When Compassion Wears You Down

I think for many of us, especially men, working hard is part of our DNA. There is a tendency for us to get so engrossed in our work, we neglect other important things, namely ourselves. If there are deadlines, we will work through meals and breaks.

Why do we do this? Part of it is we often define ourselves and find our worth in the effort we put into our work. But there is a downside to that mindset. I was speaking with a very wealthy man who discovered the pitfalls of being so engrossed in his work that it cost him everything he valued in life. Was he still wealthy? Yes, but his wife and children were gone. Only after his marriage collapsed did he realize how his work habits and priorities had decimated his life. Things had to change.

Jesus was a man who understood the necessity of rest in life. When you read the gospel accounts of His life, you see Him regularly taking time away from the crowds and even away from His disciples, to spend time with God. Recharging was a priority for Jesus and He was God’s Son!

One of the buzzwords in recent years is “self-care.” What it means is taking time to care for ourselves. It is usually a time for rest and relaxation. Most call it holidays. I think this is especially true for those whose lives have been devoted to helping others. When you do a little research you discover that the suicide rates for social workers and other like-career professionals are considerably higher than the average. I believe much of the problem is people do not take the time for themselves. They allow the stress of their jobs to build up to the point of feeling overwhelmed.

In Mark 6, we read about how ministry and rest were a part of Jesus life. In the passage, Jesus sends out the disciples to preach and perform miracles. Meanwhile, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist is beheaded. After the disciples return, He takes them aside for a little rest. The people find them and having compassion on them, Jesus begins teaching the people. By the end of the day, the people become hungry and instead of sending them away, Jesus takes a boy’s lunch, a couple of loaves and fish, and uses them to feed 5000 people. Right after that, Jesus sends His disciples off on a boat and goes into the mountains to pray.

Jesus understood the importance of self-care. Firstly, He saw the need for the disciples. They had gone through the area doing great things for God, preaching, healing and casting out demons. The trip was a success and no doubt they were pumped about it all. Instead of celebrating, Jesus said, “Come away by yourselves to a desert place and rest a little while.” People were constantly on the lookout for Jesus. He barely had time to eat, let alone spend time with the disciples. The disciples too needed rest. Jesus cared for the many, but the few, His few, needed a timeout to recharge.

As a pastor, I have heard many “complain” at how busy their lives are and how they do not have time to gather for fellowship or rest. I know because I am one of them. But I also know that busyness is a choice and it is a common and bad choice because many of us have our priorities wrong.

When you sit down and look at the life of Jesus, our lives pale in comparison. In Mark 1:21–34, we see a synopsis of what must have been a pretty typical day for Jesus: teaching and demon exorcism in the morning, followed by healing just before the evening meal, followed by more healings and exorcisms as the word spread that He was available. How did Jesus alleviate the busyness?

It says, the next morning, before sunrise, Jesus went off by Himself to pray. He is the Son of God, but he is not Superman; He needs time to think, to pray, and to be alone with God. He needed to set aside time for when He does not have to meet the needs of others. Pastors, missionaries, anyone who serves others in God’s name know this very well. Everyone reaches a point where the bucket is empty, where the cloth is frayed, and unless you can take time to recharge, you find yourself doing and saying things you regret.

Before we continue, let us come back to a theological concept we all sometimes forget. Yes, Jesus was God’s Son but Jesus was also fully human. Being human, He understood that there are physical and emotional limitations to what our bodies and minds can endure. No human can be a completely selfless servant to others without learning how to care for one’s self. We know that, but sometimes it is nice to see that Jesus understands because He experienced it too.

In saying that, sometimes things come up where the need for compassion outweighs the battle with fatigue. How many of us have experienced that with our jobs? We plan our holidays by making all the necessary arrangements for coverage and any possible need. In your mind, you are thinking about reading that dust-covered book, sitting on the beach, enjoying warmer temperatures… perfection! But then, as you pull into the hotel parking lot, the phone rings…

As a pastor, I know from experience that getting away never really means getting away. The call to be a pastor never leaves you. I have been on different trips where I end up running into someone who needs help. It might be practical, but in many cases, the need is emotional or spiritual. The book can wait. The beach can wait. In an attempt to get away for some much needed rest, you find yourself emptying what little you had in the tank to help someone.

The truth is pastors are not the only ones who experience this. But how do we respond when someone takes up “your time?” Holidays means “me time” not ministry time, right? I was thinking maybe the disciples feel like that when the crowds showed up. When Jesus finished teaching them, they were probably thinking in their minds, “He’s done… go home!” That is why they tried to send the crowds away and got snippy with Jesus when He suggested that they should feed all of them.

The reality is, sometimes compassion trumps our need to rest. So does that mean whenever someone asks of us and regardless of how we are feeling, we need to respond by helping? I believe the answer is both “Yes” and “No.” I believe it comes back to our own relationship with God.

If we are taking regular times to refocus and realign our lives with God and allow His Spirit to fill and empower us then when the need arises, we will be ready. But if we have not done that and have tried to serve on fumes, how can we expect positive outcomes both for those we minister to and ourselves when there is nothing in the tank? So the important lesson here is we need to remember to take time with God so when the need arises, we are ready.

We all have days where we want to throw in the towel. I can imagine that some of the disciples felt that way. I know a pastor whose ministry is to a First Nations group. Their daily ministry starts around 6 AM and goes until after midnight. How do they do it? Through the power of the Spirit working in and through them and this comes only through committing time and energy in prayer and time in the Word.

Wherever Jesus went, whether it was a village, a city or an open field, people would bring their sick and needy so that He could heal them. For the disciples, I can imagine this was both exciting and exhausting. But Jesus’ life is a picture for us of God’s providential care of humanity. His was a life dedicated and lived out to free the oppressed, heal the sick and lift up the downtrodden. And for those of us who claim to be a follower of His need to emulate that same willingness to show compassion to those in need.

Looking at the life of Jesus, I want to do that much good in the world. On the other hand, it sounds like a nightmare. All those hands reaching out to you, wanting you to help them, and you cannot escape so they cannot find you. Many of you know how trapped you can feel, just because of your need to care for just one person who depends on you completely. What if everyone who knew anything about you wanted your help?

I want to say that what we read in Mark’s narrative has the answers but it does not. On the one hand, Jesus knows that His followers need rest, and He tries to organize it for them. On the other hand, He seems more than willing to interrupt their rest when the needs of the many are presented to Him.

Jesus’ compassion trumps the disciples’ fatigue. It is not neat. We would like it better if Jesus had insisted that the disciples finished their time away before asking them to assist Him in feeding the multitude. On the other hand, when we are the ones in need, we do not want to hear that Jesus or those who minister to us are unavailable.

What is the answer? I think we need to settle for this: Jesus knows that His followers need rest in order to minister well. That gives us permission to take time to recuperate. But Jesus always put the needs of the many ahead of His own, and if we follow Him, so will we.

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