The logic is startling. As a product of church and Bible and about five decades of Christian education, it is not based on any ethic I have ever known.

Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director, explains our nation’s new “compassion” this way: “We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs. We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off of those programs to get back in charge of their own lives.”

What I hear in this is, “Once you no longer need our compassion, once you are self-sufficient and successful, once you look more like us, then we’ll recognize you.” This may be one way to look at success, but it doesn’t reflect compassion as I understand that heart-felt, gut-wrenching emotion.

I understand the desire to incentivize work. I understand that systems of welfare can create cycles of poverty. We could do a much better job helping the down-and-out, but we won’t get there by starting with the finished product.

We don’t start with success. We start with the people who are before us and in need of our help. We recognize them, measure the people who are broken down by a system that values money and power and success, more than it values them.

Compassion doesn’t start with success. Compassion starts by measuring the people who are in need, and by investing our own time and energy and money in their lives. Success is an investment in our own need. Compassion is an investment in people, the actual lives of our neighbors, and inspires us to give of ourselves to make a difference.

Put into practice, on a national scale taking the shape of policies, compassion looks like “programs” to help the poor. We ought to measure programs to help the poor. And if we are people of compassion, we ought to create as many programs as it takes to help the poor, and we ought to measure the success of these programs, devoting ourselves to improving them until they have brought the change to the people for whom they were created.

Yes, there is a danger inherent in bureaucracy. The danger is that insidious sin that allows the institution or the program to become more important than the problem it was created to alleviate. But the greater problem would be to invest in success, in order to pat ourselves on the back, and to miss many of the actual people in the process.

When we invest in success, we always have to wonder whose success we’re actually measuring. When we invest in people, we can always know we have put first things first.

Compassion is “only people first.” You cannot change the definition and expect to have any real success in the end.