Compassion and the Opposition

Thank you to all you loyal readers for subscribing and for sticking with me, despite my absence. I had major oral surgery recently and took some time off from writing. It has been a very painful recovery process and I am still healing from it, but I have some thoughts that I wanted to share and got the feeling that now was a good time to do so. The truth is, after reading a particular piece of scripture, God has my mind working. Much of this comes from the book of Matthew but we will talk about some other lessons, as well. Let’s dive in!

Since I offer ministerial services for free, I encounter tons of people who want things from me that I cannot or will not give. There are boundaries to my giving. I must set these up so that I can remain healthy, both mentally and physically. It is really easy to burn out and go down in a blazing blue flame of glory simply from giving too much. Finding myself unable to say no to someone has gotten me into deeper wells of struggle than I would ever like to admit to.

Saying no to someone, no matter what the reason or the request, can be very difficult to do. Then again, there are people in our lives who say no all the time, who can’t be counted on for the things we need, who disappoint us when asked to help with simple requests. Along similar lines, there are people in our lives who vow to help us with anything but when the time comes around, they are nowhere to be found or just leave us in the dust, bailing when the going gets kind of tough. All too often, we find ourselves either in situations we didn’t anticipate with people we can’t entirely trust, or we just feel overwhelmed by the constant barrage of requests for help from people we really don’t want to do things for.

Being a minister is hard. The perception is that I have unlimited giving potential, that I am able to expend energy from dawn to dusk and take calls after dark, or that I simply have no end to my compassion. Showing compassion for others is important—showing compassion for self is necessary. You see, a person can probably live their entire life without showing another person one ounce of compassion. We can live without reaching out to help another person with anything, without hugging someone who has experienced loss, without saying a kind word to a friend, without loving one’s parents. But to live without compassion for ourselves? That is a death sentence.

Let’s look that word up: Compassion. What does it mean, and what are the implications?

The Latin root of the English word compassion is “compati”, which means “to suffer with.” The bible is filled to the brim with stories of suffering humans, from the beginning when Adam and Eve first realized they were naked and hid from God out of shame, to the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Knit up into the bible are threads of lessons about why compassion is important, meant to light for us that narrow path which leads to peace. But what about caring for ourselves? In Matthew’ gospel, Jesus tells us all we need to know about that; let’s read back in that story a little bit to get a more robust perspective and check out Matthew 22:23-40.

Jesus is approached by these dudes called Sadducees, one of the three political groups of Jews in that time in Israel. (The other two are the Essenes and the Pharisees.) Think of the Sadducees as being the extreme right, conservative fundamentalists of their day. They confronted Jesus and started asking him what they felt were tricky questions to try to make him look bad to his followers. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. Anyway, after these guys get handed their own behinds by our savior, another group of dudes, the Pharisees, came along trying to do the same thing. They heard about what happened with the Sadducees and they were super upset by it. And here is where we see the declaration from Jesus that tells us what we need to know about how we should behave toward ourselves.

Jesus says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-40]

He tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves! So, if we are called to love our neighbor with a bright, shining, unconditional love that is wrapped up and sealed with forgiveness, hope, and compassion, then that is also what we should be doing for ourselves. But what do we do when we accidentally end up at the bottom of our barrel of giving?

Practice self-care. You cannot give to others if you have nothing left to give. You must take care of yourself in order to be able to care for someone else. Self-care is a way of maintaining your center and focus and of healing the inner workings that have been injured or damaged so that you can move toward better things. It restores you in more ways than one and is worth developing a habit of doing. Showing compassion for yourself is the first thing you should do to regroup and heal from life’s challenges.

No, this is not a selfish act!

It took me a long time to figure that out (too long) and I still struggle with it from time to time, often not realizing until it’s too late that I am burning my candle at both ends and have essentially dried myself up by giving too much for too long without paying attention to my own needs. There can be such a thing as toxic selflessness. Alongside that comes compassion fatigue—a very real and sometimes overwhelming problem that can send people down dark and scary roads they would never want to return to. I have experienced both of these dreaded positions. I quit my job suddenly a few years ago because I was so burned out and chewed up and overwhelmed by the needs of everyone around me that I couldn’t stand to be there anymore. I had become suicidal and made the decision to check myself into a recovery center for people in crisis, staying there for 4 days while I learned some things about myself and got some much-needed medical attention. When I left there, I had no job and little support at home, which eventually led me to the end of my marriage. That, however, was a step in the right direction for me. When I took that first step toward creating an environment where I could heal, it was taken simply by setting boundaries for the people around me. In my life, this meant ending a marriage to a person who was physically and emotionally abusive, who was cheating on me, and who did not show me the love I needed to be healthy and stable. (If you want to, you can read more about that at my other blog.)

Yes, setting boundaries is discussed in the bible (it really is a book about how to live a decent life and it’s got things in it you probably wouldn’t imagine). In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus is giving his well-known sermon on the mount. In this passage, Jesus tells us about setting up boundaries with the things we promise to others. Learning to simply say yes to something and follow through with it, or to say no to something is how we set ourselves on a trajectory toward peace.

Alright. Fine. But what do I do when the backlash hits? What do I say when my spouse-parent-sibling-coworker-neighbor decides I’m worthless to them because I cannot or will no longer give to their needs? 1 John 3:18 tells us “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” The more we work toward consistency within the boundaries we have set for ourselves, the better things will become. Yes, this might be REALLY HARD at first. Telling someone no that you have always said yes to is a very difficult task. People may try to manipulate you. They might lie to get what they want from you. They might cry or beg or call you names to make you feel small. They might lash out or even become physically violent if you say no to something that you once would have done without a second thought. While none of this is right, it is predictable. That in and of itself can help you, should the people in your life begin to protest the new boundaries you have set.

I have lived my life devoted to helping others. I worked for several years in the social services industry. Since 2009 I have been an ordained minister and I now have a non-profit ministry to run. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of compassion fatigue, both in myself and in my closest family and friends. I have been in that place of total burn out and despair. I have heard in my mind and heart the voice of “the satan” (which is actually pronounced suh-‘TAHN, not ‘SAY-ton), or as it is also known “the opposer”. I’m certain you have heard the voice, too. Words that cycle on repeat, telling me how terrible I am because I am unable to help someone in their time of need, for not being able to bring an end to someone’s desperation, to save someone from the bane of homelessness or drug addiction or an abusive relationship. The ones Jesus heard when he went out into the wilderness and was tested by “the satan” over his ability to be who he was called to be. [Matthew 4:1-11]

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Sometimes even the sun can be the opposer

I have hit rock bottom. But rock bottom isn’t bad! How do I know that? Jesus told me.

In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus says: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Rebuilding your life can only be done on a foundation of solid rock. By being in that place we call rock bottom, you are set in the perfect position to rebuild with confidence; doing this with mindfulness and faith is how Jesus has aligned us, setting us up to walk the narrow path with him by our side.

If you are in a place of struggle, there are people you can speak to about it who can help you to find resolution and services near you. If 211 is available in your area, give them a try. They offer free counseling and assistance with no judgment. If you are feeling suicidal and you need help immediately, call 911 right now. Ask them to have someone drive you to the nearest hospital for treatment. You can call or walk into to a church or temple and ask for help there. And if you live in the USA, you can contact the caring folks at a program called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or use the web to search for suicide and crisis help in your community.

Don’t suffer in silence. Your life is valuable me and to our savior Jesus Christ.

Grace & Peace,

-Eric

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