16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18, NIV)
One of the most overused phrases during the current pandemic is “uncertain times.” Though we certainly live in uncertain times, millions of people in our world are experiencing much worse than uncertainty. According to Colossians 3:12, our calling as Christians is to feel compassion for others and to act on it. Feeling our own uncertainty isn’t wrong, of course, but it surely isn’t enough. Perhaps our uncertainty can even help us to be more compassionate with others who live with uncertain realities and feelings all the time.
A passage from the first letter of John calls us to active compassion in way similar to what we observed in Colossians 3:12. Unfortunately, our translation of 1 John 3:17 makes this hard to see. A more accurate translation would be, “How does God’s love abide in someone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and closes their heart against them?” The Greek word I’m translating as “heart” is splanchna literally means “inward parts” in Greek. This is the same word that appear in Colossians: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion [splanchna oiktirmou, a heart of compassion], kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
So, John underscores in a new but related way what we learn from Colossians 3:12. As Christ followers, we need to have hearts open to others. We should be people of genuine compassion. If God’s love truly dwells in us, then we will be drawn to love others. This love will be ignited by our open hearts. But, as John makes abundantly clear, our feelings of love must also be expressed in tangible action. Immediately after implying that our hearts should be open, not closed, John adds, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (v. 18).
Enacted compassion means, in some cases, that we listen empathically to those who are feeling anxious uncertainty. But it also invites us to care for people in other ways as we attend sensitively to their circumstances and feelings.
What might this look like? I’d like to share three examples I read about of people who are expressing compassion to others during the time of the coronavirus pandemic. The first person regularly remembers those she knows who live alone. She prepares meals as a gesture of concern, being sure to sanitize everything she delivers, and then spends time talking with those she is serving from a very safe distance as she drops off their food.
The second is a woman who owns a thriving business, but one that is struggling mightily in these difficult days. Nevertheless, she is doing all she can to keep her staff employed for as long as possible, even if this means personally receiving no salary and, in fact, losing quite a bit of money.
Finally, there is a woman who, a few weeks ago, was concerned over the inaccessibility of face masks. They are required, yet were very hard to find. So this woman started sewing face masks, dozens and dozens of them, and giving them away. We wouldn’t mind if she had chosen to sell them for a fair price. But she decided instead to freely serve people through her talent and generosity.
In the foreseeable future, we will all struggle with the implications of the coronavirus. In truth, we can’t be certain about the challenges coming our way. But one thing we can be certain of: As God’s beloved people, we are to love others, both by opening our hearts to them and by acting in love as our hearts move us.
Let us ask the Lord to help us have open hearts to people in need. Not just for today, but for the many days, months, and years ahead. As we respond to the impact of the coronavirus, may we be attentive to the feelings and needs of those around us. Individually, and together as God’s people, let us show tangible love as an expression of what is in our hearts. Not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.
What helps your heart to be open to people in need?
What helps you to actively care for those in need?