Often I hear the homeless speak negatively about social workers or those who process forms at Adult and Family Services. About how they don’t really care about people, how they are callous or downright mean. And while I cannot speak for each of the workers, I do understand the struggle to be consistently caring.
Think about if your job was to listen to dozens of the most heart-wrenching stories every day, each person vying for the limited resources, and all they have to offer in exchange is their narrative of suffering. When we, as a human being, hears a narrative, especially a well-told one, our natural response is one of empathy, of recognizing ourselves in the story, or of placing ourselves in the story. In our society, we are faced with more stories than ever through news outlets and various fictional entertainments, as well as our spiritual devotions. We are fully used to processing stories and making them reality in our brain. But the social worker has no defense against being involved in the thousands of stories they hear. They watch the heart-breaking films Precious or The Blind Side daily, over and over again. They do what they can, but they can’t do everything.
And they take these stories home, just like often the movies persist in our memory. At first they weep, stay up nights considering how to help these needy folks. They relive the suffering that they shared in the story-telling. They soon become exhausted from empathy, from living out the poverty of others, which makes their own poverty a paltry thing. Living in the midst of constant suffering swimming through one’s mind causes exhaustion and depression. To avoid this suffering, they find themselves in habits they never found necessary before—they try to dive into other activities to make them forget the other lives. Maybe they watch a lot of television (stories with tidy endings) or they play video games (specific, reachable goals), or they begin their own addiction (injecting joy into their depression). They find themselves in their own cycle of poverty—in need of counseling or psychiatric medication they cannot afford. This is why burnout is common among social workers.
Another defense mechanism for a social worker is to re-tell the stories in their mind with the poor as the enemy instead of the victim. This is an easy step to make because it is the poor that “causes” the depression in social workers. So every story is heard with the poor person as incompetent, as immoral, as having deserved the calamity that happened to them. This makes it easier to refuse to help, to tell the poor “what should have been told to them years ago.” In this way, compassion is reserved for the few whom they know and believe and all the rest of the world is a liar.
Or the social worker could just wall compassion out of their hearts. They cannot personally afford to feel empathy with anyone, so they don’t. Every story is analyzed and sorted according to policies and allocations determined by another. They no longer have room in their lives for compassion and so apathy is the rule.
The Christian worker among the poor has similar issues. They hear all the same stories, and they have some resources they sometimes can give and sometimes they cannot. But the Christian worker isn’t ever supposed to be apathetic, nor callous. The Christian worker must constantly be compassionate, be empathetic, to draw people out, to help through Christ’s love for them. And if you are a pastor to the poor, it is worse, because if you aren’t available twenty four hours a day then people consider that you are giving them less than your all. More is demanded of the Christian worker than any other social worker, because there are no imposed limits of time or resources.
This type of all-out ministry to the poor can cause one to drown in compassion. To cause one to suffer deeper than any of the individual poor they work with because they aren’t living out just one story, but all of them. You don’t know how many nights I have stayed up, worrying about someone I should have helped, but didn’t, or couldn’t. The times I wept because I was helpless to help. The times I couldn’t answer the phone because I knew that someone was going to tell me one more thing I couldn’t handle, or pressure me to do or give something I couldn’t.
Perhaps it sounds like I’m writing a horror story. Certainly when we begin ministry, we expect the Lord to keep us fresh and able to deal with any difficulty. But the reality is far from this. Some of the most spirit-filled people in the Bible also dealt with depression and anger. Elijah asked the Lord to kill him. Jeremiah suffered both externally and internally. Joseph struggled against the temptation to punish his brothers for the years of suffering they caused him. In his final letter, Paul gave in to self-pity, complaining that “all deserted me”, although in that very letter he gives praise to his support.
Jesus wavered in his compassion only a couple times, but his ministry was a different one. It was a bright, clear, bold light that shone but for a short time. What the human body finds difficult is enduring repeated stress over a long time. If we are going to endure in our ministry for decades instead of a year or two, we need to take steps to prepare ourselves for loving in the most difficult context.
We must remember that to love others, we must have something to give. We cannot assume that God will provide us with the strength to continue, especially if we never refresh ourselves in Him. There are two commands we are to follow: both to love others and to love God. And in loving God, we are renewed, restored and re-sent to love others. God never intends us to love others without first resting in Him.