[Jesus] withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
—Matthew 14:13-16, Common English Bible
The word compassion comes from the Latin root word, compati, which means “to suffer with.” And these days, when I watch or listen to what is happening in the world, from COVID-19 to the generational wounds of racism to the ever-accelerating effects of climate change, I find myself experiencing a heavy dose of suffering.
I wonder, “How can I continue to feel, to watch, to read about these tragedies of human life? How do medical workers and first responders, aid workers, clergy, friends, and family continue to reach out as they hear the stories, see and feel the wounds? How did Jesus do it?”
I have a tendency to get overwhelmed with the suffering of others and I shut down, withdrawing to avoid feeling the weight of it all. I wonder whether Jesus ever experienced “compassion fatigue”? As we learn to be persons of compassion in today’s world, it is easy to become overwhelmed and incapacitated. I find myself caring so deeply that I take on the other person’s pain. How do we find the healthy balance of caring, walking alongside those in crisis without taking their suffering into ourselves?
I think Jesus found the right balance. The scripture tells us a little bit about how Jesus dealt with all the needs around him. First, he took action: he touched people, listened to them and healed them. He gave of himself whenever he could. Second, he prayed: he lived his life through a series of “holy moments.” He sought God and made time for God. Third, he took time apart: he went away in a boat, he went up the hill and left his disciples behind, he sought out times to be alone with God.
As I think about how I can respond to the pain, the tragedies that surround me, I hope I can remember Jesus’ example, his compassion, his action and interaction, his life of prayer, and his trust in God. May we all find ways to live out compassion in this hurting world.
Loving God, touch and heal our siblings around the corner and around the world. Guide our leaders in the ways of peace. Give them wisdom, compassion, and loving hearts. Help us to follow the example of Jesus in our families and communities. Show us how to love without tiring, to care without numbing, to pray without ceasing. Make us vessels of your compassion. Amen.
Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel.
This article first appeared in From the Center, a monthly email newsletter from The Upper Room curated specifically for clergy and church leadership. Subscribe to From the Center here.