by Phil Tuttle
I was hanging out with some friends one night when we were in high school, and we decided to go get some pizza. A good friend of mine was old enough to have her driver’s license, so, of course, she drove.
When we finished eating and came out of the restaurant, we noticed she had a flat tire. “We’ll take care of this,” a couple of us guys confidently volunteered. It didn’t seem to matter that I had no idea how to change a tire. I wanted to help.
She had a weird jack that you twisted instead of pumped up and down, so I rifled through her glove compartment in search of an owner’s manual. (Like I said, I’m not very handy.) As I was looking, I came across an envelope with her name on it. It said, “In case of an accident, read this.”
That’s pretty weird, I thought. But this was in the same ballpark as an accident, so I opened the envelope. Then my conscience caught up with the fact that the envelope had her name on it, so I handed it to her. “Hey, you better open this,” I said.
She pulled out a note, read it, and then started to cry and handed it to a couple of us. Under the lights of the parking lot, we could barely make it out. “If you are reading this,” it said, “it probably means you’ve been in an accident. And you’re probably wondering now what’s going to happen when you call and tell me that you’ve wrecked the car. I just want you to know that a car can be repaired, and if it can’t be repaired, it can be replaced. But you’re the only daughter I have, and if you’re okay and you’re reading this, then this is really a great day after all. So please don’t be afraid to call me. Let’s get this fixed. I love you, Dad.”
That’s a great illustration of how a parent’s compassion focuses on the person, not the behavior. In the story of the Prodigal Son, when did the father feel compassion? Before the son confessed. Even before the father could verify his son’s repentance, his love overflowed. I’m sure he had hopes for complete repentance, but he really didn’t know. In fact, he didn’t even know after the son said all the right things, because words are easy when someone is as hungry as the son was. But it was encouraging just to see the boy come home. His father chose to focus on him, not his behavior.
Jesus demonstrated this. “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them” (Matthew 9:36). Why? Was it because they were so repentant? Because they were so righteous, or because they were really good people? No, none of that is even mentioned. He had compassion because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.
Mark 6:34 adds an interesting detail: “So he began teaching them many things.” The pattern is that compassion is the internal feeling that prompts us to take action. Whether that’s giving to the poor, ministering to those who are hurting, teaching, forgiveness, giving a hug, writing a note, or making a call, compassion shows itself in what we do.
The hard part for a parent is navigating that tension between our compassion for our children and allowing them to experience the consequences of their actions. We want them to learn discipline without short-circuiting the process with mercy. At the same time, we’re filled with compassion. Sometimes a situation calls for grace.
How do we know when to enforce discipline and when to mercifully withhold it? I believe that’s the job of the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us. When we’re filled with compassion, that may be a signal that it’s time for grace. It’s His way of specifically directing us. Our sense of compassion is often a prompt from Him.
Regardless of the situation, we need to remember: discipline focuses on a child’s behavior, but compassion is deeper. It focuses on the person. If we follow the model of the prodigal’s father—and the father of my friend with a flat tire—we’ll remember which is the greater priority.
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Phil Tuttle is the President of Walk Thru the Bible International