The View from 40 years in campus ministry Part 1 of 5: The Heart of the Minister

Rick Mattson Devotion, Leadership 24 Comments

I began my career with InterVarsity in 1981. I’d like to share some personal and ministry observations from a 40-year viewpoint.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

A few years ago a college student accused me of lacking in compassion. She may have been right.

Navigating my way through the events of that moment, I remember walking a tightrope between truth and compassion, and truth won out.

To my thinking the gospel isn’t about compassion per se, that is, compassion by itself. It’s about grace and truth.

And yet, many young people on campus are committed to compassion as an endpoint. Compassion tends to win out over any other value.

The first chapter of John’s Gospel paints a somewhat different picture. Here we learn that the Son of God is “full of grace and truth.” And in John 14, Jesus describes himself as “the truth.” In 1 John 4 we read that “God is love.”

Ephesians 5 bids us to “speak the truth in love.”

I’m looking for balance: a balance between something subjective and heart-felt on the one hand, and something objective and solid on the other.

The biblical balance is right down the middle: grace AND truth (or, love AND truth. Either will do.).

It could be argued that grace without truth is mere sentimentality. And truth without grace is legalism. A mistake can be made on either side.

Back to the student’s remark about my lacking in compassion . . . I took it to heart. Compassion really is a necessary part of grace in the ministerial balance. May it be so of me, Lord Jesus.

Next post, 40 years part 2: The Heart of Your Calling.

Comments 24

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  1. Rick,

    Our son Mark was President of his IV group at the U of MN approx 1983-86.
    I’m sure that your work with the youth choir at the Marshall Free Church had made quite an impression on him.

    Susan Anderson

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  2. Gosh I remember you being very compassionate to us back in the mid-1990’s. I always felt ok being honest with you:). Glad you are still on campus – I miss it but we get on MSU-M’s campus as often as possible!

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      Never too late to grow in compassion!

      I’m so glad to have worked with you and many cool students at Hamline, Sandi.

  3. Reading this now is so interesting because I am teaching a Disciple training group on this very topic of Grace and Truth. In our world today that is a hard road to deal with. Sharon Conrad

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  4. Thanks Rick. Looking forward to the series. Connie says I have compassion at the strangest times under the strangest circumstances. So… least I have some! This post will make me work on having it more often.

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      Craig, glad to hear it’s in there somewhere! One of my golf partners said to me the other day, “Rick, have some compassion!”, after I assured him his ball was in the pond . . .

  5. Rick,

    I appreciate your perspective regarding Truth and compassion as seemingly contrary positions. However, there is no ultimate compassion apart from sharing the truth. I can appreciate the difficulty of articulating an apologetic position without causing an individual to feel bad, but anything less than the truth would minimize the power of the gospel message. A couple of passages that I would find as helpful in this discussion –

    2 Tim 2:22-26 Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all , apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth: And they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.

    In this passage, the heart of anyone sharing the gospel must be a directed by the Holy Spirit and not in our own effort. Since the Christian’s position is that of being “In Christ” and one with Him, we should be led in our interactions by the Spirit of God (John 15:4-5). Jesus was one with the Father and able to say that He did nothing apart from the direction of the Father (John 5:19-20). We are told by Jesus that we bear His work (sharing truth) and do the same works as He did (John 14:12). Our compassion is that we have a love for the lost and do not want to see them judged based on their faulty human wisdom/works. We want them to become new creations in Christ and experience the fullness of that divine work.

    One thing I do not hear much about in the pulpit anymore is that there is a judgement coming. We find it easy to preach the grace of God during this age of grace, but we often do not inform our listeners that there is also a judgement coming. In Luke 4:16-24, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 about the acceptable year of the Lord. However, He did not complete the prophecy at that time which refers to the “vengeance of our God”. It does not sound very compassionate to mention vengeance, but it is clearly communicated elsewhere in the new testament, and to fail to communicate the whole truth minimizes the message. As I see the words of Revelation (The time of Jacobs trouble and judgment on an unbelieving world) already casting their shadows upon our current time, it is important that we are trumpeters of the truth!

    Jude 1:23
    But you, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.

    There are different types of motivations for individuals, and the Holy Ghost is the Instructor of how to minister to them – some with sensitivity and others with a hard, difficult message.

    Sorry for being so long-winded!


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      Hey Tim, thanks for engaging the topic. I can see you still love to dig into Scripture!

      I’m hoping not to say that compassion and truth are contrary positions, but rather, complimentary values for proper Christian practice. That point is illustrated in the description of Jesus as being “full of grace and truth.” Yes, both/and. So I agree with your statement that there is no ultimate compassion without sharing the truth. A false compassion serves no one, and I’d argue that a dry legalistic truth without the love of God behind it also misses the mark. That seems to be the point of the 2 Timothy 22-26 passage, where the Lord’s servant must be gentle, patient, meek, etc., while still committed to the truth.

      As for preaching the coming judgment in church, seems like there’s been a reaction against “hell-fire and brimstone” preaching from a prior generation, and now it’s gone missing altogether. One of my friends was recently criticized for including God’s judgments in his preaching. The critics said he failed to properly contextualize for the intended audience. I’d have to say that the truth of the gospel precedes any contextualizing; it can’t be the other way around. That is, we can’t build the gospel around context. The gospel has its own built-in judgments and we ignore these to our peril.

      Hey thanks again for reading and responding! Blessings back to you.

  6. Rick, as I read tyour blog, I am with old IVCF colleagues of ours, Bill Syrios, Bill Ditewig, and Don & Cathy Baker. we are meeting in Plano, TX, to write Bible study guides to go with the TV series, The Chosen. Great Stuff, I hope this could be part of your evangelism training at Harvard. Good to pair the film with Scipture, to bring out a full dimensional Jesus. May many more follow him, thanks to your training

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  7. Hey Rick,

    First I simply want to say congratulations on 40 years of IVCF ministry. That is quite an accomplishment in and of itself! I am grateful that I have had a ringside seat to your work for the last 31 of those years. Your friendship and partnership all these years has been one of the great gifts of my ministry time in the Twin Cities. Thank you for being such a great friend and partner in the work of the Kingdom!

    As it happens, I am doing a ministry weekend up in Northwest Minnesota and I was just sharing this morning about the necessity of speaking the truth in love, the double-edged sword that the Spirit uses to bring forth life. Our larger topic was on the Kingdom of God and how we as his people, the church, participate in extending the kingdom through the Word, Works, and Wonders. We need to proclaim the truth, practically act with love, and invite His power to confirm His truth and love. When we re-present Christ in this balanced way, His Kingdom will indeed grow! Thank you for representing the King and His kingdom well on campuses in the Twin Cities and all over the country. Through your labors His kingdom has grown and you have much fruit that will remain! Well done friend!!

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  8. Not an unbiased observer. Very proud of the work you’ve done and who you’ve become. You’ve influenced my spiritual life as much or more than anyone, so I’m grateful brother! Great to read the discussion & all the comments from your friends and mentors of many years!

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  9. You always write a pithy, prudent, helpful post, Rick. Compassion and Truth…the perfect marriage. Well stated.

    40 years! I’ve had the privilege of being ‘there’ from the beginning. What a blessing you are in my life.

    Congrats, brother!

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  10. I’m proud to have a dad who has given so much of his life to advancing the kingdom of God! A legacy we are all proud of

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