The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV)
I first came upon the idea of “compassion fatigue” when I was working at a rescue mission. Many times, those who begin serving the poor, marginalized, and wounded because of a true desire to help, after a time become cynical, suspicious, and hardened. Sometimes dealing with difficult situations involves dealing with difficult people. Not all those you deal with are difficult, but there are enough out there to make even the most caring grow cold. Trying to help those truly needy means that others will take advantage of you. It is easy to justify this “fatigue.” After all, aren’t we told not to cast our “pearls before swine”? Aren’t we to be “wise stewards” of our Lord’s resources?
The late Keith Green reminded us that the only way to never be taken advantage of is to never help anyone at all. Daily, I try to ask the Lord to help my heart stay soft as I deal with people, or I fear I, too, could develop “compassion fatigue.” And as I pray for my own heart, I am reminded that my compassionate Lord never grows tired of me.
I don’t deserve God’s grace. When I ask for His help, it is sometimes because I got into trouble because of things I did wrong. Maybe I didn’t act wisely. Perhaps I made a serious mistake. Possibly I am suffering because I sinned against the very God I am asking for rescue. Yet He hears my cry and redeems. I don’t receive His aid because I deserve it. I receive it because He is longsuffering, good, kind, and merciful.
Is it a good (or even spiritual) thing to refuse to help people because they have proven they are not worthy of help? I can hear the thoughts of some as they read these words. “We need to be careful to give people what they need, not just what they want or are asking for.” “If I give this person money, they will spend it on drugs.” “Maybe this person needs to suffer the consequences of their poor choices so that they learn a lesson.” These things can be true, and remind us that we need to help wisely. We need to help them in a way that truly helps them. Yet, we need to help them – not give up because we may possibly be taken advantage of.
There is even another level to this. Let’s say that someone is trying to take advantage of you. Let’s say they will spend what you give them on drugs. Maybe they are hopelessly addicted because of poor choices and sin. Do we then not help them? Do we let them starve?
What if our judgment about them is wrong? What if like Job’s friends, we see their suffering through the lens of our own faulty experience? What if they are actually suffering because they are more righteous than we are?
As a pastor, I observed this problem in the church. Often those who are needy are “put up with” impatiently by the people of God. Sometimes needy people are helped for a time, but when they don’t experience “instant sanctification” those who are helping grow weary. When helpers grow weary it is easy to grow distant. They don’t make phone calls as often to check up on their “friend.” After a while, the phone calls stop as they focus instead on people and projects that yield quicker results. We are rightly told to focus on our strengths and not just our weaknesses if we are to accomplish more for God. Doesn’t this also mean that we should focus on people experiencing success rather than failure? After all, needy people drain us and take up all our time, and when we share their stories during testimony time or in our latest newsletter, it is not very impressive. So, we ignore and then forget those who are needy. And they silently stop attending our churches, and no one even notices.
Similarly, lately I have been contacted by pastors who were in the licensing/ordination process in various denominations. Because they were dealing with personal or church-related problems, or even when they were faithful but were not experiencing impressive results, their mentors and leaders shifted focus to those charismatic, type-A pastors who were seen as being quite successful. My now ex-pastor friends stopped receiving phone calls from their mentors. They faded into the woodwork and seemingly disappeared. And no one in their denomination/association even noticed them disappear.
I often fail God. I often live Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” And what does God do? Every morning, after I failed the day previously, He reminds me of Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Why does He do this? It is because Lamentations is true: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Should I not extend this same undeserved compassion that I received from God to others?