Cross-Centered Compassion or Human Sympathy?: 'When is it mercy and when is it enabling?'

When Mercy Goes Bad

Cross-centered Compassion

Every virtue’s extreme is a vice. Church folklore abounds with horror stories of the manipulative and corrupt use of charismatic gifts, such as prophecy or the so-called “power” gifts.  Yet much damage is often done to people by the misuse of another grace endowment. It is often the least recognizable for abuse.  Its misuse has high potential to destroy and divide a faith community. It is the gift of mercy/compassion.

In its mature, sanctified, and crucified  form, mercy/compassion (hereafter abbreviated: m/c) is a vital manifestation of the life of Christ.  Without sanctified m/c there would be no hospitals, nurses, doctors, nursing homes, hospices, counselors, and care-giving of  the elderly, the infirm, the weak, or the disabled. People would be left to cry alone. That is not Jesus’ kingdom.

I have seen individuals with the genuine gift exercise this grace magnificently. The seemingly effortless and instantaneous way they connect with those hurting or suffering under the effects of sin or disease, is simply awesome to watch.  Those m/c folks are good at it! (As they should be as it is the merciful Christ in them!) It makes sense! They are supernaturally enabled to do it! 

However, I know only a few people who possess the genuine gift and exercise it correctly, with wisdom, in a full-spectrum, kingdom way. Most folks think that just being a nice, caring person is exercising the gift of mercy. Cultists can be nice, caring, people. That doesn’t mean they are manifesting a gift of the Spirit.  Now, at a mere human level, there can never be too much compassion! But we must not confuse just being a nice person (which the world can use more of) with the supernatural gift of mercy.

In many relational and local church environments I have watched as the unsanctified and unwise gift of mercy undermines the work of the Spirit to align people with the Crucified One and His cross.  But because mercy “feels good” its improper exercise is given a pass, whereas the improper exercise of other gifts, such as prophecy or power gifts, is met with indignation and a demand that “something be done about it.”

The Perils in Mercy

Below, listed in no order of priority, are some perils associated with this gift that we need to be aware of.


This gift is difficult to differentiate from simple human empathy, sympathy, and pity.  The biblical gift is a grace endowment, not an inherent quality of human nature.  The genuine gift is completely unrelated to personality types and demeanors.  If simply being a kind, soft-spoken, gentle and  caring person identifies someone as having the gift, how is that person, or his/her organization, any different than the fraternal lodges and secular benevolence organizations that abound in the world?  Whatever the legitimate gift is, its essence must be “pneumatic”—it must possess, a spirit quality, and it must derive it’s essence from the cross and resurrection of Christ. 

The gifts of the Spirit are qualities found only in new creation beings. The old creation (Adamic) nature can have many good qualities (from the tree of the knowledge of GOOD and evil), but the old creation nature cannot manifest the quality of life of the new creation. That includes the gift of mercy and compassion. Since the Spirit always bears witness to the Son/Word and His Cross/Resurrection, we can identify the genuine gift by 1 John 3:18[1].

Merely caring is not enough.  Merely loving in action is not enough.  We must care and love in truth.  It is the truth element that separates the genuine gift from mere human sympathies.  A mature mercy gift will never compromise truth in the name of caring.  A sure way to recognize someone who does not have the genuine gift,  is to observe his/her responses and reactions to the demands of abiding in truth.  Frequently, such an individual will relationally withdraw,  separate, or be uncooperative  rather than allow truth, as well as mercy and grace,  to have its full course in human relationships.


Individuals with a strong m/c gift can be  possessive in their friendships. They can develop (consciously or unconsciously) relationships which view others (particularly dependent new converts or disciples) as their personal property—spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically.   They jealously guard their relationships and view overtures from others, especially those without the m/c, gift as intrusions into the relationship for which they deem themselves uniquely and singularly, qualified.  The cultivation of relational intimacy is often at the expense of others. Relational intimacy can be psychologically intoxicating and the root of cliques within a community.


The m/c gift is inherently attractive to the weak and hurting. It is easy for soulish alliances and political cabals to form around a strong m/c gift under the guise of caring more than others (particularly leaders).  This includes being particularly vulnerable to picking up and taking others offenses. People with the unsanctified gift can tend to view  themselves in a role of “advocacy” for the downtrodden, that is not born of the Spirit.  While ambition may fuel an insurrection,  caring is  the political front which makes rebellion and sedition appeal to undiscerning people as a spiritual quality.


Associated with political tendencies, m/c individuals can struggle to fellowship at length with people who do not share the same gift or motivation.  A high m/c individual can view those not sharing  the gift as intensely as he or she might, as insensitive and uncaring–not worthy to be around.  They will readily separate and break fellowship with other believers, thoroughly convinced they are right in doing so because, after all, Jesus’ ultimate virtue is that of caring. 

This is of course, untrue. Just like any of the gifts and grace endowments, an m/c individual must realize he or she has only a portion of the multifaceted nature of Christ.  M/C individuals frequently struggle with feelings of insecurity and inferiority and are easily intimidated by other confident and direct people. They will withdraw from such in  ungodly reactions and hide in the familiarity of their insecurities.


Controlling and meddlesome busybodies attempt to extend their control spirit beyond appropriate boundaries under the guise of “caring, mercy, or compassion.”  In many cases, they frequently cannot allow the sovereign purposes of God in individual’s life to be accomplished, particularly when those plans involve pain, suffering, difficulty, or discipline.  In their meddlesome ways, they frequently work and release soulish energy contrary to the purposes of the Cross and discipleship in an individual’s life. 

In the name of caring, they  actually work against the Caring One and His agenda. The release of illegitimate sympathies toward individuals who are either reaping the harvest of their own carnalities, or being “child-trained” by our loving Father, is not the gift of mercy.  It is out-of-control human sympathy operating with a control spirit.


The m/c gift rightly aligns itself with perceived need, but frequently keeps the object of their mercy in a state of infantile dependency.  An m/c person often struggles  with insecurity issues in which they need to be needed.  By keeping the less fortunate in a dependent state (financial, social, spiritual, or psychological) an illegitimate psychological bond of codependency is formed, rather than healthy self-identity and character development.

New converts and struggling believers are often drawn to people with this gift because it is believed they will find sympathy for their troubles. A person with a sanctified mercy gift will know when to “release” their “disciples” to the influence of other developmental,  training, and growth  gifts in the church . . . and do so gladly.  A mercy gift person must allow the psychological bonds they may have made as a care-giver to be broken, and allow new bonds to be established with a different “growth-giver.” 

These are two complementary, but divergent gifts.  An immature or carnal mercy gift cannot make this transition. It is also a challenge to the disciple to cooperate with the process.  Every one loves their mother, but not many love their drill sergeant . .  . until you have been shot at a few times. The m/c gift is the front door gift of the church.  The hurt and wounded need to be received as a nurse or a doctor would a sick patient: tenderly and with care.

However, a hospital is not a home and it is surely not a barracks.  By design, it is a temporary abode.  A church is supposed to have a hospital front door and a barracks back door: wounded in the front, but soldiers out the back.  It’s common that individuals with a high m/c gift expect churches to be run as eternal hospitals.   It can be very difficult for an m/c individual to release someone from the healing stage of life into the developmental stage.   The  human dynamics associated with this necessary transition can destroy a  local church if the unsanctified, uncontrolled, or ungoverned  m/c gift is present.


Individuals with the m/c gift can be prone to poor judgments and decisions based on emotion rather than the Word, calling, faith, purpose, reason, or destiny.  Moses was unique in his mercy compassion gift as he was able to exercise it, but not surrender the higher mission.  He never so identified with the people in his affections that he lost mission or purpose.  A danger of a high m/c gift is to identify more intensely in the affective realm with the people in their pain, than God in His purposes.  Caring is  God’s purpose, but God’s purpose is not solely caring.


The unsanctified m/c gift frequently opens the  door to problems in sexual arenas.  M/C people are perceived as being caring, understanding, sensitive, etc.  These qualities are very attractive to members of the opposite sex, particularly those going through difficulties with a mate perceived to be insensitive. Everyone loves to be valued and appreciated and a high m/c believer who engages in marital counseling is particularly vulnerable to pick-off if not extremely careful.


I trust this blog provides food for thought. The godly exercise of the m/c gift with wisdom and excellence requires it to be practically and actively (not theoretically and passively) engaged with other gifts in a community, particularly the  “equipping gifts” of Eph. 4:11-13.  It’s interesting that the m/c gift is not listed in the Eph. 4 ascension gifts or the First Corinthian list of charismatic endowments.   It is listed as a “spirit-energizing” in Romans 12. 

Only the indwelling Spirit can help us all to be truthfully merciful, and mercifully truthful. Thank God He is in us to do just that! We need one another.

[1] My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. 

Copyright 2012 Dr. Stephen R. Crosby Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.  For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact

4 comments on “Cross-Centered Compassion or Human Sympathy?: 'When is it mercy and when is it enabling?'

  1. “Slam-dunk home-run!” Going to bed as a shepherd of more than three hundred, we woke up the next morning with about eighty. Our “right-on” but immature leadership team included an immature prophet and an immature m/c guy. Divine tension was too much, and–guess what? The m/c guy had the biggest following. We have all grown since then, and we would all do things much differently than then. You are spot-on!

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