Monday, September 27, 2010

Compassion at its Limits

Today I'm going to talk about something that my wife and I have been going through recently. I want to share our experience as well as some of the questions it has raised for us. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on these issues.

About a year ago, my wife and I decided to take someone into our home. She is an older woman who attends our weekly Bible study. She was kicked out of the house she had been living in and had no place else to go. We decided to take her in at least until she could get back on her feet.

Since that time we've made ourselves available to her. We've looked into more affordable housing options, programs to help people get back on their feet, and programs to help elderly and disabled people find work. For the most part she ignored our help, and when she did follow up it was only after we had both insisted that she make the call.

We have also tried to support her in other ways, especially by talking with her and praying for her. It has been good, but far from adequate. This woman has suffered from abuse, and she probably needs to see a professional. Unfortunately, she has been reluctant to speak with a therapist about her situation.

Recently, my wife and I both decided that we weren't willing to let this woman stay with us any longer. We have tried everything we could think of to help this woman turn her life around. Unfortunately it seems clear to both of us that the kind of help she needs isn't something we are able to give.

However, the process of arriving at that decision raised a number of interesting questions for us.

1) What is our responsibility toward people in need? How do we help people who are unable to help themselves? What about people who are merely unwilling to help themselves? How do we ensure that everyone is being cared for and everyone is being treated fairly?

2) What do we do when we've reached the limits of compassion? How do we react when we're doing everything we can to help, but things still aren't getting any better? Do we continue caring for others even when we know that it won't make a difference?

3) How do we decide that we've done all we can? When and where do we draw the line, and say that we're not going to continue helping the person? How do we determine if our attempts to "help" are doing more harm than good?

These are just some of the questions we've been thinking about as my wife and I have come to this decision. We've talked about these issues write a bit, but I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on these issues. Please share them with me in the comments.


  1. 1) You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink. In John 5, Jesus asked that disabled guy next to the pool, "Do you want to healed?" What if the guy said, "No, it's easier to sit around all day"? I am not sure Jesus would heal the guy against his will. If the person is used to being sick, then staying sick would actually feel better than getting healthy.

    2) Some things are best left to the professionals. Sometimes praying all an average joe can do.

    3) There are usually patterns in brokenness, and after a while, only a professional can help to break the cycle. No matter what you do, you cannot let the person drag you down with him/her. So if you've done all you can, and nothing's improved much, it's time you hand things over to a professional but keep praying for her.

    I can refer you to my church if you were in LA, but you're in SD...

  2. 1) One benefit of living in a Christian community is that charity can be a group effort. You have personally experienced the difficulties that can arise when one person tries to take on this kind of problem alone.

    2) I always like the concept of "widow's corners". In the Bible, instead of giving easy handouts, farmers would leave the corners of their fields ungleaned so the widows and orphans could scavange enough to live. Constantly having to rely on charity can wear down a person's self-esteem. Never forget this backlash can result from charity.