The Inconsistencies and Virtues of the Missional Life – Compassion Fatigue – Post 1

The primary audience of this series of posts are directed … to me.

The term “compassion fatigue” originated in the 1950s and specifically pertained to nurses whose sensitivity gradually decreased as they were serving those in desperate need of medical care. This included the elderly, the abused, and the handicapped.

At the surface this seems reprehensible. That is until we examine our own “compassion fatigue”. I’ll be the first to admit that I think a great deal of this because I find it to be very relevant to my life, my ministry and my hopes that extend beyond my vocation.

From the accountant to the dentist, we all want to make the world better. We want to serve our families, our neighbors, those we labor with and those we’ve seen to be in need. We’re grateful for this is noble desire until we feel bombarded with the countless other worthy needs. Where does one begin? Further, our everyday lives take a lot out of us. Between our numerous responsibilities from family to vocational to other service-oriented duties, we start to seriously wonder how can one make a difference in the world and in the next.

Eventually the guilt catches up with us, the sensitivities of our hearts gradually decrease and whether we indulge ourselves to numb our souls further or choose to rationalize our way out of helping, we may find ourselves doing nothing or barely anything – we experience compassion fatigue.

One day, we are confronted by this and one of two things happen. We harden our hearts further to limit the guilt or allow our hearts to be broken and try again.

I’ve been up and down the missional slope of life. I think it’s fair to say that I have inspired a fair number of friends and annoyed many more. I think it’s also fair to say that many have done the same for me. Though I don’t really come to conclusions on these types of reflections, I am observing that no one is missional enough. It’s a thought that is both disappointing and comforting.

You can become quite the self-righteous legalist when you try to save the world. Even despite our best intentions, we may even unwittingly add to the compassion fatigue.

At the same time, to do nothing or to do little like compartmentalize the action to something “controllable” seems to squander the grace and opportunity God gives.  I would say that the goodness found in being generous, compassionate, sacrificial is beyond conscience-pleasing. In short, they are the virtues found in imitating God.

So how does one combat this cycle of compassion fatigue?  (Though I don’t really think it’s a 5-step program, I’m outlining for the sake of simplicity).   They are nuanced and paradoxical, like life is.

1. Celebrate your blessings and leverage your potential to share them. Meaning – don’t feel guilty that you live in the ‘burbs and enjoy a particular lifestyle – accept it and share generously.
2. Learn how Jesus lived in the rhythms of life. He fasted and celebrated. He served others and practiced self-care. Jesus partied with his friends and Jesus demonstrated profound acts of sacrifice before ultimately, His crucifixion.
3. Realize no one can address every need, no one can donate to every cause, no one volunteer their time for every request. Even Jesus did not physically heal all of Israel doing his earthy ministry.
4. Therefore choose the causes that have touched your heart the most. For me and my family, this has been the issues of human trafficking, clean water and the AIDS crisis. There are others that my heart is open for but we try to focus towards these causes and trust that others are focusing on the other worthy ones.
5. Keep your heart anchored in prayer. It keeps all these not only in check, but keeps your heart broken, compassionate and attentive towards God.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to explore the inconsistencies and the virtues that I’ve found in the missional life:   materialism, envy, indulgence, simplicity, generousity and sacrifice complicated by our everyday contexts and our own baggage and gifts – should be fun. Well, it probably won’t be fun but I hope it’s worthwhile so please subscribe via email/RSS to keep up. I would value your input and conversation – many thanks!

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