The Pain on the Far Side of the World


Today’s city newspaper featured a front page story about a school bus rear-ended by a dump truck. A teenager was killed. Someone’s 18-year-old son, all ready for graduation, all geared up for college in the fall (“Mom, Dad, I got accepted!”), wolfs down his breakfast, maybe says goodbye, maybe even offers a kiss on a good day, gets on that bus and winds up a few minutes later in eternity.

A couple days ago, I read an obituary in my town newspaper about a 27-year-old man who died in a freak accident while on vacation. The part that got me was that he was very active in the Big Brothers organization. They ran his picture in the obit, a smiling face bright with possibilities. Now some boys who don’t have fathers don’t have the surrogate dad who took time out of his schedule to help them.

Personally, I find it very hard to read these kinds of stories. I’m thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t.

David Kuo at Beliefnet recently wrote the following in his post Thoughts on Suffering after seeing for himself the misery in Uganda:

Is that [poor decision-making] God’s fault?

I think not. Because at every moment those decisions were made God was whispering for people to do the right thing, the just thing, the merciful thing. But we chose not to listen.

God has done his job. We haven’t done ours.

I used to think the suffering question was a serious head scratcher, a truly troubling thing—the best evidence against God. No more. I think it is largely an excuse to make ourselves comfortable in our complacency by blaming God for the suffering we aren’t spending our lives addressing.

We live in unusual times, times that didn’t exist until a handful of years ago. It is said that the average person today is inundated with more data in a few weeks than most people in the 18th century and previous got in their entire lives.

We can thank our instantaneous global news networks for this. All the world’s misery can be pumped into my home in a matter of seconds. Every day of the year. For as long as I live.

I’ve thought for many years that this constant stream of anguish and pain coming at us from every corner of the globe is an aberration of our age. God never intended Man to process so much misery at once. Misery, Want, PainIf we’re increasingly a nation of people on psychoactive medication, should we be surprised? Isn’t there enough pain within ten miles of our homes to last us a lifetime? What then do we do when we hear an orphanage was buried under a mudslide in Ecuador or a bus full of nuns holding babies in their arms went off a cliff in Singapore?

If you and I were serious about praying for others, we’d have enough prayer requests from hurting people in just our church alone to last most of us from week to week. Isn’t that the case with you? I know it is for me.

I could probably spend two or three hours a day just praying for the crushing needs of people I know. So how can I shoulder the rest of the world’s problems?

I believe that many of us are suffering from compassion fatigue. The flood of misery washes over us and we’re just numb to it anymore. That’s a problem, because God never intended that we live our lives as if anesthetized to pain.

Somewhere, though, we have to draw the line.

With all due respect to David Kuo, I can’t blame myself for the problems of Africa. If he wants to blame himself, that’s his prerogative. This is not to say that I don’t care about the pain in Africa, only that if I want to be sensitive to the needs of others, I can’t let myself grow numb in the waterfall of misery that is the entire world in 2008. And that means I have to find a means to turn off at least part of that waterfall. For my own effectiveness as a Christian.

That may seem callous, but I have to ask myself what my responsibility would have been a couple hundred years ago. Before the instant news update on the earthquake in Japan. Before the daily notification of genocide in Sudan. Before the suffering of the entire world landed on my doorstep and asked me in one united voice to solve the problems of 6.5 billion people.

It’s not that I don’t care, only that God never intended for me to be the savior of the world.

13 thoughts on “The Pain on the Far Side of the World

  1. You’re right. God never calls us to be the savior of the world. We all have different things we are concerned and passionate about. I believe these concerns are God-given and as each of addresses them, the entire body ministers around the world. If we all tried to meet the same needs, there would be a lot undone.

  2. Dan,

    I also used to feel so guilty about problems half-way around the world. It was consuming; and not that it is a bad thing, it is just ill-spent emotion with no practical value. Sure, it makes me feel bad for the plight of a child, but what have I gained? There is a strange disconnect when we can feel compassion for a starving child somewhere in Africa yet a child down the street will go hungry this evening; that I can do something about.

    Like you I may sound careless and heartless, but it does not preclude that I don’t do what I can. Pray; of course. Send money, all the better. Lament the world’s problems; rather, do something about it right here at home.

    Thoughtful post, Dan. Thanks.

  3. Thanks Dan … very thought provoking. While I cannot (nor should I) save the world, I’m challenged to ask if I am doing all I should/could in the part of the world I can affect.

    As a side note, whether you are prophetic or not I do not know but you recently asked me how those in my family and my community of faith were affected by the economy. At that time I replied that we were fairly well insulated.

    Since then things have taken a turn. Several are now struggling. Yesterday a close friend was asked into the HR office at his workplace here in Cincinnati. They told him he was laid off effective immediately and then escorted out of the building. He had no clue it was coming and was offered only 6 weeks of pay.


  4. J.Kru

    The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows Jesus defining “neighbor” as the people who are providentially placed in our lives. With modern technology, it seems like everyone is placed in our lives! I think that we need to be first concerned with family and church (remembering that there is a difference between ‘I can only afford an ipod shuffle’ poverty and ‘my kids are barefoot’ poverty) and then all others whom God places in our lives. So we see Paul taking a collection in one place for the churches in another, and we see the Samaritan taking care of the man in the road.

    God may place them there through a special, discerned burden, (as in, “My heart was broken and empowered over these people on the news,”) or a ‘chance’ meeting, a movement of his spirit in the church (where many at once feel the need to help Indonesia), or even a proxy. (Meeting a man from Haiti who didn’t have any pressing needs, but as he told me about his country, I had a burden to meet the needs of Haiti.)

    May we not use the load of problems as an excuse to not help! I am guilty!

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  6. Anymore, Dan, when I read the news, it leaves me in the dreadful condition of feeling that the whole country is on it’s merry way to being utterly destroyed and that there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change anything about it.

    As just one example, consider that we’re spending an estimated $3 billion per week on our little “democracy project” in Iraq, with no end in sight. That our country’s leadership continues with this tells me that one of two things must be the case: (1) they are either completely Tom O’Bedlam insane, (2) or they are so thoroughly evil that they think nothing of bringing our country to ruin while all the time enriching themselves.

    So there you have it: Evil or Insane. What a choice! And now there are credible reasons to believe that the same leadership is contemplating another (even more disastrous) war with Iran. When that happens, just wait to see the effects of oil shooting up to over $200 per barrel. And what can I do about it? Vote?

    Well, I could go on and on about this and other things. But why bother? Suffice to say, Dan, that I completely understand where you’re coming from. After all, we were told to “love our neighbor” not “love the whole world”. Maybe, because the One who told us this knew that only He alone could “love the whole world”.

  7. “Evil or Insane” were my proposed explanations. It turns out that some guy named Austin Bramwell came up with a possible third choice:

    Perhaps, to take a cue from Veblen, it’s nothing more than the status-mongering of American elites. American policymakers like to say, in effect: “We are so rich and powerful that we can meddle anywhere we like, waste trillions of dollars doing it and get thousands of our soldiers killed. The terrorism our civilians suffer in consequence is no more than a nuisance that doesn’t bother us much at all. That is just how rich and powerful we are.

    So for the sake of their status and prestige, they are bankrupting our entire country. Well, maybe “status-mongering” is a third possibility, and though I don’t want to get too philosophical about things, I think it can be filed under Evil.

    • Oengus,

      I think the problem comes down to greed. Everyone wants more. No one is satisfied what what he or she has. Where it become disproportionate is that the über-rich have the ability to cause worldwide quakes when they play that game. I mean George Soros singlehandedly destabilized the currency of Thailand back in the late 1990s and made a killing doing so.

      These oil speculators are making a killing driving up the cost of oil. You just had leaders from several oil companies admit as much to Congress. And you can’t wager on oil as a commodity unless you’re a major player who can pony up millions at the table.

      What I find reprehensible is that these people don’t give one hoot about what they’re creating out of this thirst for more. We had a man like that running for president, Mitt Romney. Romney’s group bought up companies, sucked out all their profits, then discarded that plundered company’s shell. Problem is, that shell consists of people who worked for that company and lost their jobs because of it. Did Romney and his crew care? Not one iota. Those acquisitions types don’t care who gets hurt so long as they make money off the transaction. And that’s despicable.

  8. George

    How ironic that this post followed the one on avarice. First you complain about all those greedy people and how their greed makes it more expensive for you to buy green peppers. Then you tell us that there’s nothing value in being too worked up about those poor people on the other side of the globe — since we’re not the saviors of their souls, the hell with their bodies, I guess.

    The most interesting comment — no, not Moonbeams’; that nonsense about the war being only about misguided greed is just tiresome by now — the most interesting comment was Dan’s crack about greed is taking one more slice of pizza than one deserves. Pray tell, Dan, just how do you determine how much pizza you deserve. Then tell me why those kids in Africa don’t deserve any?

    Dan, for a guy with your discernment, you certainly seem to have a blind eye to personal consumerism.

    I, on the other hand — I see my sin of self-indulgence and am still working on mastering it. How much faster I would progress if I wasn’t just as greedy as those who feel they deserve that pizza and those green peppers at a cheaper price!

    • George,

      Where you see a total disconnect, there is, in fact, perfect unity.

      I can do something about the plight of my neighbors. I live in a rural community that is suffering hard from the economic downturn. Most of those people are in the lower ranges of the middle class down to the dirt poor. There’s an abandoned mobile home near where I live and it has never wanted for occupancy, mostly by transient families who own nothing. These people are crushed by even a few cents movement in the price of food.

      In both posts, it is them I wrote about, and those of us who are also finding ourselves in a downward spiral making it harder to make ends meet. I care about those people because I see them all the time and they live right around me.

      It is much harder for me to do something about hurting people on the other side of the world, especially when it is the entire world that is hurting in one way or another. That diffused problem makes it impossible for one man to handle all the need. Jesus Himself, during His ministry, could not meet the entirety of need of every single person in Palestine. It is a problem compounded by changes in media and communications.It has created an issue wherein the entire hurt of the world can be beamed into my house.

      Are you able to solve every single problem the media thrusts into your life? Or are you forced to filter it all? How then do you filter it?

      As for my dissing Africa, my wife and I give financially to a ministry called Revival Africa and have for a while. But you see, if we give to them, to whom do we choose NOT to give? Don’t you see the problem here, George? If we decide to support one essential ministry then we have chosen NOT to support the one that ministers in Fiji or in Myanmar or in Malawi or in Peru. Are we then callous-hearted people? Which worthy ministries do you elect NOT to support because you have chosen others that you WILL support?

      Also, you seem to want to make more of my pizza example than what is there. You’re reading something into it that doesn’t exist. It is only an illustration. If I had chosen a single loaf of bread tossed into a throng of starving people, would that have satisfied the illustration more adeptly? Greed is greed, whether it is a starving man hoarding a dry crust of bread that can feed more than one person, or a wealthy patrician buying up all the stock of a company so no one else can buy any.

      • Quote: Greed is greed

        Certainly true. As for the matter of raising objections to our nice little war being merely “tiresome”, well, I can only say about that X billion dollars we’re spending every week that somebody out there is cashing those checks.

  9. George

    Actually, no, I don’t see a problem where you see one. The fact that we cannot help everyone does not exempt us from the responsibility to help someone. The fact that it’s harder to help those on the other side of the world does not exempt us from doing so.

    Since we have the means to become aware of what’s happening in the third world, and since we have the means to send contributions, then we have the responsibility to do so: Eph 2.10.

    How am I redeeming the time? Do I use the media solely for my entertainment and knowledge and business, or do I use it to reach back to others. Do I use my blessings first for my own consumption and satisfaction, or do I use them to share among others and myself?

    The answer, as I said before, is mostly for myself. That is not Christ-like. While I am not responsible for the greed of either the poor beggar or the patrician, I am responsible for my own, just as you are for yours.

    Perhaps, Dan, when you wrote of how much pizza you deserved, you were saying how much was fair to consume. Even so, the question still remains: what is the standard for fairness? Is it really nothing more than if I earned the money to afford it, then it’s fair to consume it? I’m confident you would not say that. But what would you say? My answer? I don’t know.

    But I do know that of course you are blessed for your gifts to African missions and local homeless.

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