By Brad Beless
I would describe myself as an emotionally steady person. There are times that this can be of great value, but there are times that would truly benefit from the outpouring of raw emotion and feeling, at which my even-keeled nature seems more like emotional flatline.
Marriage--and now parenting--have made me increasingly more aware of my deficiencies for compassion and empathy. Now having moved to South Sudan to work in humanitarian aid and discipleship ministry, I continue to recognize this deficiency in my life.
For example, earlier this month I was guided to a village by motorbike to speak with the elders about their need for a water well. When I asked them how long it currently took to fetch water, he looked up at the sun (judging it to be about midday), and responded by telling me that the women had left at first light that morning, and still had not returned back from their trip to get water. And this is for water that has a good potential of making them sick!
Now, I know my reaction should have been intense compassion and empathy for their dire situation. But instead, as more and more of these direct and pointed requests for water wells have come my way, I find myself looking for an out, like wanting to press the ‘delete’ button on an email instead of intentionally diving into each person’s situation and responding with compassion and care.
I would not diagnose myself with compassion fatigue just yet, but I can understand the reasons it can occur and the paralyzing effects it can cause on ministry. So understanding my deficiencies and fearing the slippery slope towards emotional flatline, I have begun meditating how to guard against compassion fatigue.
During His ministry on earth, Jesus was met with a relentless onslaught of needy requests. Despite this, Matthew 9 details how Jesus went around healing the sick and answering questions in place after place, and “when He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them…” (vs. 36a).
How did Jesus guard against compassion fatigue?
Matthew 14 sheds more light on Jesus’ methods. At a moment of intense sadness due to the loss of John the Baptist, it says that Jesus withdrew on a boat to a desolate place to be by himself. It was after this time alone that Jesus felt compassion on a crowd of needy people and healed their sick and fed over 5,000 people a meal. Again, in Luke 5, we find Jesus intentionally spending time alone to refocus and pray.
Time alone to pray and seek God is the method of guarding against compassion fatigue that Jesus models over and over again. The closer I am to God and the more aligned my heart is with His, the greater capacity I have at demonstrating Christ like love and compassion to everyone around.
I have a long way to go and much to improve on, but holding firm to Christ the Rock is the best guard against compassion fatigue there is!