When It’s Not Our Problem: Dealing with a Heart of Indifference

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When It’s Not Our Problem: Dealing with a Heart of Indifference

Not everybody has friends like my friends Joe and Cindi, but everyone would be better off if they did. To set up the reason why, let me take you back to a conversation I overheard a long time ago … Associate Pastor: “What would you say about a Christian who doesn’t have much of a heart-concern for the needs of the poor?” Senior Pastor: “I’d say they are a lousy Christian.” This exchange happened early in my career in ministry. I was part of a church staff of four pastors. We were on our way to our weekly Tuesday lunch when the Associate Pastor riding shotgun posed this question to the Senior Pastor who was behind the wheel. There was no qualifying his reply or any elaboration following it—just this short, right-to-the-point assessment.   The associate pastor shifted to another topic and that quick back-and-forth about what makes a person a lousy Christian evaporated from any of the continuing conversation. I was surprised how quickly this pastor could draw such a non-negotiable conclusion about Christians who weren’t sensitive to the plight of the poor. But in the decades since then, I’ve come to learn that his answer was not only an accurate assessment of that particular problem some Christians struggle with, but an over-arching verdict on a general problem all Christians struggle with.   This isn’t an article about the poor; it’s an article about indifference. It’s about how easy it is to discount—even disregard another person’s problem when it isn’t our problem. For instance:  

  • It’s hard to empathize with the self-consciousness, loneliness and hopelessness of a person that can’t seem to find a decent job when all you’ve ever had was a steady paycheck from a job you’ve loved.
  • It’s hard to sense the helplessness of a person with on-going health issues when you’ve never spent any significant time in an ER or hospital.
  • It’s hard to feel the desperation of the parents of a prodigal when the head start your up-bringing gave you and your kids’ internal wiring make it easy for you to look like some parenting superhero.
  • It’s hard to sense the shame and embarrassment a person feels whose body type won’t ever allow them to be remotely close to the superficial size standards of our shallow culture when you’ve been given a genetic code that makes keeping extra weight off fairly easy.
  • And it’s real hard to understand the unrelenting and life-style altering challenges of parents raising a special needs child when your kids consistently fell in the ideal range of the physical, intellectual, and emotional measuring scales.

Being Honest with Ourselves   If we don’t claim to be followers of Jesus, we’d have somewhat of an excuse for our indifference. It still might leave us in the “lousy member of the human race” category, but not the lousy Christian one. The Bible tends to hold a stricter measuring stick up to people who say they are on a first name basis with the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s why an indifferent attitude towards other people’s struggles raises the stink meter when it comes to our spiritual credibility.   Why? Simple. Indifference is the antithesis of love.   Some would think “hate” is. But that’s never been so. It takes a lot of passion to hate someone. That passion can always be redirected. And even the healthiest of love connections is a bit of a love/hate relationship. Indifference is different. It’s a decision to deliberately not be concerned. And it’s an easy trap to fall into when what you don’t care about is not your personal problem anyway.   We can try to defend our indifference by pleading ignorance. But in an age of twenty-four hour news cycles and relentless social media, it’s hard to actually be ignorant of other people’s plight. We have to work at not noticing.   We can try to defend our indifference by pointing out how limited we are at doing anything truly substantive when it comes to addressing the inexhaustible struggles surrounding us. Our limited ability to do anything substantive doesn’t justify us not noticing or—worse—not caring.   Indifference can become sinister when it launches from a heart of self-righteousness and responds to other people’s needs with condemnation or condescension. But most Christians’ indifference isn’t coming from these dark places. It’s more the struggle of not paying attention to what others are going through or feeling powerless to do much about it. So fortunately, we can usually avoid the “evil” label when it comes to our indifference, but we’re still stuck with the “lousy” one.   Incidentally, I’m not talking to you about this; I’m talking to us. I’ve struggled with pockets of indifference towards certain people’s needs all my Christian life. But I realized I’d never improve in this area until I stopped being indifferent about my indifference. I had to call it what it is, (i.e., lousy Christian behavior), confess it as one of my personal struggles, and then take deliberate steps to minimize it in my life. Fortunately, I found that doing three of those things came easy when I took the primary step needed to overcome my attitude of indifference. And that was getting myself out of the way and letting God occupy His proper place in my life – The Driver’s Seat.   When we don’t notice or deeply care about other people’s struggles, it’s one of the surest warning signals that God isn’t in his rightful place in our lives. It’s not enough for Jesus to be prominent; he must be preeminent. This, of course, is an on-going struggle. But the more we’re deliberate about our pursuit of His heart, the more his heart ends up defineng ours. When that happens, we start seeing people the way He sees them and start feeling what they’re going through the way He does. Here’s how the Apostle Paul captured this thought:   Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  2 Corinthians 1:3-5   When God’s heart of grace is maintaining a steady beat within us, it not only easier to admit we struggle with indifference towards other people’s difficulties but to also recognize it as a lousy Christian attitude we need to refuse to accommodate. It also inclines us to do the third thing I mentioned in the action list above:  take deliberate steps to minimize it in our life.   My wife and I had four kids. They all fell within the average or above average ranges when measured physically, intellectually, or emotionally. They occasionally got sick, depressed, or felt intellectually inadequate, but only in the normal ways most kids feel that kind of stuff as they’re going through childhood. And although we had lots of friends who were also raising their kids, none of our friends had a child that would fall in the category of “special needs.”   Because raising a special needs child wasn’t something on my personal radar, I had no idea what parents of these children contend with on a daily basis … like: the lack of personal freedom, the inability to dream outside the confinements that that child’s needs create in the home, the added stress on their marriage, the added stress on their finances and career plans, the stress it puts on the siblings, the inability to look forward to an empty nest, the backdrop of sadness, and the enormous and unrelenting fatigue. Unfortunately, the out-of-sight nature of their situation accommodated an out-of-mind attitude in me when it came to being sensitive to what people in this situation were going through. But just because something wasn’t my personal problem didn’t absolve me from my responsibility as a Christian to pay better attention, become better informed, and be ready to do what I could when situations arose to come alongside people who are in this situation.   Then God brought two amazing people into my life: Joe and Cindi Ferrini. They had three kids, but their first child—a son named Joey—was born with cerebral palsy that radically impaired his physical development and mental capacity. His needs required above and beyond attention on a daily basis and his developmental struggles took so many of the standard parent/child inter-actions off the table for them. All of the things I enjoyed, (and took for granted), about raising my kids—things like: playing catch with my boys, seeing my daughter’s wild imaginations in action, swimming with them, taking them on crazy adventures, watching them face the challenges of school head-on—and succeed—Joe and Cindi NEVER got to experience with Joey. The cadence and routine of a family where the parents and kids have the standard developmental capacities was a cadence and routine that Joe and Cindi NEVER knew in their home because of the unique and over-riding needs of precious Joey.   About twenty years ago our paths crossed. We ultimately became friends. In the process I got a much better understanding and deeper empathy for the sacrifices they had to constantly make on behalf of Joey. I saw first hand the discouragement they so often had to endure. But they showed me something else—the rich up-side and enormous personal rewards God brought their way through raising and loving a son like Joey. What I learned from them helped me speak intelligently and passionately in my role as an elder in my church when we were deciding on whether to create a special needs ministry and devote a large chunk of our church’s budget towards funding it. It’s what helped me see the urgent need for us to devote some of the focus of our Family Matters Blog towards intelligently addressing the needs of these special families with these special children. Cindi has written many articles for our blog that I highly encourage you to access through our archives. Just tap “Cindi Ferrini” into our search engine and you’ll find tons of help and hope. If you’re dealing with a special needs child or aging parent with demanding requirements, I also highly recommend you pick up Joe and Cindi Ferrini’s book Unexpected Journey. https://www.amazon.com/Unexpected-Journey-Special-Change-Course/dp/0967761271/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=unexpected+journey+ferrini&qid=1562194979&s=gateway&sr=8-4 . These are two humble people God has used to do some major work and in the process offer some valuable help to all of us.   Just because something is not our personal problem doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be our personal concern. As the Talmud reminds us, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.   When God is sitting in his rightful place in our lives—the driver’s seat—He puts us in a much better position to have eye’s that see people’s needs better, hearts that hurt properly for them, and hands that are more inclined to help.  

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