated, but let me suggest two practices. First, for the giver, embrace your spiritual poverty—something we all have to one degree or another, regardless of how long we’ve been walking with Christ. Toxic charity blinds us to our need for God’s mercy. After all, look at me, look at us, meeting the needs of the poor! I must be a good person. Jesus said, actually, if you want to be a “good person,” it all starts right here: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Scholars explain that the original word for “poor” was the strongest word for poverty Jesus could have used. It referred to the destitute, the abysmally impoverished, those who have reached their spiritual bottom. In other words, Jesus is saying that standing before God the Father, we are all “beggars in spirit.”
Knowing and embracing our spiritual poverty frees both giver and receiver from the toxic charity of “us versus them.” It’s just us, a bunch of spiritual beggars who have (or we hope will have), purely by God’s grace, stubbed our big toe against a treasure hidden in a field—the good news of Jesus Christ (Matt. 13:44). Based on our mutual story of beggars hitting it rich, how could I ever allow even a trace of toxic charity to creep into my heart?
Here’s the second spiritual practice of authentic compassion: start reversing roles. Givers learn to receive. Receivers learn to give. In other words, develop a real friendship—an unpredictable, life-giving, two-way relationship of give and take, blessing and receiving without a whiff of superiority. Honestly, this is hard and scary. It’s easy to do things (give, serve, donate) for those in poverty. It’s much more demanding and confusing—but also rewarding and even exhilarating—to walk with them, building face-to-face, two-way relationships.
Develop a real friendship—an unpredictable, life-giving, two-way relationship of give and take, blessing and receiving without a whiff of superiority.
I watched this happen recently during our Alpha jail ministry. In the fall of 2017, our team of four volunteers ran our first Alpha course, a 10-week introduction to the basics of Christianity, in our local county jail. Over the first nine weeks, our team led about 20 different men through the course. We prepared the icebreaker question for the night. We decided which video to watch. We led the discussion and prayer time at the end.
Throughout the first nine weeks, we watched God do what He does best—transform lives. Two of the more skeptical non-Christians accepted Christ. Most of the regular attenders were already believers, but they took huge steps forward in their commitment to follow Jesus, read their Bibles, develop a prayer life, and share their faith while in jail. They kept saying things like, “I’m actually thankful I landed in jail because God really has my attention now.”
Before our final session, my teammate Dave said, “Let’s end this session by sitting in a large circle so we can pray for the guys by name.” But he also added a smart compassion twist: “Then let’s ask the inmates to pray for each other and close by asking them to pray for us.”
That night I witnessed the most moving prayer meeting in my 27-year ministry career. In that ugly, bare jail meeting room, sitting on cheap plastic chairs, four volunteers in street clothes and seven men in orange uniforms and blue plastic sandals cried out to God on behalf of each other. Every few minutes, I’d open my eyes and see our new friends leaning forward in their rickety chairs, holding their raggedy Bibles, rocking a bit as they passionately and eloquently prayed for each other and for us. It was amazing to hear them pray specifically and uniquely for each person in the room. Between our prayers we would pause, someone would crack a joke or tease someone, and we’d all laugh.
In one sense, nothing had changed. We left the jail, and they returned to their cells. We hadn’t “fixed” their problems. But for at least one evening, in a cold, stark room, seven inmates and four church volunteers gave something beautiful to each other—a little more faith and hope in Christ. Friendship and love started flowing two ways.
That’s the essence of real compassion. It’s unpredictable because we aren’t in control. It’s humbling because we have to lay aside our pride. And notice what breaks into our relationships: joy, dignity, love, and laughter. Once you taste the goodness of real compassion, there’s no turning back.