Compassion Fatigue

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?

 

Slow to Speak

Like many of you, this past week has been filled with many tears and unceasing prayer as almost daily I hear of the loss of lives of those made in God’s image and as I think of their dear families now filled with questions, pain, and overwhelming grief.  The most recent news reports try to figure out why the lives of brave police officers who were protecting the rights of those protesting against the police could be snuffed out so violently.  I sometimes write things down to figure out what is in my heart and mind, so please allow me to do just that and add words to the multitude of things that have already been written and said.

I grieve over those who are gone.  Some no longer have the chance to hear about the everlasting love of our Savior.  How do family members now face the days ahead without those who were so special to them?

I am amazed at the continually increasing divisions our country is experiencing.  Politically we have been aware of this divide for some time.  We are now becoming more and more aware of the gap between people of different races, economic classes, and _________ – you fill in the blank.  We had hoped that many of those gaps were shrinking, but are now wondering if the distance is instead increasing.  People with loud voices and various causes use their volume to take advantage of this divide for their own benefit and amusement.  The result is that these gaps get bigger, fear grips our hearts because of what we are told of those on the other side of the gaps and anger becomes what motivates us to action.  Everyone seems to have a voice and much to say, but few seem to have any desire to listen.

The Holy Spirit through the pen of James told us, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  Notice the progression – we need to be very quick to listen.  We must do that first, before we speak.  We must hear the other person and really listen.  This includes mulling over what they just said.  We must think about what they said and why they said it.  Even if we disagree with what we just heard, if we listen perhaps we will understand why they said it, at least a little bit.  We should be quick to listen – but then slow to speak.  Too often we aren’t really listening because we are thinking about what we are about to say.  Our priority is not about the other person, it is all about us – what we feel, what we think and what we know should be done.  Isn’t this what arguments consist of – no listening, fast talking and the next step, anger?  No wonder we are so angry.  We all have too much to say and too many opinions to share.  And now with social media, we can share our words instantly with the world.  (Yes, it is a bit ironic that I am sharing my words with the world right now.)

Now to the grief of today.  Can’t we take some time to grieve?  Can’t we allow families to start to say good-bye to their loved ones before we use their loved ones to further our favorite cause?  Can’t we be silent as they share their doubts, their fears, their questions and their anger?  Can’t we give them our presence and our hugs, but hold off on our words?  There will be a time to talk about these causes.  Some of them are really important.  But do we need to talk about them today?

Followers of Jesus Christ, we have much to say to an angry, divided world.  We have words of comfort to share with the grieving from the God of all comfort, Himself.  We have words of hope about a Redeeming Savior that this world needs to hear.  He is our only Hope!  He is the One who can reconcile sinners like us to a Holy God such as He is, and then help us reconcile to each other.  We are messengers of reconciliation!  But let’s share this wonderful message after we have really listened to this hurting world.

 

To Leaders of Large Churches

Dear brothers and sisters in large churches,
As a pastor of a small church, I dare not try to speak for all small church pastors and leaders, but I do think a few of my small church brethren might share some of my sentiments. So, please allow me to write down a few thoughts that have been heavy on my heart.

First of all, can I say a big “thank you” for all you do in our community for the sake of our King and His Kingdom? I agree with Paul when he wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-6, NIV)

When I think of you and what God is doing in and through you, I rejoice! You see multitudes of people pass from darkness into light as they are transformed by Christ and His amazing grace. I join the angels in heaven, as they rejoice over these souls that are saved. I am filled with joy when I think of addicts being set free by the Holy Spirit, wounded partners in marriage finding forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ, and the poor in our community receiving not only a cup of cold water in Jesus’ Name, but also hope and healing in that same Name. Your army of workers for the sake of the gospel make that possible. Thank you for all you do!

Thank you for having a God-honoring voice in the community we all love. Sometimes someone needs to speak up for the sake of righteousness, and you have a voice that is heard. Thank you for the times you courageously stand up for truth, as you at the same time extend Jesus’ love. Thank you for your servant-leadership given to all in our city, as you serve and lead both great and small. I appreciate you!

Thank you for bringing exciting, Christ-exalting events to our community. Because of you and your generosity, our entire city can enjoy wonderful music and gifted preaching, as you bring talented evangelists and musicians to town. Thanks for hosting these events, and thank you for inviting us all. This same generosity enables the wonderful, grace-giving, mercy ministries in our area to have the people and resources they need to make the big difference they make.
Thank you – a thousand times thank you – for all you are and all you do in Christ. I am thankful for you, and I do pray for you, because I see us truly as partners in the gospel.

I love the word behind that English word, “partnership.” “Koinonia” is translated in various translations as “partnership, communion or fellowship.” But this deep camaraderie is not just an enjoyment of each other’s company; it is “partnership for a purpose, communion for a cause, fellowship to further the Kingdom.” I enjoy our friendship. I am encouraged by you and your love. But I see our relationship as more than that – we are together to extend the good news of the gospel of Jesus to those in our community who do not yet understand who He is and what He came to do. Thanks for letting me work with you.

Can I also add a word of confession? While I am truly thankful for you, sometimes the green-eyed monster of envy rises up in the hearts of those of us in the small church. I admit that at times I have been jealous of your numbers, your budgets and your fame. Please forgive me.

Forgive me that sometimes those of us in small churches sometimes try to justify our bad attitudes. “They must not really preach the gospel in that church!” we might say. “They are a mile wide and an inch deep!” I know that over-generalizing tends to get us in trouble. As is true in our small churches, not all of your fellowships are deep or faithful. But many of you are. Thank you to those who are.

Can I make another confession? Small churches are small for a reason. Sometimes (and I use that word very purposefully)… sometimes our church families are small because God has called us to be small and to serve Him as such. Many times churches are small because they are not healthy, and sick bodies will not grow, but will over time shrivel up and die. As we pray for you, will you pray for us to experience fullness and health in Christ?

I wasn’t thinking of these things recently, but something happened that brought them to my attention. My daughter, who is in college being trained for Christian ministry, for some God-ordained reason, chose to serve her college internship in our small church. Some thought it was the easy route – that she wasn’t challenging herself enough by going home. I knew it would be the hardest thing she ever did.

She is an extremely gifted young lady who loves Jesus with all of her heart. She has been a “PK” all of her life, did not go through decades of rebellion, but has worked through a myriad of hurts and pains that go along with living in a pastor’s home. She has seen much and has a deep understanding of ministry, in spite of my efforts to shelter her. She has a heart to help the “least of these” by extending God’s mercy in very practical ways as she boldly proclaims God’s truth. I am very proud of her.

And I was extremely proud of her as she began to serve in our church. She worked tirelessly and put together a full week of camp for the children of prisoners. It was the best camp I had ever seen on paper! She worked just as hard developing our church’s first Vacation Bible School in years, with the help of her team, our church’s youth group – all three of them. Did I mention that of the three, two were her younger sisters? She did such a good job, and truly did it for Jesus!

And then the camp was cancelled. Just a few kids signed up, in spite of cards, phone calls, visits, and parents’ meetings. I tried to explain to her that she is learning a valuable lesson – that all of her service was not wasted if it was truly service to the Lord! Then we had the VBS – and our little team faithfully and lovingly served six kids over four days, in spite of hundreds of invitations being extended.

As all of this was going on, we would drive by other churches holding their own VBS’s with parking lots full and kids everywhere. Today, we went to a wonderful event where an incredible church in our town came into our neighborhood and at our local elementary school hosted an exciting festival for the children (and their families) that we had been loving and serving. Hundreds were there when we visited. We rejoiced. And we prayed for good fruit. And I saw something in my daughter’s eye that reveled something deep in her heart.

While she was happy with all that was happening, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Why?” Why did she work for months for one cancelled camp and a tiny VBS? And why did others seem to have “success” we could only dream of? After years of service in small churches, I have grown used to the hours of prayer, study and service for events that never happen or that have just the same few regulars attend. I have shielded my heart from such constant disappointment. I almost expect us on Sunday to have to sing acapella because no musicians show up. Even though I thought she had seen these realities over the years, she was shocked and told my wife, “I don’t know how you and dad do this year after year – I am struggling doing it for a few months.” I do not have answers for her. But it made me want to write to you. Can I share a few thoughts with you, brothers and sisters in the large church?

First, be thankful for what you have. You have been blessed in many ways. I realize that you have problems and disappointments that I could never dream about. But you also are experiencing blessings that some of us may never experience. God has indeed blessed you!

Second, people from our small churches will leave our churches to go be part of your church. I hate to say it this way, but here is the reality (at least in some people’s minds) – we cannot compete with the size, variety, excitement, and excellence that you offer. For better or for worse, many people desire what you have – few desire what we have. They will leave us for you much more than they will leave you for us. When they do, please check with them (or me) to see if they left my church on good terms. I will give them my blessing if they leave seeking health and life! But will you at least ask where they were and why they left? By the way, it would be to your advantage to know if these new people will be a help or a hindrance. I know you desire to grow through conversion growth, but the truth is, most who entered your doors exited mine. Check with me. I will do the same for you.

Lastly, continue to remember those of us in small churches. You are my heroes! I am so thankful for your incredible, fruitful ministry! But can I be honest? I hold those who serve selflessly and faithfully in small churches in even higher esteem. You are my heroes. Those serving in anonymity with constant disappointment are my super-heroes! Why not call up one these servants and invite them to lunch and thank them, too. Continue to invite them to your events, as full-partners and co-laborers in Christ. Return their phone calls and emails. Treat them like they are valuable members of the team, not as distractions from your “real” ministry. And please remember them in prayer, thanking God with joy for the partnership in the gospel that you have with these heroes.
Faithfully yours,
Brian Heinen