Diagnosing the Problem
I got up at 12:00 noon on New Year’s Day–which here in Russia is considered still very early– while the house was serene and quiet. It was the time I had decided to spend seeking the Lord for the new year and any revelations and resolutions that it might bring. As I asked God for guidance, I let my mind wander and explore what was something I could really sink my teeth into, or make into a new discipline. You know, that “It’s a new year, let’s get goin'!’” kind of attitude. I started to get some ideas for praying for my family, but as soon as I did so a certain kind of weariness set in, and that old demon of shame, who seems to constantly nip at my heels, rose up and said: “You’ll never be able to do this. You can’t keep up with all the needs. You’re not disciplined enough and you always fail. Why even try?” I sat there, overwhelmed and frozen, giving into the temptation to listen and agree. It’s true, I thought. The needs are so great! I can’t keep up. Why even try?
“The needs are so great. Why even try?” I’ve been thinking about that sensation and thought process ever since. In 1992, nurse Carla Joinson coined the term “compassion fatigue” to describe a unique form of burnout that resulted from caregivers who are overwhelmed by the needs and pain of those around them.* I realized as I thought about the needs of the people around me that I, too, have had that experience time and time again as people ask for prayer and support from me as a pastor, a leader in the church, and as a sister in Christ.
What I realized was this: I cannot possibly process and pray for every request that comes to me. I cannot possibly as one human being with a finite 24 hours of the day (8 of which I spend not even consciously awake) pray for every person and situation I hear of every day. The needs and requests are a deluge and flood that never ends. And it’s not because the needs are silly and trivial (although some are, no doubt)–it is the very legitimacy and urgency of most of these requests that actually cause the extreme fatigue to set in.
Think about it: how many chats, Facebook groups, prayer emails, prayer chains, and the like are you personally a part of? When you scroll through social media, how many urgent problems do you see in people’s lives? How many accidents and surgeries and traumas and problems and impossible situations do you hear about every day? And now with Covid and especially the Omnicron variant–the numbers of people we know directly affected by this horrendous virus is simply astronomical. And every single one of them is asking for prayer to get better (admittedly, a normal and expected thing to do given the circumstance!)
And have you ever thought about the fact that we as Christians have a much harder task than the rest of the world, spiritually speaking? Because we believe in a spiritual realm, and in a Father who cares for this planet, we have a command and responsibility to pray in His name for the needs of ourselves, families, churches, and the world. This is a delight and source of total joy looked at from one side (we’ve been given power to create change in Jesus’ name!) but from another side, the one we don’t like to talk about or admit, it creates an enormous amount of stress and even a sense of burdensome labor.
I know, I know–I can already hear the arguments rise up when I say that prayer can be stressful and laborious. That’s because people don’t understand what true prayer is! or That’s because they don’t pray with faith! Or That’s because they aren’t walking in God’s Spirit! or That’s because they don’t make enough time for prayer! All of those have a definite element of truth, and we need to continually address the topic of prayer in the church to teach Jesus’ disciples how to pray. But that’s not the angle I’m coming from today. I’m taking it for granted that the believers I am speaking of today are people like me who believe very much in the power and efficacy of prayer. What I am trying to point out is that we have a uniquely modern problem with being overinformed, and we need real solutions for people as they try to struggle with what the Lord is really asking of them to do with the information they have.
Here is what I am convinced of beyond a shadow of a doubt: The human brain is not equipped to process the knowledge of the kind of trauma the modern world has made available to know! It is a unique season in human history that with the onset of global networking that the internet has made possible, I can know anything at any moment. But should I know? Can I handle that knowledge? And how do I process the knowledge of the needs of the people I love and channel that into something good, like praying for them?
We have to get a clear and powerful revelation of what the Lord is asking of us as His disciples and what He has uniquely equipped us to do for the needs of the people around us. Without that knowledge and conviction, we will constantly give in to compassion fatigue and prayer fatigue. The burnout will result in numbness, apathy, and either ineffective, perfunctory prayer or altogether prayerlessness.
By the way, I was eventually able to shake off shame and “get goin'’” on the new year with a new outlook and a new sense of purpose in prayer. In the next blog I want to share some ideas and revelations about how to overcome prayer fatigue that have helped me. Until then, I pray that you and I truly hear the voice of the Lord, who gives us purpose and power in prayer as He equips us to do all He has called us to.