Mercy Ministry

Mercy Ministry

Christmas & Christian Empathy

If there’s any time of year that should move Christians to empathy with their fellow man, it’s Christmas. Yet when you hear Christians talk about Christmas, you hear words like celebration, worship, family, together, etc. (which are all great!). The incarnation of Jesus, though, is the greatest model for empathy the world has ever seen.

Empathy in the Incarnation
When God became man, he left the eternal glory and joy of being God and of enjoying all that God deserves. Jesus, in entering the created world, humbled himself and entered into our discomfort and pain. He knows what it is to be hungry, to have no place to lay his head, to feel left out and mocked. God tells us Jesus did this because of his great love for us. The shame he experienced was far greater than anything any other human being has ever experienced. And one result of Jesus’ experience of humility and shame is that he can empathize like no other person the world has ever known: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

A Problem
In spite of the fact that the Christmas season models the compassion of God so clearly, Christians often view human suffering as a problem to be solved—or worse—avoided and ignored. Simply read what many majority Christians and Christian leaders say about those on the margins of society in our own country or about refugees from war and abuse huddled in camps in other countries.

We view the refugee and the outcast as a political problem to be solved or an inconvenience to be avoided. This ought not to be! There’s truth in the concept of personal responsibility, but the idea that anyone can overcome life’s obstacles through hard work and determination doesn’t work equitably across the board. Jesus’ birth teaches us this. Yes, our world (and the United States, in particular) is filled with unparalleled opportunity, but Mary and Joseph finding refuge in a stable, then fleeing to Egypt, is a model for Christian compassion and empathy, not for the doctrine of self-help.

What I’m Not Trying to Do
I’m not attempting to address the responsibilities of people to own their problems and work to overcome them (that’s the other side of the coin). Rather, I pray that God will give Christians eyes to see that our responsibility is to listen with compassion and empathy. Christian leaders should take the lead in calls for compassion and help for those in need—even if those needs are complicated and difficult to address.

Call to Action: Humility
First, as Christians, we should see the humility and shame of Christ and recognize that a little humility goes a long way for us in these conversations. As first-world, majority-culture Christians, the truth is that we just don’t “get” a lot of problems that those living on the margins deal with. This should move us to humility, as we have a lot to learn. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black or hispanic person in America, and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee whose home has been destroyed by war.

Call to Action: Empathy
True humility moves us to compassionate empathy. While we may not literally feel the pain of a Syrian refugee, we should try to empathize with the hurting. Jesus actually did feel our pain and carry it in his body, so that we wouldn’t have to endure the worst consequences of our sin. So take off your “political hat” for a few minutes, and hurt with those who hurt. Weep with those who weep.

Call to Action: Love One Person
One difficulty of calls to listen and empathize is that the problems are so great there is no way any human being or human institution, including the US government, can address all of the issues. But we can love one person who’s not like us. We can love one person who’s hurting, and we can listen with humble empathy to the broader problems, asking God to give us wisdom on when and how to engage.


Some Thoughts on Mercy Ministry


Mercy ministry is the body of Christ taking active steps to minister mercy to those with physical or material needs. One thing that makes this particularly difficult in our culture is that we have access to help that can actually exacerbate some root problems of poverty, like laziness or greed. Some people avoid working, because the benefits of not working are too lucrative.

On one hand we have Proverbs 14:21: Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.

And on the other hand, we have Proverbs 20:4: The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing. Paul says it more strongly in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.

We sometimes think that simply giving food or money away is the answer to the problem, but that can actually be a barrier against getting to the root of the problem. Our mercy ministry must ultimately get at root bondage, not merely alleviate temporary issues.

How then, should we minister to the physical needs of those in need? Here are some guiding principles:

Sometimes by giving money or food. 

But we must stop assuming that giving money or food will solve the problem. The messy work of offering real help requires more time and effort than we often want to give.

Sometimes by not giving money or food, when the person needs to get up and work. 

Read this book: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself.

By not assuming that economic issues are because of laziness.

The unemployment rate in our church’s neighborhood is 17.7%, and the percentage of people at or below the poverty level is 36.5%. It’s easy to assume that those problems exist because of laziness. But …

While laziness is a real temptation for all of us, there are significant contributing factors that make it difficult for industrious people to break out of poverty. Here are just a few in our neighborhood:

  • Limited transportation
  • Limited access to childcare for those who can work
  • Lack of employment opportunities in poor neighborhoods
  • Language barriers (32 spoken languages in our neighborhood)

By not assuming that economic issues are not because of laziness.

… because they might be.

By developing relationships to begin digging to root causes and meet true needs.

And this takes a lot of time and effort. Get your hands dirty; labor hard in the church; don’t wait for others to do the work.

By remembering that God is the only one who can fix humanity’s greatest problems.

Poverty and hunger aren’t our worst enemies. The wrath of an infinitely holy, just God against sin is our greatest foe. The only hope that any of us have against that enemy is an infinitely loving and gracious Savior. God’s justice and mercy meet at the cross. Our only hope is turning from sin to Christ for mercy and rescue.

Bethany Christian Services

Bethany Christian Services


On Friday night, Liz and I went to a banquet for Bethany Christian services. We had heard of Bethany before, but we didn't know much about it. We were really encouraged by our time there and learned a lot about their various ministries–adoption, foster care, safe families, counseling, etc.

Scott and Shannon Patterson invited us as their guests, and we had a great time with them and the Slieffs. The banquet was part of an effort to raise $85,000 to meet their 2012 budget–particularly the funding of their safe families initiative, which is a really cool ministry. The banquet raised $50,000; if you have a heart for helping needy children and would like to contribute to Bethany Christian Services, you can do so here.