Last week everywhere I turned, it seemed like I was looking in a mirror. I was seeing Tired Women and hearing in their voices the strain of living a too-large-life. These women were smart, organized, super-responsible. All were married and had kids. Some were balancing a career. Some were homeschooling. But all were carrying tremendous weights, pulled in a multitude of directions everyday. Each time I would listen to them and find myself saying, “How do you do all that you do?” And each time a small voice inside of me would echo the question back to me: “How do you do all that you do?” To listen to another person talk about working a job, shuttling kids to activities, cooking, doing laundry, helping with schoolwork, serving at church, reaching out to neighbors, caring for sick parents. . . it seems crazy. How can one person do so much? How can other people (the not-so-ultra-responsible types) stand by and watch the Tired Woman carry so much? Why do others not help?
Perched outside of someone else's life, I can assess and advise. But living inside my own story of weighty responsibility and chronic over-extension, I know it is hard to live any differently. My own compassion seems to have betrayed me and taken me prisoner. I care deeply. Compassion is a beautiful, God-given quality. But when it operates as an independent agent, even Compassion can be a cruel dictator.
My friend has cancer. She is illiterate and sub-functioning in this country. Her adult children are not caring for her in a consistent way. I sacrifice my time to manage her meds, arrange transportation to doctor's appointments and often accompany her. That is compassion. That is faith, I think.
Or is it fear? Fear that something bad will happen if I'm not involved. Fear that I will “be a bad friend” if I'm not on the front lines of advocating for her?. Fear that I am not reflecting the love of Christ to a broken world, someone might not find Jesus? Fear of who I will become if I do not respond to the reflex of compassion?
The ugly underside of this responsible, compassionate woman is that I am angry and resentful. These are not the fruits of living out of faith. These are the fruits of living out of my flesh. I want to scream to the people I serve, “Why can't you take more responsibility for yourself? Why do you depend on me so heavily? Why do I sacrifice for you and yet you live selfishly? It is not just with my Liberian friend. This is the internal dialogue with my children, my husband and sometimes my friends.
I know I live out of my flesh, because when there is no thanks or worse, complaint, indignation rises up inside of me. How dare you? Look at what I have done! Compassion morphs into a critical, callous spirit. I want to run. I want to shed myself of all responsibility. Some days I just want to stay in bed and never answer my phone again.
Can a soul be sick from too much caring? It seems like compassion has mutated into some beast that brings destruction more than life. What is the anecdote? Where is the cure?
I read an old-time favorite verse in Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and not not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” I think of Christ freeing me from bad behaviors – lying, impatience, selfishness, a critical spirit. Is it possible that Christ wants to free me from my strengths as well? Do I need to be freed from compassion and responsibility?
Paul is writing to the Galatians who have embraced Christ, but who are also telling each other to be circumcised. Circumcision is good thing. It has been a long-standing tradition of Jews – a sign given by God to mark His people. And yet, Paul is telling the Galatians to stop it: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (5:3,4) Resting on traditional virtue is actually an impediment to walking with Christ. Could my compulsive compassion actually separate me from the grace of Christ?
“For through the Spirit by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” The Spirit stops me. The Spirit prompts me to wait. This seems passive. It seems like an excuse. How do I “wait” when people need me? And how do I wait eagerly?
It is passive. I am to be waiting for righteousness. I am not to be working it out. I am not to be constructing righteousness in my own life, even with a foundation of compassion. The truth is compassion is a faulty foundation. That is why my “good works” are fraught with anger and resentment.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything but only faith working through love.” I guess I could also say, “. . .in Christ Jesus neither compassionate works or no compassionate works counts for anything. . .” It seems so counterintuitive. It is hard to discard a very fundamental Christian virtue. This is where I get stuck over and over again. It seems un-Christlike. But anything that I depend on for my identity more than Christ, ceases to be a virtue. Compassion-apart-from-Christ, becomes a spiritual godzilla that destroys.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Christ wants to free me from the prison cell of Compulsive Compassion. Ironically, the fruit will be serving others in love. But right now, I am called to wait, to refrain from what seems most natural, to sink myself to God's love for me and the movement of His Spirit. My brand of compassion must die, so that Christ might grow in me His Compassion. It feels like death. But I suspect it is really the path to life and freedom.