It’s possible for a Christian to care too much about good things. For instance, we can care so much about God-honoring causes that we exhaust, discourage, and overwhelm ourselves. And this can lead us to disengage from those very things. In other words, caring too much can lead to caring too little, and this is one of the ironies of life — even the Christian life.
Too Much of a Bad Thing
It is really easy to be numbed by the dizzying array of tragedies, hardships, negative data and needs we encounter daily.
One would think this onslaught of important and urgent information would keep us alert, vigilant, and engaged. But it often has the opposite effect. Author Wendell Berry insightfully and pessimistically captures this experience:
“It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question: can we — and, if we can, how can we — make actual in our minds the sometimes-urgent things we say we know? This obviously cannot be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all” (It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture & Other Essays).
Berry’s point is that weightiness of the information we take in is often inversely related to the quality of our response. The more need or tragedy or data points or reality, the less we feel. Too much of a bad thing can cripple our affections.
This is something like the phenomenon known as “compassion fatigue,” which typically affects those in helping professions (such as nurses, humanitarian workers, teachers, doctors). It is sometimes described as a feeling of helplessness in the face of society’s many problems.
Empathetic people will sometimes hit a point where they feel they cannot commit any more time or energy to help others because they’re overwhelmed by the seemingly endless needs surrounding them.
What often results is numbness, a loss of empathy, emotional disconnection, and a decreased sense of purpose. We feel that we’ve done so much yet done so little. So, sadly and ironically, our exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy breed apathy.
Yet, for the Christian, giving up on caring and surrendering to apathy is simply not an option. So, what are exhausted and seemingly inadequate people to do?
Rehearsing the Gospel
A healthy approach begins with acknowledging our apathy to God and receiving his good news. He knows our frame, and he makes life-giving promises that speak to the core of our numbness.
To the weary and rundown, he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Jesus recognizes that even the yoke of compassion can be burdensome — even if good — and he promises those who come to him that he will provide Sabbath rest now and forever.
He invites us to take his yoke, a yoke he bears alongside us, and step into this messy world on mission with him.
To those who feel insignificant and inconsequential, he reminds us, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6–7).
Our Father cares deeply about us, not just generically as “humanity,” but as individual children. The details of our lives truly do matter to him. This mere fact infuses our lives with real significance.
However, God doesn’t merely say that we are valuable but also views the things we do as being meaningful. He promises that whatever good we pursue in this life will be rewarded and that in due season, we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up (Galatians 6:9).
God will not forget the big or small, well-known or hidden things we do as his faithful servants (Hebrews 6:10). Everything is valued, and everything will be rewarded.
In the end, God confronts our crippling “why bother” attitude with the good news that we matter to him. And whatever matters to God is of ultimate and eternal significance.
We also need to remind ourselves that apathy — like every other sinful tendency — is forgiven, healed, and conquered in Christ.
Although we may feel guilty, weak, and stuck, God tells us that we really are free and able to engage in a battle in which he’s already inflicted the decisive blow against the enemies of our souls.
And we rehearse these aspects of the gospel because they help to reshape the way we think about ourselves amidst our apathy. We need to know that we are not powerless victims but that God’s grace — his kindness and power — covers us and propels us to overcome apathy.
The Apostle Paul writes: “[God’s] grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Grace us makes us fighters and conquerors.
So, how do we do battle against apathy that arises from fatigue and discouragement?
Fight the Good Fight
While having the proper perspective on ourselves is critical, we are also called to step into the fray and combat our apathy. I’m convinced that combat happens through the development of habits that shape our hearts.
Let me suggest a couple of practices that might help dig us out of apathy or prevent it from arising in our lives.
1. Sabbath regularly. We who are weary need to know that our productivity and involvement in good causes do not define us. An over-focus on work(s) can cause us to lose perspective.
We feed the belief that only what we do matters. But these are lies that end up stripping us of energy and perspective in our lives. Sabbath allows us to emotionally and mentally step back and put things in proper perspective.
Set a day or a half day every week where you rest those parts of you that have been most deeply engaged in the grind of the work week. Rest your body and mind. Be refreshed by Scripture, relationships, a hobby, reading, and times of prayerful reflection.
2. Feed faith and hope. We who are discouraged need to fight for faith. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “One must train the habit of Faith” (Mere Christianity).
For those of us who are prone to discouragement, or find ourselves fearful about hardship, one of the most foundational things we can do is build up faith and hope through the promises of Scripture.
We need to focus on passages that remind us of who God is, his presence in our hardships, what he is doing through our exhausting labors, and the ultimate hope Christians have of being with and like Christ.
Also, find models of those who have labored hard and suffered well. Read their biographies as part of your regular spiritual diet. Learn their secrets. Turn up the volume on those voices that encourage you toward Christian hope.
Whether the cause of your apathy is compassion fatigue, discouragement, feeling inadequate, or something else, know that God is with us and for us as we fight the good fight against indifference. God does not want us to stop caring because we’ve cared too much.