How can pastors battle compassion fatigue?

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A cure for compassion fatigue from two unlikely sources

November 7, 2023 -

A man in glasses bows his head in prayer while holding a Bible upright on a table, its spine and the word "BIBLE" facing out. By Pcess609/

A man in glasses bows his head in prayer while holding a Bible upright on a table, its spine and the word "BIBLE" facing out. By Pcess609/

A man in glasses bows his head in prayer while holding a Bible upright on a table, its spine and the word "BIBLE" facing out. By Pcess609/

I want to address the problem of compassion fatigue today.

As the war between Hamas and Israel continues, we continue to hear horror stories from Hamas’s October 7 atrocities while watching images of innocent Palestinians dying in Gaza. It’s getting harder for us to watch the news from the Middle East. And things are likely to get much worse before they get better.

My reflections are also intended for those of us who carry the pastoral burden of helping those who hurt. Most people have no idea how many needs a typical pastor is called to meet in a typical day. We hold such problems in confidence, which means that few people know how we spend much of our time or the cumulative effect of such ministry upon us.

Making things worse, our materialistic culture has conditioned church members to be consumers who measure success by what they can consume. As a result, in the minds of many, our public preaching and teaching ministries constitute the lion’s share of our weekly responsibilities. They frankly wonder (and sometimes ask) why it takes us an entire week to prepare a thirty-minute sermon. Their lack of understanding and affirmation only adds to the burden many of us carry.

In response, let’s consider two unlikely sources of help.

Seeing past the shadows

First, I need to condense several weeks of the history of philosophy class I taught in several seminaries into just a few paragraphs, as follows:

Plato’s most famous analogy described humans as captives in a cave chained in such a way that we cannot see the bonfire and people behind us, only the shadows they cast on the wall before us. The job of a philosopher, he claimed, is to “unchain” us so we can see past the “shadow” to the “real.”

In his mind, the physical world is a shadow of the world of “forms” or ideas. The secret to wisdom is thus to look past the material to the immaterial and spiritual. The less we focus on this broken world, the better. His worldview became highly influential for St. Augustine, who in turn was highly influential for Martin Luther, who, of course, influenced the Protestant world.

From then until now, evangelicals have tended to focus more on the “spiritual” than the secular. We resist images in our places of worship lest they distract us from the imageless One we have come to honor. We focus especially on the saving of souls, sometimes with less attention to the needs of the body.

The Catholic tradition, by contrast, has been influenced by Aristotle’s insistence that the “forms” are in the material. His father was a doctor; Aristotle is often called the first biologist. Accordingly, he wanted us to find eternal meaning in temporal circumstances. His worldview became enormously influential for St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theological formulations were seminal for the Roman Catholic Church across the centuries following.

Accordingly, we find images in Catholic places of worship—not because they are to be worshiped, but because they call us to focus on the realities they represent. Catholics have often been at the forefront in responding to abortion and other social problems. Their churches and educational institutions have produced some of our finest legal minds (six of our nine Supreme Court justices are Catholics, for example) and scientists (such as Francis Collins, the recently retired head of the National Institutes of Health).

A Persian king rebuilds the Jewish temple

Second, let’s consider an obscure story in the Old Testament.

In Ezra 5, the Jews were rebuilding the house of God in Jerusalem. Tattenai, the governor of the region, and his associates quickly demanded that they produce “a decree to build this house and to finish this structure” and wanted to know “the names of the men who are building this building” (vv. 3–4). To stop the project, they then appealed to Darius, the Persian king, asking if such permission had ever been granted to the Jews. Their assumption was that no such authorization would be found and that the project would quickly be quashed.

Their inquiry did not produce the results they desired.

A document search produced a scroll containing King Cyrus’s decree: “Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices were offered, and let its foundations be retained” (Ezra 6:3). Furthermore, they discovered that the costs of rebuilding were to be paid from the royal treasury (v. 4) and the implements taken from the temple were to be returned (v. 5).

As a result, Darius ordered Tattenai and his associates to “keep away” from the rebuilding project (v. 6). But he also ordered that “the cost is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province” (v. 8). And the governor was to provide anything needed for the Jews to restart their sacrificial system when the temple was completed (vv. 9–10).

If they refused this edict, they were to be “impaled” on a beam pulled from their house (v. 11). Darius concluded with a prayer that “the God who has caused his name to dwell there” would “overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy the house of God that is in Jerusalem” (v. 12). As a result, the Jews “finished their building by decree of the God of Israel” and by the decrees of the Babylonian and Persian emperors (v. 14).

I think we can safely conclude that Tattenai did not expect or intend this outcome. But God redeemed their opposition to the rebuilding project by using it to finance his temple with Persian funds.

When God is more Aristotelian than Platonic

Together, these two narratives remind us that God is at work in our world in ways we may not understand until long after his work is accomplished. In this sense, he is more Aristotelian than Platonic. His Spirit works through “secular” leaders and historians to advance his kingdom on earth. And he invites us to take the same view of his work in the world.

To this end, let’s pray that the war between Israel and Hamas will lead millions of Israelis and Palestinians to discover that they need a higher power than human leaders and militias, advancing spiritual awakening in this conflicted and catastrophized region.

Let’s also ask our Father to reveal himself in the tasks of our daily ministries, teaching us through those we teach and encouraging us through those we encourage. Let’s especially expect him to show up where we do not expect him, confident that his Spirit and even his angels are working in unseen ways for eternal purposes (cf. 2 Kings 6:8–23; Hebrews 13:2).

And let’s remember how the story ends: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is always too soon to give up on God.


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