Compassion fatigue, the Saviour complex, and Benevolent detachment

Compassion fatigue, the Saviour complex, and Benevolent detachment June 12, 2022

How to share one another’s burdens without carrying them

Jesus tombstone carving image intended to imply that Jesus image should be carved not on stone but our hearts
Some call it compassion fatigue.   The Human body is not meant to carry the burdens of the whole world. One of the effects of the pandemic and Ukraine war has been to make many of us feel unable to really care any more about the fate of others. There is a resultant numbness towards others and we find it difficult to either watch the news or talk to someone close to us about their own local problems.  We find it difficult to then obey what is fast becoming one of my favourite passages in the whole Bible:

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. (Gal 6:2-3, NLT)

When done right, sharing someone else’s burdens will often include them sharing your burdens too.  Unfortunately the NIV and the ESV both translate a word in a way which we can then critically get wrong in this passage. They encourage us to do something I do not believe Jesus ever intended us to “BEAR” or “CARRY” other peoples burdens.  There is a world of difference between the two ideas.

The Greek word means  “to endure something unpleasant or difficult whether on one’s own behalf or on behalf of someone else.” (Logos Bible Software Factbook).  I read into that a sense of taking on the problem but not so fully that you are now the one carrying it alone and the original person with the problem is absolved of all responsibility for it.  So the image we should think of is of being yoked together in the sense that we are saying “We are in this together, you are not alone, but I will help YOU carry this, I will help YOU figure out what to do about this.”

If I carry someone else’s burden I have taken it away from them, I have made it my burden or problem to carry.  They might feel lighter, or they might feel indignant at my interference in trying to fix a problem that is theirs to either fix, or learn how to cope with if it is unfixable.  An attempt to take away someones burden, to help them feel better, to pull their socks up, is one of the ways toxic positivity can cause much damage.    So the net result for the person we were trying to help is actually harmful to them, and meanwhile we are now weighed down with a burden we were never meant to carry.

If I share someone else’s burden, particularly if they do share some of mine as well, there is a mysterious divine equation which is that the net result is both of us feeling LESS burdened not more.  Human beings are designed to live in community like that, to be yoked together like cattle or horses, and to know someone else is pulling alongside us.  We are not called to try and save the world on our own.

The result of wrongly taking on someone else’s problems fully, or of watching too much TV news is that we may ultimately become devoid of any interest or love in those around us who need us to share their burdens. One of the causes of this is that we don’t just share the burden we try and take it off them, so putting it onto our own load. We make a valiant attempt to fix unfixable problems. Often sadly in the process we achieve only two things:

First, to make the person we are talking with feel they were unheard, their emotions invalidated, and they might not want to talk to us about their struggles again. So it’s not even as if our saviour complex meant we achieved the goal of “helping” them.

The second thing we sometimes achieve is to weigh ourselves down and eroding our ability to be compassionate to the next person. The solution as it so often does lies in correcting our expectations and managing the expectations of others. We serve a Saviour who actually doesn’t need us to help him save others! He calls us to share their burdens, not carry them, to show love and LISTEN rather than immediately share solutions, and to feel genuine compassion and act on it as appropriate. Today the greatest gift you can give someome is to truly listen to them in their pain and acknowledge how painful it is to them. To come alongside them as a compassionate friend, not to try and fix them. And guess what done right that interaction won’t be so burdensome as other ways of interaction.

A while ago a brief article argued that far from pursuing empathy where we might feel the suffering of others as though it is our own, we should instead aim to be full of compassion.  Scientifically compassion is better for the brain than empathy.

As believers one crucial factor that can help this process is if we then either together at the time or later on by ourselves cast the burden onto Jesus who IS our Saviour. Let’s lay aside our saviour complex and replace it with a commission to show compassion and an ability to keep doing it without burning ourselves out. This picture says is all. The source is unknown.

The best thing we can do if we are feeling burdened with our own or other people’s problems is to come to Jesus.  He urges us to let him carry our burdens completely.  He encourages us that the loads he gives us to carry are light and manageable because he is yoked to us and he gives us his strength.  We might have to cast our anxieties and burdens to him many times a day, but he is always there to help us and give us his strength.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-29, NLT)

This call to slow down, disconnect, and COME to Jesus is one of his commands, which he urges us to obey.  It is one that perhaps we are not that good at following.

Paul expresses the same idea in different words:

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, NLT)

The virtual need to learn how not to take on board the problems of others and indeed the whole world was wonderfully expressed in a podcast involving John Eldredge speaking about his idea, “Benevolent detachment“.  I listened to this recently.  It is full of self compassion which is something we do not think enough about. It mentions things like slowing down and getting into nature, listening to God, and that for many of us we need to massively reduce the amount we watch the news. I loved one line especially:

“It is traumatising to subject yourself to the heartache of the whole planet”



You can listen to the podcast right here:

Learn More

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Jesus Commands: “Come to Me”

Professionalism vs. Compassion

Be still and know – a meditation track

Jesus Wept with Compassion

The Tyranny of the Positive

VIDEO: Joy in Sorrow with Matt Chandler

Should a Christian go to counseling with a secular therapist?

Holistic counselling and pastoring (Biblical counselling #3)

The four pillars of mental health and wellbeing




Don’t miss the rest of this series on The Commands of Jesus,

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