Misguided Compassion

Apr 26, 2007 |Candice Watters

Though they might seem compassionate, some singles ministries are actually more of a hindrance.

Dear Local Church,
I, and a group of single friends, am planning a citywide Christian singles mixer. We'd like your help passing the word on. You probably know some singles who may be interested in meeting other local Christian singles.

So began a request made by one of my friends to some large churches in her city. An opportunity for fellow single believers to meet one another in a classy setting with married chaperones (according to the event's website). So far, so good. When I first heard about the event, I remembered how hard it was to meet like-minded believers when I was single and thought how much I would have appreciated this.

Her request continued,

This mixer is an event designed for Christian singles ... to meet and possibly develop relationships with intent to marry.... This is a great opportunity to meet other Christian singles in our area and why not make the most of every opportunity?

Although most of the churches agreed to at least let their singles group members know about the event, one church declined even that.

A member of that group's leadership team replied:

"[We have] been very deliberate in making our group not a hook up time and finding joy and fulfillment in our singleness, so we would not be comfortable endorsing an event advertising as a place to 'meet and possibly develop relationships with intent to marry.' Thank you for thinking of us and wanting to include us. We would be interested in possibly networking with other singles ministries in the area though, so keep us in mind for that."

I believe the gal who wrote this is a good-willed person trying to do what's best for her singles group. I suspect she thinks this is the compassionate response. In her defense, she's got a lot of company in her way of thinking. A quick look at the messages coming out of most singles groups, Christian books for singles and singles websites and blogs reveals a common theme:

"If God wants you married," they reason, "He'll make it happen. If you try to make it happen, you'll risk upsetting God's will for your life. Be the best single you can be and leave the rest to Him."

On their face, these comments and others like them sound like good advice. Especially when you consider how many men and women find themselves still single beyond their expectations through no apparent fault of their own. Maybe they live in a small town with no good prospects. Maybe the women gave their best years to guys who, in the end, couldn't — or wouldn't — commit. Maybe the guys wanted to get married but their girlfriends were more interested in advanced degrees and career building. Maybe they're unlucky in love or have physical characteristics that make them unattractive to the opposite sex.

It's natural to want to respond sympathetically to friends who are trying to serve God in their singleness while fielding intrusive questions like, "Why aren't you married yet?" Our natural reaction — after agreeing that yes, the person who asked that question is an idiot — is compassion. We want to encourage them in their circumstances. We want them to know they are loved and complete in God's eyes just as they are.

But these responses get compassion only partly right.

Compassion, as defined on Wikipedia, is a "sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering." The entry continues, "Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one's own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion."

It's not enough to feel sorry for someone. That's sympathy, not compassion. Compassion requires action. The classic example of the Good Samaritan shows that feeling bad about someone's plight isn't enough.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, "Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back."

We don't know what the priest and the Levite who passed the beaten, robbed traveler on the other side of the road were thinking — they may have felt really sorry for him. All we have to go on, however, is their actions. And in the end, actions are what Jesus graded, telling his audience to "go and do likewise" [emphasis mine].

Anything less is worthless; mere words. James wrote, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?"

This Biblical model of compassion — both thoughts and actions — motivates many singles who volunteer their time and talents to serve those in need, at a rate higher than any generation in recent memory. Yet when it comes to their need — 86 percent of singles say they would like to be married — those in a position to help them are conspicuously unhelpful.

Seeing the anxiety many singles express about not finding a spouse, parents, church leaders and friends often feel sympathetic. Those who are married think back to how lonely and discouraged they felt at times. They want to alleviate the anxiety. But the popular pattern for doing so too often seems to be downplaying the importance of marriage and over-valuing the single years. Thinking it's the compassionate thing to do, people will tell their single friends, "Marriage can't meet all your needs, only God can" or "Don't be so anxious about pursuing marriage, it will happen if it's God's will" and "Just be content in your singleness, enjoy this prime time of your life."

These statements have elements of truth. But they lack the key element of true compassion that singles desiring marriage need because they don't provide any practical help. It's much easier to offer compassionate-sounding comments than to do the hard work of helping someone marry well in an anti-marriage culture. It's not easy to talk through the struggles of wanting marriage after growing up in a broken home, to coach through growth areas, to offer a shoulder after a difficult breakup, to encourage a possible match, to provide accountability for someone struggling with sexual temptation. But those are the kinds of practical help singles need.

Author Debbie Maken writes:

"For all our pretense of establishing a kinder, gentler, more modern interpretation of singleness — so that singles don't 'feel bad' — our tepid response to suffering singles is based on our own convenience, not true compassion. Unfortunately, the modern church's muddled preaching and counterproductive singles 'ministries' keep unmarried Christians from attaining God's revealed will for them."

What about that ill-served group of singles at the church whose leadership wouldn't even let them know about an event for meeting other believers — for the purpose of "possibly developing relationships with the intent to marry"? Thankfully they found out about it anyway and participated in greater proportion than any of the other churches represented.

It sounds like what that group — and so many others just like it — needs, is a little true compassion.

Copyright 2007 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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