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Compassion Fatigue

In his landmark book The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the character of God: God loves the people of the world fiercely and rises to defend his beloved ones when they are threatened and oppressed. God pours this fierce love into the hearts of the prophets, who give voice to silent agony, expose systems of oppression, and call on the people of God to love as God loves.   

Heschel also observes how hard it is for the people of God to sustain this fierce love, how compassion wanes and hearts become hard. He was one of the first biblical theologians to address the issue of compassion fatigue. Contrasting the fierce love of God for those who are hurt with the people’s tame love, he writes these haunting words:

“Who could bear living in a state of disgust day and night? The conscience builds its confines, is subject to fatigue, longs for comfort, lulling, soothing. Yet those who are hurt and the Holy One who inhabits eternity, they neither slumber nor sleep” (10-11).  

All of us who have opened our eyes to see the faces of those who totter on the edge of our world, our ears to hear their cries of anguish, and our hearts to feel their pain know the truth of what Heschel is saying about fatigue. All of us have experienced the limits of our capacity to love. We know what it means to contract our circle of care, to leave behind people whom we once loved fiercely, and to abandon causes to which we were once devoted.

The hard truth is that we cannot love as God calls us to love. We eventually build walls to confine ourselves and seek to be comforted rather than to comfort others. Walled-off from our fellow creatures and creation, our conscience withers, and our hearts harden. The issue is not that our love is imperfect—how could it be otherwise for creatures whose hearts are so fragile, so divided, and so desperate for recognition?  The issue is how do we sustain our love for those who are hurt and oppressed.

Where can we go for renewal? 

The prophets of Israel not only upbraided the people of Israel for their hardened hearts, they also directed them to the place where their hearts could be softened and love renewed. They directed them to the temple, the meeting-place between God and the people. The prophets believed that the temple was a place God chose to fill with glory, a place where worshippers could bask in this radiant power and become themselves the means by which the glory of God filled the world. There are two passages where this understanding of the temple is memorably expressed:  Isaiah 2: 1-5 and Amos 5: 18-24.  

Isaiah 2: 1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

 In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
   Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
 He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

Ancient peoples saw mountains as connecting heaven and earth, and they built temples on the top of them to meet their gods. The people of Israel shared this understanding of mountains, and they built a temple on Mount Zion in the city of Jerusalem. These temple-mountains were more than centers of worship, they were also walled fortresses from which people sallied forth to conquer other nations and prove their superiority.

In Isaiah’s vision, Mount Zion is raised as the highest of the mountains and looms over other temple-mountains—the physical landscape is reconfigured to correspond to the spiritual landscape. The peoples and nations all look up and see a rising Zion, and they discover that they are one people and share one center. The justification for their warring madness is undone, and they come to Zion to hear the word of the Lord and learn a new way of living.

All the nations stream to Zion, they have become pilgrims, and they participate in a universal worship service with a classic three-fold movement:

  1. approach to God–the peoples and nations stream to Zion;
  2. word of God–the Lord judges and decides;
  3. response to God–the peoples and nations beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. 

Isaiah informs us that the Lord has created the world as a place of worship. The world has one center and many roads leading to it. A centered world invites a specific type of movement, and this movement of the peoples—what we in a desacralized world call history—is liturgical: approach to God, word of God, and response to God.

Worship has always been imperfect, and its imperfections have led to animosity and the devising of weapons of mass destruction. But at the end of time, worship will be perfected. The peoples and nations will hear the words and judgments of the Lord. And these words will be so melodic and the judgments so rhythmic that humanity’s agitated hearts will find peace. They will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Now farmers instead of warriors, they will return to the work for which they were created: tilling and keeping the garden-world of God.

Amos 5: 21-24

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 

When my family moved to the little agricultural village of Nes Ammim in the Galilee region of Israel, we encountered a new and different geography. We arrived at Nes Ammim in the middle of the dry season, which runs from approximately April to October.

Unlike anything that we had experienced in Michigan (known on our license plates as the “Water – Winter Wonderland”), the heat was unrelenting and the dryness unyielding. The land was scorched and its beautiful and varied grasses and flowers had been reduced to stubble. Vegetation—and people—languished. 

I remember a day in November when the early rains came. I was cutting red roses in a greenhouse with the international crew that had become my friends. It was at least ten degrees hotter in the greenhouse than outside and dehydration was a major concern. We carried water bottles and took a drink after cutting each row. Longing for a break in the weather, we watched the clouds beginning to form. One day we heard rain on the glass roof and everyone dropped what they were doing and ran outside. We let the rain soak our bodies like sinners being baptized. I remember watching one young woman close her eyes, look up, and raise her arms to the heavens. It was an instinctive act of worship to the God who had blessed us.

Because the people of the scriptures lived in this same geography, they were deeply sensitive to the significance of water. They did not see rain as a meteorological phenomenon, or water as a commodity to be bought and sold, as we in the West do. Water had spiritual significance: It was a visible sign of God’s invisible presence in the world. No matter what form it took—the early and late rains, a spring in the desert, a well, or a river—water pointed to the deeper reality of God’s love and care for the world. Every source of water was a holy place, every act of drawing water was a ritual, and every drink was a sacrament.

For the people of Israel, God was the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:3) and love flowed from the heart of God like a river. From Genesis to Revelation, there are visions of this ever-flowing love. A river flowed from Eden, the Garden of God, dividing into four branches and watering the whole world. Ezekiel saw it. The farther it went, the deeper and wider it became. His guide told him: “Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish…” (47: 9). John saw it: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city” (Revelation 22:1).

It is against the backdrop of the river of life tradition that the words of Amos 5: 18-24 have to be heard. The prophet from Tekoa condemned worship in the nation of Israel. The people were delighted with the solemnity of their assemblies, the sweet savor of the sacrificial meat, and the melody of their songs, but God was not. To God their meetings were only maneuverings, their sacrifices only sanctimony, and their choruses only cacophony. What did God desire? Amos called out: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Everyone knew that Amos was talking about the river that flowed from the heart of God. He was reminding them that the essence of worship was the act of drinking in the love of God, quenching their thirst, and satisfying their longing.  

In drinking from the river of the love of God, the people were to become the river. If worship were true, they would be transformed and filled with a zeal for justice and righteousness. They would roll down the temple mount like waters and become a stream flowing ever wider and deeper, just as Ezekiel would envision years later.

Jesus sees himself as the fulfillment of Amos’s understanding of the human river of life. He says to the Samaritan woman: “Everyone who drinks of [Jacob’s well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Then he adds, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

Not Every Prophet Wears a Loincloth

The popular understanding of prophets is that they were versions of John the Baptist–wandering in the wilderness, clad in a loincloth, eating insects. They suddenly materialized, railed at corruption, and disappeared to their wilderness sanctuaries. We don’t imagine them as part of the temple culture. We think of prophets as the precursors of modern evangelicals–proclaiming that believers meet God in the privacy of their hearts and not in the trappings of temple worship. In the words of the environmentalist and modern prophet Barry Lopez. “It was the desert not the temple that gave us the prophets.”

In all this we are wrong about the biblical prophets. Some like John the Baptist and perhaps Elijah and Elisha came from the wilderness, and their spiritual sensitivity was heightened by their wandering in these fierce landscapes. No argument there. Yet many prophets were priests: certainly Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were all priests. Biblical prophets strove to purify temple worship, not replace it with some personal, ethereal experience of God.

Isaiah, Amos, and all the prophets understood God as a being whose radiance filled the world and energized the created order. They called this radiance God’s glory and God’s holiness. Oftentimes they called it God’s steadfast love. They believed the temple was the place in which the hearts of worshippers were infused by the glorious love of God. The temple was the place from which God sent them as agents of peace (the vision of Isaiah) and justice (the prophecy of Amos) into the world. 

The prophets taught that there was no doing justice without being just, and no being just without worship. They taught there was no peace without being at peace, and there was no being at peace without worship. The call to justice and peace was a call to worship.

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant

When I was teaching at Western Theological Seminary, I would sometimes take my students on a field trip to the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in Covert, Michigan. I asked the public relations officer to take us as close as he could to the core of the plant, where the uranium atoms were split open and the energy held within them was unleashed.

He first brought us to the huge turbines spinning on the steam piped from the core of the reactor. These turbines produced enough electricity to power every home and business in the area. Next, we came to the room where men and women in white coats controlled the reactor, a room full of instrument panels, levers, and flashing lights.

Finally, our guide brought us to a thick, locked door through which only a very few technicians entered in special suits maybe once or twice a year to inspect the nuclear core. The radiation was so strong behind this door that it would kill anyone exposed to it for any length of time. I am not sure whether or not we were imagining it, but we could feel the reactor vibrating and hear it humming behind the door.  

When we returned to the seminary to process our experience, the students were puzzled. Why had we made the trip? I said my hope was their experience at the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant gave them some understanding of Israel’s experience of worship at the temple in Jerusalem. God seated on the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies was their nuclear core; the robed priests were their men and women at the controls; the power generated in worship could give light to the world, and anyone exposed to the ark of the covenant directly would die immediately.   

What followed was a fascinating discussion of the meaning of worship. Almost to a person, the students said that they did not associate worship with power and did not see worship as needing a location. Jesus met them in their hearts, and they could worship anywhere, anytime. God was everywhere. I asked if that meant God was nowhere in particular.

I invited them to think again about location and to imagine what kind of power might be available to them at a place of worship. I referred to hearing the word of God in preaching and experiencing the presence of God in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. According to the liturgy, we invoke the Holy Spirit to empower the words of the sermon so that they become God’s words, and we invoke the Holy Spirit to imbue the elements of bread and wine so that they become for us a communion with the body and blood of Christ. Many of my students said that they had never really thought of worship this way and had trouble recalling moments when they experienced the presence of God in worship.

A People Afraid of Jesus

As Heschel has described, the prophets confronted a people whose conscience had built its confines. They challenged a people who cared only for their own comfort and material well-being at the expense of the poor and needy. The prophets called for renewal, warning the people that their self-serving worship had turned God away from them.

These same prophets are calling us to worship today. We too are a people whose conscience has built its confines, who pursue our own comfort and material well-being and ignore the poor and needy. We are a people who have closed our hearts and no longer experience God as present in worship, no longer experience Jesus as present in the “least of these,” and the Spirit as present in the created order. We are people who have emptied worship of its power and are living in the age of the “Great Departure,” the Great Awakening a distant memory.

The above is a rant, and I am a bit uncomfortable with it. It seems true, but how does it help any of us renew worship and to love as God loves? How do we open our hearts in worship in order to drink in the love of God, to use the image of Amos, and become the river of God’s love flowing to the world?

I do not think that our worship has been corrupted because we are greedy or prideful or slothful. We at times manifest these vices and more, but they are symptoms of a deeper soul-sickness. I think worship has been corrupted because we are afraid. We are afraid of Jesus and his call to sacrificial love. We are afraid to be vulnerable, afraid that in loving others we will be rejected and hurt, afraid that in emptying ourselves we will be depleted. So we confine our conscience, build walls around our hearts, and cut ourselves off from others and the world.

With hearts so walled-off, our mortal longing for love and community intensifies and seeks fulfillment in other ways. Unable to access God’s power, we exert our own power. Our hearts become orgiastic, bingeing on the physical pleasures that life offers. Rather than becoming fuller, our hearts become emptier; instead of hearts overflowing with love, they become arid deserts. As a friend of mine once said at the all-you-can-eat buffet at a local restaurant, watching people approaching the shrimp table: “How many shrimp do you have to eat before you realize it’s not shrimp you’re after.”

Worship is the place where we face our fears, the place where we empty ourselves and wait to see if what Jesus said is actually true: “If you seek your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose it, you’ll find it; unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Worship is the place where we wait for the fierce love of God to do its work in our hearts and carry us out into the world as agents of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart is Dennis & Betty Voskuil Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary and a frequent contributor to the Reformed Journal. 


  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    Thank you.
    Heschel’s book was the key text in my Minor Prophets class in college and has been a resource ever since.

  • T says:

    Thanks Tom. Profound and what I needed. Just spent two weeks in the mts and reflecting on it I was more consumed with finishing projects then seeing God, although there certainly was some of that. Worship, touching the heart of God and getting in step with that heart. Thanks, T

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    I remember going to the nuclear power plant and I also remember Heshel (and still read it). Unfortunately, “For most Americans worship is to satisfy or please them, not to honor or please God. Amazingly, few worship-service regulars argue that worship is something they do primarily for God; a substantially larger percentage of attenders claim that attending worship services is something that they do for personal benefit and pleasure.” – George Barna. I’m afraid this is true not just for Americans but for most modern worshippers. One day we will worship God in Spirit and Truth and seek to drink long and deep from Jesus’ living water.

  • Beth says:

    I feel it in my bones. Thank you for helping me to name it.

  • Sharon says:

    Thank you for helping me to think more deeply about worship. Thank you

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