How can Christians maintain a loving, caring posture in the face of intense and chronic worldwide pain? Living through the COVID-19 pandemic brings this question into focus for many of us. A term that recently emerged in counseling literature is ‘global compassion fatigue’ (notably in A.E. Rabino’s The Professional Counselor, 9,4).
Essentially, ‘global compassion fatigue’ (GCF) is the phenomenon “by which an individual experiences extreme preoccupation and tension as a result of concern for those affected by global events without direct exposure to their traumas”. This term gives us a common language to consider the personal impact of any of the myriad examples of pain and suffering we see daily as a result of our reporting technology, social media or other news outlets.
Taking a landscaped photo of the news clips from just the first three months of 2020, we would see carnage from the tornado in Tennessee, video of the Australian bushfires, images of the devasting floods in Indonesia, and not to mention the 24/7 reporting of the coronavirus. As a “plugged in” society, we are witnessing events in real-time with hardly any pause to process what we are seeing, yet it all builds up in our minds. Understand fully that every year has its devastation and suffering. This is not a doomsday article. However, let us use this new language of GCF to unpack how a constant scrolling of suffering, pain and trauma might impact all of us and how we can approach it by thinking Christianly.
My interest was struck by the term GCF because of my clinical and research interests regarding how counselors sustain and grow in their career. The term ‘compassion fatigue’ has been around for a while in my field, meaning that professionals (often specifically those in helping professions) can begin to feel indifferent in the face of suffering because of the incidence rate and its unrelenting presence. The “burden carrying” that counselors do literally begins to weigh them down, making them less effective or apathetic. The suffering stench is so ubiquitous and pervasive that counselors can get to a point where they hardly remember what fresh air smells like. It is a concerning and very real job hazard.
As a professional counselor myself, I have experienced times in my career of diminished effectiveness because of the constant suffering of people around me and my seeming lack of ability to do anything about it. Since the quality and viability of our work depends on recognizing and lessening compassion fatigue, those in the helping professions have identified many strategies to overcome this industry threat. Those strategies are useful and practical for the general public: focus on all aspects of wellness, engage with life-fulfilling activities and people, take breaks and vacations, set work/life boundaries. Things like that. There is an entire body of literature devoted to compassion fatigue. I can not do it all justice here.
But Global Compassion Fatigue is a newer phenomenon that extends compassion fatigue in two important ways.
First, it encompasses nearly all people living on this planet as potentially at risk. Second, it involves the witness of trauma and suffering from all around the world. So we are all at risk of being weighed down or made indifferent by the constant stream of pain and suffering we see occurring universally.
If this is the case, what do we do about it? Is there anything to do about it? Without a doubt, a fatigued or apathetic approach to pain and suffering is not the way of the cross.
For me, it is hard to view global compassion fatigue through the lens of the life of Jesus Christ, in part because the contents of our modern world seem so different than that of the biblical narrative. Jesus of Nazareth did not travel beyond a small region of the world. How can he speak into global compassion fatigue?
However, when we extrapolate the posture and behavior of Jesus Christ, I believe Scriptures can illuminate guidelines for us in modern life. I see four relevant concepts we can pull from the Gospels.
God Cares For Everyone Who Suffers
First, all sufferers are close to the heart of God. One only needs to read through the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) to learn that those in pain, mourning and suffering have a high place next to God. He cares for them in ways that we cannot. He loves them with a Heavenly love that is out of our range. When we see suffering people and families either inches or miles away, in person or virtually …remember the long arms of Christ and commit them to Him. When we begin to recognize compassion fatigue in ourselves on a global magnitude please remember this enduring posture our Lord has for those suffering. He is strong. He is sufficient.
Even Jesus Took Breaks
Second, during the ministry years of Jesus’ life, he took breaks and spent time with the Father (Matthew 14:13; Matthew 26:36; Mark 1: 35; Luke 6:12). If Jesus needed to be recharged, who do we think we are by not take the necessary breaks?! Rest, recharge. It’s the inhale to all the exhaling you do. If you do some extended exhaling in the form of caring, ministering, counseling, or preaching, the only way to continue that work is deep inhaling. This looks different for all people, however, I submit two themes that are universal: 1. spend time connecting with God and 2. limit your mind’s access to the ruthless news.
Jesus Also Mourned Suffering
Third, Jesus wept (Luke 19: 41; John 11:35). We should weep, too. We should lament over the variance between what is and what should be. We need to size up how the witnessing of suffering impacts our heart, soul, and mind. As a counselor, I often find that speaking or writing about the feelings is the only way to move past them. As famed couple’s therapist S. M. Johnson wrote: “what you can name you can tame.” This level of self-awareness allows us to know what we are feeling when we are feeling it.
Jesus Had a Four-Dimensional View of Impact
Fourth, from the example of Jesus’ life, we should be moved to sustainable and impactful engagement. In Suffering and the Heart of God, Diane Langberg talks about our call as believers to use our lives by entering “the fellowship of his sufferings.” When you read the life of Jesus and how He interacted with folks, it can often be confusing because he rarely answered questions straightforwardly. He had a wider and broader image of life and humanity from which he was ministering.
This view included the physical elements of life but enlarged to the supernatural backdrop. He saw life in 4D. Take the passage in Luke 10 when Jesus was asked by a lawyer who his neighbor was, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was a very indirect way of telling the lawyer how he should change his thinking about whom to help. Having a heavenly view of restoration and redemption can fuel our motivation to make even small impacts in our world as conduits to this 4D perspective.
I encourage you to recognize when GCF shows up in your hearts, family, or community then commit to Christ, rest your heart and soul, lament for what is, then missionally align with Christ to engage our world. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And know you are not alone. We are all in this together. There is solidarity in the global.