Tom Gilson

Compassion: Who Does Good and Why (Part 1)

Christianity is first of all about the good God, our Creator and King; and about Christ's work reconciling us, whom he had created in his image but who rejected him, back to a full and right relationship with him and with all of his works. Everything else flows out of that, including the explanation for who does good and why.

Everyone exercises compassion. Why? What motivates interpersonal compassion? What is its purpose? Where does altruism fit in to the human picture? Why are some more compassionate than others? Has any one group demonstrated compassion more consistently than others? If so, why have they been leaders in that way, and why isn't it more blazingly obvious that they have been? Why does everybody–and every group–fail in caring for others?

Let's make this more specific. It appears to me that history shows Christians above all other groups have led the world in caring for the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the oppressed, and the stranger. We have outstanding stories to tell of liberating women, freeing slaves, helping the sick among us, and especially helping those who are not “among us:” people of different races and religions all over the world.

Too few of us know too few of these stories. Many of us know contrary stories: slaveholders using Scripture to justify their evil ways, Martin Luther's anti-semitism, women being put down, and on it goes.

Meanwhile it would be wrong and obnoxious to suggest that Christians have been the sole representatives of compassion in history. It's just not true.

So the question is, does this mixed picture make sense if Christianity is true?

Yes, it does. I'll have lots of stories to share later, and I'll also be comparing the biblical explanation outlined here with some other answers to the question, “who does good and why?”

For now I'll start with this. Christian teaching suggests that although Christians could not be the only ones who do good, and although there must be many exceptions, still Christians should prove to be the definite leaders in doing good. Here's how we come to that conclusion.

Outlining the Theory

1. We were all created in the image of God, and in each of us he placed a sense of right and wrong (Genesis 1:26; Romans 2:11-16).

2. We fell away from the experience and practice of goodness when our first ancestors rejected God (Genesis 3).

3. We did not, however, lose all touch with right and wrong: we still have that knowledge in some sense. Therefore we all have the capacity to choose what is right and good.

4. As fallen creatures, however, in a state of self-centeredness and disconnection from God, that capacity is severely limited.

5. God came in Christ to reconcile the world to himself. This process, begun in Christ's life, death, and resurrection, is incomplete on earth but will be made complete in the final state (heaven).

6. In the meantime, Christians are partially complete: works in progress.

7. Also in the meantime, there are those who will find it advantageous to claim Scriptures falsely as moral cover over their evil deeds.

8. Therefore (6 & 7) we do not expect Christians (or those claiming to be Christians) to be perfect. If there is any expectation of Christians (nominal or genuine) doing good, it is accompanied by the expectation that we will make many mistakes along the way.

9. So we expect (3, 4, & 8) all persons to be weak and flawed in doing good.

10. Yet we also expect (5 & 6) that those who are in Christ will generally do more good than they would have done without Christ.

11. The comparison in (10) is not between Christians and non-Christians, but between person A as a Christian compared to what person A would have been as a non-Christian.

12. Therefore (10 & 11) it is entirely likely, and it is to be expected, that there would be many cases where non-believers' behavior would be more compassionate than believers'.

13. Nevertheless Christ's work in believers (10) should produce an overall lift for Christians, such that as a group they would tend to exercise more compassion than others.

14. The expected result, then is that Christians would prove to be leaders in doing good (10), though not at all the only ones who do good (1, 3, and 12), and not without serious exceptions (8).

How does that square with reality? We'll see in future posts. We'll also look at who really gets the credit if any of this is true. It's all to the glory of God, or else it's nothing at all.

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3 thoughts on “Compassion: Who Does Good and Why (Part 1)

  1. We’ll also look at who really gets the credit if any of this is true.

    God gets the credit. God sets the target of goodness, and because all humans are made in his image, we are drawn toward it. The only reason we can know what is good and can choose it, is because God made it possible.

  2. … because all humans are made in hHis image, we are drawn toward itHim.

    “God, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.” [St. Augustine, Confessions]


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