Compassion differs from other kinds of love in no way except in having the needy as its special object. In its essence compassion is simply love.

Love is the most interesting and most important subject we can address. Why is this subject so important?

  1. Love is the motive of our salvation (John 3:16).
  2. It is the chief virtue (1 Cor. 13:13).
  3. It is the essence of God (1 John 4:16). How can three infinite, omnipotent persons coexist in one Being? Love is the cement that holds the Trinity, indeed the universe, together.

Without love, there would be nothing. Without love, we would be nothing (1 Cor. 13:1). Love is the core of our religion, the core of reality. Yet it is not easy to define. A single sentence will not suffice, as when we defined sacrifice and risk-taking. Love is a far more complex idea, so we will start by saying what it is not.

What Love Is Not

  1. Love is not a romantic feeling. The Greek word for romantic feeling—eros—does not even appear in the New Testament. Instead, the New Testament uses the word agape, which can refer to God's love for man, man's love for God, or man's love for man. According to the best Greek scholarship, it is just the general term for love. Romantic feeling is a special form of attraction between the sexes that arises from biological programming. It is God's way of assuring that the human race will propagate itself. In a normal, mature personality, romantic feeling triggers real love. But unfortunately, many people today are too shallow and self-centered to be capable of anything deeper than romantic feeling, which, without the support of real love, is short-lived. That is one reason why so many marriages fail.
  2. Love is not an uncontrollable feeling. The expression "to fall in love" derives from the common idea that love hits us like Cupid's dart and we are helpless to resist it. But that way of thinking has a dark side. If Cupid can put a dart into us, he can also pull it out. And indeed, many believe that love is something that can vanish, and that if it vanishes, we are helpless to restore it. When I did marital counseling in days past, some men told me, "I no longer love my wife." But that's a self-contradiction. I said, "If you ever loved her, you would still love her now."
  3. Love is not just doing our duty. I counseled these men, "Love is a verb. Do the right thing. Behave like you love your wife, and the right feelings will follow. Our feelings are shaped by what we do. If you treat her with every kindness and consideration, eventually a warmth will return to your heart." Here I was influenced by a psychological theory which I no longer believe is correct—a theory which supposes that emotion arises in support of behavior. In fact, we can faithfully do our duty toward a person and never feel love for him. Being busy for God without loving Him was the chief sin in the church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:4). You may be doing your duty toward your spouse, but that's not love. Men, in your marriage you may be a good provider, a perfect gentleman, and a paragon of fidelity, but all these forms of excellent character do not add up to loving your wife. Women, you may fulfill every responsibility as wife and homemaker and yet fall short of loving your husband.

What Love Is

We discover the nature of real love in a very simple, short text (Mark 10:21). Jesus looked at the rich young ruler and instantly loved him.

  1. It is obvious that Jesus' love consisted in how He felt, and not in what He did. Moreover, His love arose suddenly, not after a process of thought. Therefore, we many conclude, Love is an emotion.
  2. You say, I already knew that. But hold on—there's more here. This was an emotion in the heart of Jesus, who is God. His love was surely more than a feeling on the surface. Nothing in the heart of God can be shallow or fleeting. It must be deep and abiding. Since we are created in the image of God, we are capable of the same kind of emotion. And I think we can agree that any other kind does not deserve the name "love." So, we may conclude, Love is deep and abiding. That is true even of love for the wrong things. A man who loves money has a deep and abiding fascination with it.
  3. It says in this text that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. In other words, His love was focused on a particular object. And that is always true. Love is particular. We do not love generalities. It says that "God so loved the world," but it means not that He loved the world as a fuzzy abstraction. Rather, He loved each individual person in the world. His love for the world is simply the summation of His particular loves for you and me and everybody else.
  4. Paul says, "Love your wives" (Col. 3:19), and Moses instructed Israel, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart" (Deut. 6:5). So we may conclude, Love is subject to the will. You can decide to love, and you can decide not to love. So, the man who says, "I no longer love my wife," really means, "I have never decided to give her real, abiding love." All he needs to do is make that decision.


People today spend all the love they have on the wrong things: self, pleasure, and money (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Just as they have a form of godliness, so they have a form of love. What should we love? Love is so important that the answer to this question provides what Jesus calls the two greatest commandments. The first is that we should love God wholeheartedly, and the second is that we should love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40). We will focus on the second of these and describe the characteristics of a true love for our neighbor.

Marks of Christian Love

Just Being Nice

Associated with love are such virtues as kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness (Eph. 4:32). We might summarize these as just being nice. Just being nice is the first mark of a spiritual Christian. When I was growing up, I was disillusioned more than once by the discovery that a Christian leader or someone else with a reputation for being spiritual was not really very nice, whether toward me or toward someone in his own family or toward someone who contradicted him. It is a problem that goes across the spectrum of Christianity. I have known people who were very separated, very correct, but very deficient in simple love. I have also known worldly Christians who thought they were spiritual, but whose nasty treatment of separated Christians proved otherwise.


Not long after going to the mission field, Jonathan Goforth arranged to have a national, a Mr. Li, tutor him in Chinese. But the language teacher showed great distrust and was afraid to eat or drink anything that Jonathan served him. Jonathan treated him with utmost kindness, but after only two days the man disappeared. Some time later he came back, saying that he had left because his womenfolk had frightened him with terrible stories about the foreign devils. He returned because, "It is impossible to look into the face of Pastor Goforth and not love and believe in him." What he saw there was the pastor's perfect kindness.


All the wonderful traits that Paul connects with love (1 Cor. 13) can be summarized as unselfishness. Every man married to a good woman can testify to the unselfishness that women are capable of. They are especially good at being longsuffering toward their husbands. One night a few years ago, after my wife and I went to bed, a mosquito began buzzing around my head. I slapped at it and turned on the light, but found nothing. The same happened again several times. At last when I turned on the light, I saw the critter and tried several times to swat him. Then my wife rolled over and said, "Oh, for some reason I just can't sleep tonight."


Ruth's declaration of love for Naomi is the classic statement of a love so selfless that personal identity is wholly submerged in the beloved (Ruth 1:16-17).

To grow in love, and especially in compassion for the needy, we need to understand four principles.

Principles of Love

Principle 1/ The basic motive for Christian service must be love.

While we were serving at a church in Michigan, we lost our pastor, and within a few months the pulpit committee received no less than seventy resumes from qualified candidates. I have heard that this number of applicants for a pastoral position is not unusual. At the same time we were looking for a pastor, the mission agencies associated with our group of churches were begging for new missionaries. What is the explanation? Is it possible that God was not calling enough people to the mission field, but far more than He needed for pastoring in America? Not likely. Our conclusion must be that many He was calling to the mission field were refusing to go, whereas many seeking the job of senior pastor were called not by God, but by themselves. They were self-called. What was their motive? Perhaps some had a good motive; perhaps some wanted to further the Kingdom of God. Yet when we consider that the only form of Christian service today that attracts a glut of candidates is the position of senior pastor in a large church, we cannot help but suspect that many of these candidates have carnal motives—that they view such a position as a good job rather than as Christian service. These are the careerists, interested in the good salary, the influence, the popularity, the freedom of schedule, the chances of travel, and all the other benefits that come with being a successful preacher.

Needless to say, the men with carnal motives for entering the ministry are the most vulnerable to spectacular failure. I know many sad illustrations. I will not give them because the sordid details are too depressing. Besides, you probably know already that there have been many Christian leaders in recent years who have made shipwreck of their ministries. What you may not know is that when you probe deeply into the background of their failure, as I have done in several cases, you find wrong motives for entering the ministry in the first place.

What is the right motive? The only right motive is love—love of God first and love of people second. The first kind of love without the second is insufficient. There have been multitudes down through the ages who have performed Christian service out of a sense of duty to God and a desire to please Him, but who have accomplished very little simply because they did not have a fervent love for the people they were serving.

Let me give you an example. My sister Dorothy was once a missionary to Africa. In 1952, she and her husband John went under a well-known mission board to a station in central Nigeria. All the missionaries there lived on a compound separate from the native villages. The natives had access to it only if they were working for the missionaries. A young African man named Roland, who was a Christian, did the cooking and some of the housework for Dorothy and John. He was their "houseboy," a term the whites used for a black male servant of any age. The two new missionaries took an interest in him and did everything they could to encourage his growth in Christ. As a natural expression of their love for the young man, they invited him to sit down and eat at their table. Soon afterward they found themselves in deep trouble. What they had done was strictly against mission policies. They tried their best to change the policies, but failed. So, after one term, they severed ties with the board they had been serving under and went under a different board to a different field.

The first mission agency was undoubtedly doing much good. Many of its missionaries were highly dedicated people, serving God at the price of great personal sacrifice. But the same agency was also doing much harm. Its policies made it hard for the Africans to distinguish between the missionaries and all the other white people they saw. When nationalism swept over the continent, it was easy for the agitators to paint all whites with the same brush of hatred and to provoke the expulsion of missionaries along with the colonial administrators, the adventurers, and the exporters of national resources. The basic error of the agency was this: failure to treat African believers as real brothers. So, it was a failure of love.

Love is essential for all forms of Christian service, even for the first steps of evangelism. There is nothing so futile as loveless soul-winning. When we find opportunities to share the gospel with people, the right way is to show love. How? By asking their name, by showing interest in their lives, by seeking to build a relationship. If they receive the gospel, we should not drop them out of our hands. We should build a relationship still more. We try to get together with them for discipling. We direct them to a church, or take them ourselves. We shepherd them as much as we can until they can find their own way spiritually.

Principle 2/ The highest form of compassion Is self-sacrificing.

So far in our lessons on the requirements for successful Christian service, we have dealt with sacrifice and risk-taking. Compassion is the third requirement. It is essential in part because it enables us to make sacrifices and undertake risks. No sacrifice is too hard for real love.

Love in the form of compassion also motivates us to make sacrifices for the sake of Christian service.


  1. John Hyde. John Hyde was known as "Praying Hyde" because of the long hours he spent in intercession for the people of his beloved India, where he was a missionary in the early 1900s. Early in his career he and a friend prayed and fasted for thirty days and nights in preparation for a general gathering of missionaries, and the result was a great outpouring of revival. From then on his life was centered on prayer. One of his contemporaries records that he woke three times at night to pray, and then arose at 5 o'clock in the morning so that he could spend more time in prayer before the day began. It was not uncommon for him to stay in his prayer closet for long stretches of time. And no one could doubt that the sacrifice paid dividends. One year he covenanted with God to win one soul per day throughout the coming year—by which he meant a soul soundly saved and baptized. Having met that goal, he then won two souls per day in the next year, and he went on to win four souls per day in the years following. The strain of constant prayer and soulwinning eventually took its toll. All his labors spent his energy and ruined his health, bringing his career to an end after he had been on the field only nineteen years. But the profit for eternity was immeasurable. What motivated him? Compassion. The constant plea of his fervent intercession with God was that God would save lost souls.
  2. Christ. The supreme example of sacrifice is Christ Himself (John 3:16). Driven by compassion, He gave up His own life that we might live. Just as self-sacrifice is the highest form of compassion, so death is the highest form of self-sacrifice (John 15:13).

Principle 3/ Perfect love casteth out fear (1 John 4:18).

A few years ago, when my wife and I were on vacation, we were walking through the woods when a little bird, a junco I believe, suddenly attacked me. She dove at my face repeatedly, all the while making ferocious noises. As I sought to fend off this assault, I happened to glance down, and there at my feet was a baby junco, just learning to fly. Of course I reassured the mommy that I had no evil intentions and I beat a hasty retreat. But the willingness of this little creature, weighing barely one pound soaking wet, to attack a monster like me shows how fearless love can be.

The strength of mother love puts us to shame as soulwinners. If we really saw that person who crosses our path as a lost soul and if we really loved him with divine compassion, how much would we hesitate to give him the gospel?


From the history of missions, let us offer an example of compassionate love triumphing over fear and yielding great spiritual profits.

In 1868, Hudson Taylor embarked on a new venture to carry the gospel to the interior of China. Leaving his post in Hangchow, Taylor with his wife and children sailed upriver in Chinese boats until after two months they reached the ancient city of Yangchow, with a population of 360,000. They settled down and started a new mission, which for a while was successful. But the local intelligentsia, with respected standing as Confucian scholars, resented the missionaries and began agitating against them. When another group of foreigners unconnected with the mission passed through the city, a rumor circulated that they had kidnapped and killed 24 children. The result was a frenzy of hatred against all foreigners, including Taylor and his family. A mob attacked the mission compound, and the missionaries barely escaped with their lives. Within a short while, however, despite the danger, they returned and resumed their work. Their bravery and friendly spirit melted the suspicions of the Chinese people, and from then on, the mission prospered. Here is a good example of risk-taking being the secret of success.

Principle 4/ The ultimate goal of Christian service is to build a body of believers notable for love.

Here are some tests of whether a church is a loving church.

  1. Is it hospitable (Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:8-9; Rom. 12:13)? When I was young, my parents met socially with Christians in the neighborhood, in our church, and in other churches. But in a typical church today, Christians come together only at actual church functions. People are enslaved by that ogre, time pressure. We need to break his back.
  2. Are the people helpful in times of crisis? One church we attended excelled in this form of compassion. When anyone's life was sidetracked by a severe trial, the ladies provided meals. We ourselves went through a difficult time during my mother's last year of life, which she spent mainly in hospitals and other care facilities. Our church family visited her constantly.
  3. Are they friendly? One Sunday during my childhood, my father decided out of curiosity to drive into the country and attend a Mennonite church. Inside the church no one spoke to us. But as soon as we went out the door, several families besieged us and insisted that we go home with them for Sunday dinner. We accepted one invitation and made our way to a comfortable house nearby. There, we not only enjoyed a sumptuous meal, but also an afternoon of lively conversation and warm fellowship. When we see visitors at our churches, do we invite them to dinner?
  4. Rather than being competitive, are they interested in promoting each other's gifts? Another church we know about is outstanding in this respect. Although blessed with many good pianists, it is free of rivalry. They all share the duties of playing, and they do it without friction or jealousy.

Why is it so important to be a loving church? Because love is the proof our faith is genuine (John 13:35). If we are not loving, we have no right to expect that people will see us as the place where God dwells, because God is love.