Compassion Fatigue and the Local Church

In his recent, highly recommended book called You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News, theologian Kelly Kapic argues that human beings, contrary to predominant cultural messages, should learn to embrace our limitations with joy. He shows how many of our problems arise from stubborn refusal to submit to our status as creatures. We want to be gods, but we can’t handle the pressure. We weren’t made to be gods.

Toward the end of the book, Kapic argues that the local church is uniquely equipped to remind us of our limitations as creatures. The church teaches us to depend upon others and reminds us that we can’t do it alone. The church stands as a perpetual reminder that God has gifted other people in ways he has not gifted us and that we desperately need those gifted people. The church helps us to see that we can’t do it all even as it pushes us toward those whose partnership enables us to do more.

Have you ever felt the overwhelming burden that comes from realizing that there are innumerable needs in the world and that there’s no way you can be personally involved in alleviating even most of them? Have you ever felt that tinge of guilt arise in your heart as the sign-up sheet gets passed around for the new ministry to the needy and you realize there’s simply no way that you can add another commitment to your already packed schedule?

Kapic calls this experience “compassion fatigue.” No matter how hard we try, there will always be new ministry needs. No matter how compassionate we intend to be, there will always be reminders that our compassion is limited. How do we process this jarring realization?

Kapic notes that some fight this experience by shrinking the church’s mission. For some, the church’s domain is limited to the souls of men. We need to preach the gospel and tell sinners how to go to heaven when they die. What happens during a person’s seventy or some odd years on this earth pales in comparison to eternity. We need to focus on saving souls.

The problem with this perspective is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t allow us to be unconcerned with the widow or the orphan or the poor. “Blessed are the merciful” stands as a banner over God’s people. The oppressed call out for justice. Our neighbors must be loved, and while we cannot love them fully without pointing them to Jesus for salvation, our gospel proclamation makes little sense when we refuse to relieve temporal suffering. Jesus calls us to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner (Matthew 25:37-40).

So, how do we deal with “compassion fatigue”? How do we process that nagging tension that, no matter how hard we try, we as individuals are no match for the need that surrounds us? We simply can’t alleviate all the suffering, no matter how hard we try.

The answer, Kapic argues, is found in the church. We miss this when we read our Bibles because we have been taught that the dominant way to read our Bibles is as individuals. We forget that the Bible was written to the people of God. Paul’s letters and even the gospels were written to churches. The earliest Christians didn’t even have their own Bibles; they would gather and read the Scriptures together. (They also had a different Greek word for the second person plural pronoun, but that’s another matter. It, at least, proves that we need to use ‘y’all’ if we want to speak biblically).

Consider this: it takes the whole church together to live as the single body of Christ. Jesus doesn’t call you as an individual to alleviate every need; he calls the church. There will be people in the church who resonate deeply with the plight of refugees and others who want to start prison ministries and still others who want to help recovering addicts. My participation in these ministries comes, not always by personal hands-on involvement, but by my participation in the single body of Christ.

This discovery has many implications, but one obvious one is that I can’t expect everyone else in the church to share my personal commitments at the same level. I must realize that this diversity is a good thing. I should rejoice that there are others working toward good goals, and I must trust Christ to distribute the gifts of the Spirit at his own discretion.

Finally, be at peace knowing that Christ is the Messiah, not you. You can’t save anyone, but Christ has called you to point people to the true Messiah in partnership with brothers and sisters who will pick up your slack.

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