“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (KJV)
What is compassion fatigue?
The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue, or empathy fatigue, as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” It most often affects individuals who are continuously empathizing with those they serve. And in the wake of a pandemic, it seems to apply to many of us as we see and experience needs in our communities and around the world.
Compassion fatigue vs. burnout
Like those experiencing burnout, sufferers of compassion fatigue may experience emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion; increased apathy in their work and personal life; and a desire to isolate themselves from others. However, unlike burnout, compassion fatigue is linked to experiencing indirect trauma and absorbing the emotional stress of others.
A biblical approach to fighting compassion fatigue
The world we live in is marked by hurt and brokenness: a reality that is increasingly evident as we care for those who have experienced various traumas. It can become easy to feel disheartened or overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems we witness, yet we cling to the promise that we serve a sovereign God who is not only present with us but has also given us instruction on how to live well amid suffering.
So how do we fight compassion fatigue?
Take a break. The prophet Elijah surely felt his reserves of empathy drained as he spoke out against the idol worship taking place in Israel. When he was nearly at the point of giving up, God sent an angel who reminded him to “get up and eat,” encouraging him to rest and refuel before continuing his work (1 Kings 19:1-9).
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see Him retreat from the crowds to spend time alone with His Father. These moments remind us that stepping away to talk to God, especially in times of stress, is essential for the sustainability and success of our own ministries.
Turn toward community. In Galatians 6, Paul writes to the Church about doing good to all. But before he issues the charge to not grow weary in this work (v. 9), he first instructs the body of believers to carry each other’s burdens (v. 2). Carrying the suffering of others is heavy, not something we are meant to manage on our own. Within community, we find encouragement, support, and strength.
Trust the One who has already overcome. When Jesus was preparing to leave His disciples on earth, He knew they would grieve and even feel abandoned by His absence, but He left them with an advocate, the Holy Spirit, and reminded them of the eternal hope we possess even as we face challenges (John 14:26). In John 16:33b, He told them, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
In Scripture, when God’s people approach Him with their dreams and desires, He sometimes answers with an unexpected question: “What do you have in your hands?” In this eight-minute video, HOPE International explores how God invites His people, both in Scripture and today around the world, to play an active role in restoring brokenness.