Moving Beyond Compassion Fatigue

We’re bombarded daily by appeals from people in need. It’s important that we take steps to stave off compassion fatigue.

We’ve all seen the images of poor, sick and emaciated children with their bellies bloated, flies on their eyes and bodies covered with dirt. We are at times shocked by horrific pictures of brokenness and poverty.

In fact, every time there’s an earthquake or a tsunami somewhere in the world or a famine in Africa, we are overwhelmed by tragedy—for at least a news cycle or two. Pain and suffering boost ratings, or so I’ve been told.

Frankly, once upon a time, those pictures of poverty and suffering would make me cry. Sadly, however, and for too long, I had been suffering from something known as compassion fatigue, and it’s a real thing.

Here’s the official definition: com·pas·sion fa·tigue (noun)—Indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.

Essentially, we stop caring when we’re asked to care too often or too much. Weird, huh?

Maybe it’s a natural defense mechanism. Perhaps it’s the only way we can enjoy our life without feeling guilty. I don’t know.

But here’s what I do know: compassion fatigue is not okay.

In fact, for those who follow Jesus, having compassion isn’t optional, and compassion fatigue is not something we can ever tolerate in our lives.

As most of you know, I recently returned from Africa. I have seen poverty up close many times on this continent over the past two years. I’ve spoken with those who suffer (yet who somehow seem happier than most Americans).

Yes, there is poverty in the States, but very few in our country live on less than $2 a day. Even the poorest of the poor in America tend to have clean water, steady and safe access to power and a shelter with a toilet.

Not so in the townships of Africa. These people are the poorest of the poor, and it’s appalling.

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When I became aware of my compassion fatigue I started to pray, “God, bust my heart. Remove the blinders that I have allowed to shield me from the poor. Help me cry again.”

Be careful what you ask for from God. Some prayers are dangerous, and this one has wrecked me.

Admittedly, I don’t have all the answers to overcoming a hard heart. I’m not sure I know what it will take for you to eliminate compassion fatigue in your life.

But I can tell you—from firsthand experience—if you will pray to have the heart of Jesus, and if you will find a way to connect with those in need, you will be changed.

A few years ago I took the pictures below in a township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. These people live in shanties (makeshift “homes” not big enough to put your car in). They exist from day to day with few of the modern conveniences we take for granted.

We have so much. They have so little.

For the record, I’m not attempting to use guilt to move you to action. Guilt is a terrible motivator. I am, however, asking you a straightforward question: Can you glance at my pictures [see below] without feeling anything?

If so, maybe you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, and maybe you need to pray, “God, help me reclaim a broken heart again. Help me see the poor with Your eyes and with Your heart.”

You don’t have to feel guilty about your ice cream, your T-bone steak or the amount you might spend at Starbucks in a month. But you do need to feel compassion again. And then you must let that compassion motivate you to do something—anything—for those in need.

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Maybe it’s helping a single mom you know who is dealing with a broken-down car and no resources to repair it.

Perhaps it’s taking a homeless guy to McDonald’s for lunch (Please don’t give him money but do provide him with love and some food.).

Possibly it’s volunteering at a gospel mission or homeless shelter in your town.

Conceivably, Jesus might call you to go to the poor in South America, Africa, Asia or Spokane to make an impact in his name.

I can promise you this: When you have God’s heart, you will have an extraordinary desire to help someone.

Anyone. Anywhere. Always. And as much as possible.

It’s the Jesus way. It is the way of compassion.

So, how’s your heart?

“Then Jesus said to his host, When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” —Luke 14:12–14

Read more from Kurt Bubna »

Kurt Bubna is the senior pastor of Eastpoint Church in Spokane Valley, Washington, a regional purpose-driven director (Saddleback Church) and the author of the book Epic Grace: Chronicles of a Recovering Idiot. This post was originally published on

Johannesburg, South Africa
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