Monday morning I awoke to the notification on my phone: Gunman in Las Vegas kills at least fifty.
I shut off my phone and took my dog for a walk as the sun rose.
In the hours that followed, several similar notifications came in. I ignored them. Finally, when I left for work at 8:00, I tuned the radio to NPR so I could hear about Las Vegas.
As I listened, I realized with shame that I didn’t feel much. When I got to work, everyone was talking about it and I joined in, but the emotions still didn’t come. My inability – or unwillingness – to feel deeply about the shootings bothered me. When I confessed it to a woman in my office, she said sympathetically, “Compassion fatigue is a real thing.”
In 2017 alone there has been so much large-scale trauma and suffering, it has begun to make me feel a little numb. Harvey, Irma, Maria, the earthquake in Mexico. Some events, like Charlottesville and Las Vegas, stir up both sadness and outrage. As if there wasn’t enough to be angry about: Racism. Immigration and health care. Guns. Protesting the anthem, not protesting the anthem… fill in the blank. And in the midst of it all we’re also supposed to be indignant about Cam Newton’s misstep and Melania’s shoes-?
I want to be full of grace and compassion. I want to fight injustice and mourn tragedy and frankly, fix it all. But I hardly know what to feel, much less what to do.
On the one hand I can give in to sadness, allowing the current state of our world to usher me into depression. I could easily wind up paralyzed in passive resignation, lying on my couch watching disaster coverage by the hour. On the other hand, I could stave off despair with anger. I could add my voice to the furious chorus on social media. I could also choose to ignore it all, closing myself off to the tragedy-du-jour because I just can’t handle it.
Or, I could get curious. How did Jesus hold his heart open to the suffering of the world without being overwhelmed or bitter? There were many moments in Jesus’ life when He might have succumbed to despair or fury or apathy. Instead He moved through His days overflowing with wisdom and compassion.
One such day happens in Matthew 14. Verses 1-12 tell the story of how John the Baptist was beheaded. The obscene death of His cousin hit Jesus hard: “When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself.” (v.13) In His grief, Jesus wanted nothing more than to be alone with His Father. John had been the only family member Jesus had who supported His ministry, even as he questioned it. John had died because he was faithfully preaching repentance, and Herod’s wife didn’t want to hear it. John’s death was unjust in the extreme, and pointed to another far more violent and far more unjust death Jesus knew was coming: His own.
The next sentence reads: “But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the city.” (v.13) All He wanted was to take His grief to His Father, and the crowds would not leave Him alone. When I read this, I get resentful. Why couldn’t they just leave Jesus alone? But even in His sadness, Jesus was thoroughly Jesus: “And when Jesus went out, He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.” (v.14) After a long day of attending to the needs of the crowd, He fed them all – five thousand – and then He claimed time alone to pray: “Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He has sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.” (v.22-23) Finally.
Jesus did not abandon His need for alone time with God, although He did postpone it out of compassion for the crowd. He didn’t allow His heart to become hard to the suffering multitudes, nor did He just man up and pretend His own heart wasn’t broken. As in everything, Jesus is our example:
-Jesus did not heal everybody. He turned the crowds away sometimes, to attend to His own need for time alone with God or to spend time with His disciples. In the same way, we must choose time alone in prayer, especially when tragedy strikes. We also need time with that smaller circle of family and friends that Jesus given us. Our service cannot be offered at their expense.
-If Jesus didn’t overextend Himself, neither should we. We can always pray, but as human beings our resources are limited. We only have so much time to spend and money and emotional energy to give for all the very worthy causes that need attention. It is fitting we are part of the body of Christ, each called to serve in the Kingdom in different ways. I do not need to feel guilty about all the people I cannot help; my job is to be faithful to serve where God has called me.
-Jesus didn’t allow outrage to interfere with His compassion. That’s kind of amazing. He had a huge crowd of followers and He could have used that platform to preach about the injustice of John’s death. We know how sin angered Him; He could have whipped that crowd into a frenzy and incited them to march on Herod’s palace to protest. Instead, Jesus spent the day healing the sick.
Certainly Jesus had moments of outrage, most often when He saw the strong oppressing the weak in His Father’s name. He blasted the Pharisees for killing His prophets: “Serpents, Brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33) At the same time, He loved them all, even those He chastised and corrected. He literally yearned to minister even to the oppressors: “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
Jesus demonstrated the kind of love that condemns atrocity and at the same time overflows with compassion: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) The only way I can do the same is to lean heavily on Him, listening for the whisper of the Holy Spirit.
His forgiveness dissolves my outrage, because I too am a sinner.
His compassion kindles my cold heart, that I may serve with gladness.
His wisdom teaches me His way, so that I may walk in it.