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The Problem with Compassion

Author’s Note:  This is an old blog.  Many years old.  But it’s concept has stuck with me over the years. It has bugged me, and pestered me and dug into my soul.   Mainly because it was a problem whose solution I just couldn’t find.   This blog does NOT give the solution.  I mean, like my kids church kids, I can say the solution is “Jesus!”, which is so true, but leaves the question hanging.   So this blog always felt unfinished in my mind…that is until this week.   After years, the “solution” to the problem with compassion finally hit me.  What is it?  I will be talking about it during my sermon this week (and writing a continuation blog about it next week.)   Until then, catch up and get ready for this weeks sermon.  See you Sunday.


I recently saw a movie (Stranger than Fiction) which made an interesting comment .  As I didn’t memorize it off the cuff, I will therefore paraphrase.

“There is no way to avoid your eminent death.  Might as well go enjoy your life anyway you want…  Why, if you want to eat pancakes, you can eat as many as you want”

“But I don’t want to eat pancakes, I want to LIVE!  No one would choose pancakes over life!”

“Wait now, that depends on the quality of the life being lead and just how good those pancakes are, doesn’t it?”

I know what your thinking (seriously, I’m just good that way).  You’re thinking, “Funny, but not reality.”  I mean, any normal caring human being would choose life over pancakes every time.  It’s not even a fair comparison.  Even if the pancakes are scrumptious!  It’s life, not pancakes

Ok, butternut cinnamon pancakes or life ….  umm, life

pumpkin pancakes with a touch of nutmeg or life  ….. life

Whole wheat pancakes with hot, fresh maple sirup or life…. still life

Really?  What about a smiley face chocolate pancake with REAL whipping cream and pitted cherries as eyes? … tempting, but I will still have to go with life.  Nice try, though.

The decision for this is obvious, but what’s not as obvious is my connection between pancakes and compassion’s chief flaw.  Well, let’s play a little game, shall we?

Let’s even the playing field…

For starters, let’s change the life.  No longer is it your life, but someone else’s.  Someone you love, for example. The pancakes, likewise are getting better.  Made with real butter or something,  freshly ground cinnamon, I don’t know.  Still no takers?

Ok, now the life is not a loved one, but just an acquaintance.  The gas station clerk, for example.  You know, the one who tried to rip you off last year.  On the pancake side, lets add some freshly squeezed Orange Juice….yum…  not yet?   Let’s up the ante.

The life is a child…. a young child…. not your colour, not your race, not even your hemisphere.   Lives somewhere in, say, central Africa.  You never met him and never will… not under any circumstances.  His life or death will not ever make the slightest difference in your realm.  He sick anyways.  Just a baby.  He will simply die from starvation tonight. You’ll never hear of it or know of it….ever.  It’s breakfast time for you, a lazy Saturday morning.  A friend suggests a late morning meal at IHOP….ummmmmm, your stomach rumbles at the thought.  You have ten bucks in your pocket.  Sure you can give that money to charity, but what bugs you is that only about 60% will actually reach anyone, the rest will go for….well, who knows, but still.  Besides, you just gave $50 last Monday.  Plus, you gotta eat.

“Come on, man, let’s go.” .  Your thinking that maybe you’ll get the smily face pancake after all…hey, and maybe a freshly squeezed OJ too.

Congratulations, you just chose pancakes over life.

How are you feeling right now?  A little guilty maybe, but that’s not the prominent emotion, is it?  If you’re like me, you are a little mad.  Maybe you feel a little bit tricked, or maybe you thoughts are along the line of thinking that this game was a little unfair.  I mean, you DID just give $50 last WEEK.  Your a college student anyways, $50 is a huge sacrifice for you.  You care, you DO, but one person can’t do everything, right?  Sure, you can do more…anybody can do more then they are doing, but are you to live a life of abject poverty so that you can give every cent to save others? I mean, come on.

This, my most worthy friends, this is the problem with compassion.

A few years ago, after I spent a rather intense time praying for compassion for my fellow humans, a friend made an simple remark that stuck to me like oatmeal to ribs.  He said (again, forgive the paraphrase), “The problem with caring too much is that you never know when to quit.”

How do you respond to that?  The romantic answer would be, “Well, never quit!”  but how does that play out in the real world?  Who can claim that without being hypocritical?  No one I know personally, and I know some really good people.  Not myself (heck, I went to IHOP only two days ago).  One of the scenes from Schindler’s List will always haunt me and others who have watched it (no, not the red dress.  That was only sedimental visual manipulation.  Pay attention to subtext, folks 🙂 ).  As he was leaving his factory, he was face to face with all those hundreds he had saved, lives that would live and not die, products of his own compassion.  Yet, what was his final thoughts there?  His watch…how many more could he have saved by selling it.  His car…it could have saved dozens. He could have done more…. so much more…

This is the plight of the truly compassionate.  It’s not that they are frustrated that they can’t save the whole world.  The compassionate cares for the individual and not just the “big” goal.  It’s not that they don’t have enough to give, for most of us have more than enough and the amount is not really the key.  The curse of the truly compassionate is that they recognize (and rightly so) that they are, well, selfish.  They know they can give more, they know they should give more but they know they won’t (not can’t, won’t).  In short, they know their own hypocrisy.  Does this surprise you?

We, in the body of Christ, as so worried about being called hypocrites, so sensitive to defend ourselves from the obscene title, so offended by it’s countenance and yet so cruelly prepared to throw it at each other when our own hearts hurt that we miss the obvious truth that we are, by our own natures, all guilty of it.

Ok, now the band-aid is coming off (Obviously, I’m a student of the “rip off quick” school of thought).  Now I have shared what I see as the problem of Compassion.  Now lets look at what to do about it…..

In my life, I see this answer simply as two things.  Firstly, as far as compassion is concerned know that we will never be perfect at it, that we will never be like Christ at it, that we will be incomplete and hypocritical.  The truly compassionate don’t deny their hypocrisy.  Instead they see it, admit it, accept it and make a daily (hourly, minutely) assault against it.  The mind of Christ continually stands against the will of selfishness.  No, you will not be perfect, yet you seek it anyways.

Secondly, knowing this of ourselves, let go of judgment.  We can look at millionaire  (billionaire) and say, “how can those, who have been so blessed, turn a blind eye?”  The compassionate, those growing to be like Christ, are too concerned about what THEY can do (and yes, also what they AREN’T doing and SHOULD be doing) to worry about what others do or do not.  I’m not saying not to encourage, not to provide opportunity, not to challenge, but judgement is a whole other thing.   Another thing we are all guilty of. I don’t think I need to go any further.  We all know.

Compassion, after all, is not about doing everything, it’s about doing something.

Let me conclude with a story.  Have you ever heard of the popular Christian legend that tells of a beach early one morning.  Through the night, for whatever reason, thousands upon thousands of starfish washed up on the shore.  Without a way to return to the frothy waves, they were condemned to a slow, hot death on that briny beach.  A man walked among them mourning the gross tragedy of it all until he came across a young boy, picking up starfish after starfish and throwing them back into the water.

“Son” he cried, “What use is there in what you are doing?  There are just too many.  You won’t even make a dent in it before the sun dries them up.  It won’t make a difference.”

The boy, with the wisdom of the ages, looked a the man, bent over and picked up a starfish.  As he pulled back his arm to return the creature to it’s life he commented “It will, however, make a difference to this one.”

Heart-wrenching, but let look at this story again.

A starfish washed up upon the beach.  Thousands likewise washed up all around him.  He knew come morning he was condemned to a death of misery.  Try as he may, he could not make it back to the waves of life.  As the sun came up, he slowly understood his demise.  Why was this happening?  He wasn’t an evil starfish.  He tried to help his fellow fish (”remember that time I helped the clown-fish find his father?”)  He tried to do more good than evil.  He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Death started it’s morbid work on him.  He felt his body drying and cracking.  Hope sipped through the cracks till only despair remained.

But then, suddenly, on the horizon, what is that? Is it? Could it be?  Dare he hope?  YES, IT IS…. a boy.  He was picking up starfish and throwing them back into the water.  There WAS hope!

But he’s so far away.  Hour upon hour the young boy worked.  Closer and closer he came to the starfish until finally he began to know he was going to make it.  The boy had finally come to him.

“But wait, what is that?  Who is that man who just started talking to him?  What is it they are saying?  I can’t make it out.   Oh, Don’t give up, boy.  Here I am.”

The starfish’s body was dying, he knew it, but there was still time. If the boy hurried, maybe he would still live.  Suddenly, the boy was bending over.  His open hand shadowed the starfish’s body.  The starfish closed his eyes in anticipation and… and…



He opened them again and watched as the starfish that lay beside him was lifted into the air.  After a brief muttering from the boy’s mouth, it was cast back into the water and back to it’s life.

The starfish looked up in shock as the boy, exhausted and weary, took one last look upon the beach of death, turned, and with a hungry look in his eyes ran home to his breakfast.

“What will there be to eat?” the child wondered aloud as he ran.

The starfish’s consciousness started to blur.  A last thought ran through his mind as he faded from this cruel world.

“Pancakes.” he thought, “Definitely pancakes.”

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