Running on Fumes: Compassion Fatigue

It’s been my experience that those who start to get a solid sense of everything that God has done for them in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are overwhelmed by the realization that everything – literally, every thing – for which they are guilty has been forgiven, wiped off the books forever. One of the more natural outgrowths of a dawning awareness of the goodness of God is a sincere desire to help others, whether believer or unbeliever.

CompassionThe Bible tells us that those truly born of God will have an indwelling desire to serve and love others (1 John 3:11-18). The Bible also tells us that we live in a horribly broken and sinful world (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 14:1-3) and that the majority of people will seek the “wide path” of destruction, regardless of our desires and good intentions. However, as we enter into loving and serving those around us, we can lose sight of the need to hold both of these truths in balance.

In other words, we should enter into the service of another with the full expectation that we will encounter resistance and outright failure of one kind or another. To pin our ministry hopes on the responses of those we serve is a sure-fire means for eventually running out of gas, spiritually speaking.

On May 2nd, my wife and I attended a brief seminar entitled “Compassion Satisfaction and Compassion Fatigue” presented by Walter Coplen of Coplen Christian Counseling held at Alive In Christ Lutheran Church here in Columbia. Speaking for myself, the various reminders and new information presented by Walter were much needed. You would not think that those who serve in various ministry capacities would really need to be reminded every now and then that only Jesus can heal sick souls (Luke 4:16-21), but our fallen hearts are such that as we dive in to helping others, we often slip gradually into the false belief that sickness – and healing – are commodities over which we have power. We don’t.

So should we enter into the lostness and suffering of others? Yes, absolutely. But should we expect that God will heal everyone with whom we come into contact? Of course not! In fact, our expectation should be abject powerlessness. We are entirely unsuited to the business of healing souls, and yet somehow in God’s economy, it makes sense to Him that He should use others in the battle to reclaim what has been lost, squandered and defiled. Does God need us? No. (Acts 17:25; Psalm 50:7-15) Does He invite us to participate? By His grace, He surely does.

One of the more intriguing resources presented by Walter on May 2nd was originally written by the Rev. Samuel Wood of Dawson United Methodist Church in Wichita. While Rev. Wood entitled his list the “Menu of Misconceptions,” I’d like to humbly suggest that a fitting subtitle might be something like “Warning Signs That You Have Lost Sight of Genesis 3.” We are all at risk of approaching a ministerial task with a false sense of Who Christ is, who we are and just how deeply everything we think, say and do is stained by the world, the flesh and the devil (1 John 2:16). Suffice to say that if you find yourself thinking (or perhaps even speaking aloud) any of these sentiments, you are well on your way downhill:

  • I will “fix” this problem…make everything OK…save the world…
  • I am responsible for the outcome.
  • If I just care enough, everything will be OK.
  • The person I am helping will appreciate everything I do for them.
  • I will have enough resources – time, money, material, skills and training – to fix things.
  • Significant people in my life will support and approve my absence from our relationship while I invest in this compassionate mission.
  • I know what I’m getting into.
  • I can do this alone.
  • If I’m just spiritual enough, I can deal with the stress of working with suffering people.
  • My definition of success is…

As Walter read off these statements, I heard myself laughing out loud more than once. It is something of a relief to have someone point out the sheer volume of hubris that can worm its way into our hearts as we are, in fact, used of God to help other people get their lives back in line. Somehow, though, our hearts are so seriously messed up that when God is gracious enough to render healing to someone we love and care for, we subconsciously take credit for what He alone is capable of. One episode like this builds on another, and before you know it we have come to believe that we are pretty well qualified to heal even the worst of sufferers.

What I have found most often to contribute to this evidence of pride is that we neglect to thank God for His intervention.

The Bible tells us that apart from Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). It also tells us that Jesus is even now upholding the entire universe by the Word of His Power (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). In short, if Jesus were to stop thinking of us and speaking life, protection and healing into our world, everything would instantly collapse into a gigantic pile of cosmic ash.

As we step into situations that are fraught with sin, folly and rebellion, I think it’s really wise to review these Scriptures, pray that God would go with us (Exodus 33:15; Deuteronomy 31:6) and surrender “our plan” for the healing and help of even our own hearts, let alone someone else’s. May we always seek His face before, during and after our attempts to help anyone. May we love Him greatly for what He has graciously given and (perhaps more importantly) may we always trust Him with whatever He has chosen to withhold.

Suggested Resources:

Luke 17:11-19 (ESV)
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

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