A Christian Response to Refugees: Compassion

by Benjamin Misja on December 2, 2015

This post is not about ISIS or a response to or defense of radical Islam. Neither should it be understood as a commentary on the political question of whether we should let more Syrian refugees enter the country or not. A few considerations regarding this question will be presented at the end. The bulk of this article will deal with a believer’s personal attitude towards refugees, not with politics.

What Christians ought to think about refugees is abundantly clear in at least one regard: “Loving our neighbors” refers to everybody, and that includes refugees. Having love for them means that we have compassion for them.

“Compassion” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Or, in the definition of my Bible software, compassion is “a deep awareness of and sympathy for another’s suffering.”

Compassion, it seems, is love with a desire to put it to action.

The Place of Compassion in the Bible

The Bible is very tender-hearted toward those who are helpless either because they are poor, orphaned or widowed, or foreigners. In ancient Israel, those groups enjoyed special protection under the Law to make sure they were taken care of, not exploited. After all, the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” goes back to the Old Testament (). In the New Testament, love (, ; , , , ) and compassion (Jas 2,5-9, ) are among the most integral attributes of the believer, and signs of true faith. For Jesus, compassion is the definition of love shown to the neighbor, and by extension of loving God and fulfilling the Law (, ).

On the other hand, the NT has very harsh words for those who deny compassion to others (; ).

I think it is clear that the heart of Christ beats for the needy. On a spiritual level, our need and lostness was the reason why he came to Earth in the first place. There is no room for emotional coldness in the Body of Christ ().

The Christian Response to Refugees and its Intersection with Politics

Coming from the heart of Christ, we should be deeply moved by the suffering of refugees. Any Christian response to refugees must be nothing but kind and compassionate.

I have seen some Christians post articles to Facebook that celebrate all the states that aren’t going to welcome any refugees. That is not a compassionate response. It is driven by fear and, in some cases, prejudice.

As respected evangelical leader Kevin DeYoung said: “The Christian response is compassion not fear, which means that Rick Snyder (my governor) is likely wrong, if not immoral, to suspend efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan.”

Yet I have even heard some believers argue that we cannot use our Christian compassion to determine the place of refugees in the US. This is true in the very limited sense that our compassion, or the Bible, cannot answer this question for us. But that is very different from saying that we should not let the Bible speak on the matter. This is simply not an exegetical question, but one of political ethics.

In other words, answering the question of “What is the right thing to do in politics?” depends on several factors, of which Christian theology and ethics are only one. However, within Christian ethics, the principle of loving our neighbors is so important that whoever neglects it is abandoning the heart of Christianity. Christians cannot discuss political ethics and not be driven by deep compassion as they do. Put differently, Christians can never support politics that are devoid of compassion. (For a thoughtful piece on compassion and politics, read DeYoung’s piece mentioned above. Also read Russell Moore on how Christians should think about the threat of ISIS.)

Christians, Fear and Refugees in our Country

What is more, Christians should never make political demands that are based on fear. A German saying goes, “Fear is a bad counselor.” Acting in fear usually gives the boot to rational and unbiased thinking. Fear is the enemy of compassion. But perfect love drives out fear (). Nothing can threaten our salvation in Christ, and that is all that matters ().

Among other things, this means we ought not to be afraid of an entire group just because we suspect danger from individual members. (This fear is probably unfounded, too.) Rather, just as Christ did in his earthly ministry despite those who were seeking his life, we should show love to the entire group. And as Christ disregarded and ultimately lost his own life in the process, we are called to carry our crosses and follow him (, ). The Christian’s place is right there with the poor and needy – God’s sovereignty will take care of the rest. Like Paul, we should be able to say that Christ should be glorified, whether we live or die (). (Of course I am speaking in principle. Helping refugees shouldn’t be more dangerous than other kingdom activities, as European believers attest.)

Open Doors’ German branch recently published an open letter to the Church in the West. It quotes different pastors from the Middle-East who encourage us to take advantage of this unique chance that God has given us to witness to muslims. These believers are used to seeing things from God’s perspective. And in that perspective, our security and well-being isn’t what matters most. Thankfully, many Western Christians see it the same way.

When we celebrate governors who would close their doors, we are not seeing things from God’s perspective. We are no longer motivated by compassion, we are motivated by our fears.

When we are afraid at the idea of refugees in the United States, we are like Peter who, walking on water by his faith, looked away from Jesus and sunk. It is worldly, not spiritual.

The Good Samaritan wasn’t concerned about the risk that the robbers posed, he helped anyway. Jonah had very similar concerns about the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was an important city in the Assyrian empire, which had devastated Israel. Yet God used the most drastic means to take him there and call them to repentance.

When epidemics got many people sick, the early Christians would make it a point to take care of all the sick, not just their own. There are Roman writers on record who express their astonishment at this highly unusual behavior. Can you imagine what a testimony this was? Likewise, Christians today should go and serve the poor, the stranger and refugees wherever we find them. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Should We Let In More Refugees? A Hard Question

So, should we let more refugees into the US? I probably can’t give a qualified answer to that question. But generally speaking, it seems to me there are several ways in which our country could show compassion.

As a German national and as a believer, I am proud of how Germany has been welcoming the stranger. But the uncontrolled influx of migrants has created massive problems as well. Time will tell how things will work out, but I am convinced that this act of kindness will not be forgotten.

Fortunately, the United States are in a more comfortable situation. Unlike many European nations, the US are clearly in control over the amount of refugees we accept. We get to decide how we want to be involved. It might not be a good idea to bring more refugees into the country. Especially when so many people can only seem to see them as potential terrorists. We have been funding humanitarian causes all over the world for a long time. I imagine few would blame us if we chose to support efforts in other countries.

Regardless of how we stand on this issue: As Christians, the only thing we cannot do is lose our compassion.


For further reading:

Update: Two expressions in this article have been changed for clarity and accuracy, along with some minor wording changes in the links section. We regret that we did not notice these earlier on in our editorial process. Our intention was to challenge with the gospel and nothing else. As always, we are open to your feedback. Thanks for being understanding, folks! 🙂

18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (ESV)

13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (ESV)

18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

1 John 4:16

16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (ESV)

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (ESV)

14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (ESV)

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (ESV)

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (ESV)

17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

1 John 4:12

12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (ESV)

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 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. 35 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (ESV)

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (ESV)

14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.

1 John 4:8

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (ESV)

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (ESV)

14 Let all that you do be done in love. (ESV)

18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (ESV)

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

Romans 8:39

39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (ESV)

And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (ESV)

1:1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (ESV)

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This post was written by Benjamin Misja