It may feel fulfilling to write a check to bring relief to the hurting or to spend part of a day packing meals to help feed the desperately hungry, but one church is challenging believers to take compassion to another level – until it hurts.
"People like to give out of their excess ... without changing their lifestyle at all," said Darren Whitehead, teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., on Sunday. "When people give out of their excess, they're not actually bearing the burden at all."
Teaching from the classic parable of the Good Samaritan, Whitehead revealed to thousands of congregants the kind of compassion Jesus was teaching – the kind that "actually costs us something."
"This kind of compassion actually inconveniences our lives, it costs our money and our attention and our time, it may even hurt or alter our lifestyle," he said.
Sunday's sermon was the kick-off to Willow Creek's annual Celebration of Hope, a three-week initiative that lobbies the 22,000-member church to identify with the poor, give and get involved with helping relieve global poverty.
Last year, the megachurch helped feed 10,000 children in Zimbabwe for a year and raised $356,000 which was directed to the church's partners in Africa and Latin America. Additionally, thousands of Willow Creek attendees reduced their meals to rice, beans and tap water for five days to identify with the millions of people who don't have access to clean water or much food.
While thousands participated in the challenge, Whitehead wants Willow "Creekers" this year to give and serve with authentic compassion and to be motivated not by guilt but by gratitude.
"Giving out of excess is not really compassion," Whitehead said. "Many people are motivated toward acts of compassion by morality (whether secular or religious)."
"Here's the problem," he highlighted. "When the need escalates to where people actually have to sacrifice ... [and] change their lifestyle, people motivated by guilt or morality are just simply not prepared to do it. So they don't."
"If you're feeling guilty because you're not giving enough or serving enough, just stop," Whitehead said bluntly. "Your feeling of guilt will not produce the kind of compassion that Jesus is talking about."
As revealed in the New Testament, Jesus revealed an act of compassion that came at a significant cost to the Samaritan. Stopping on the road to help a man attacked by robbers not only cost him his time, attention and at least two days worth of wages but the Samaritan also risked his life and his reputation. The victim was likely a Jew and Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other at that time.
Whitehead drew attention to the Gospel revealed in the parable.
"We have been left helpless in our state of sin and through an extravagant act of undeserved compassion and at great cost, Jesus saved us from certain death," he said.
Challenging Willow Creekers to step up their compassion, Whitehead posed, "Are you going to be a part of this to the point where it starts to hurt a little bit, where a part of the burden starts to fall on you personally?"
This year's Celebration of Hope is themed "Hunger and Thirst" and encourages participants to take the five-day challenge of eating rice, beans, oatmeal and tap water; help pack 4 million meals for children in Zimbabwe; and donate funds to fight global hunger and thirst.