The Cost of Compassion: Why It Feels Bad to Do Good

For awhile, I’ve wanted to write a book about compassionate living. It stems from my experience with missions, traveling the world, and with the homeless community in Nashville.

The problem is that there are too many books and blogs about compassion and not enough people living it. That needs to change. Because what most well-meaning authors and speakers don’t tell you is this:

It feels bad to do good

You never hear that at church or read it just below the “DONATE” button on a nonprofit website. But it’s true. Just ask anyone who’s done relief work or aid in the developing world. Talk to the staff at your local homeless shelter.

This compassion stuff ain’t nice and tidy. It’s horribly messy.

This is an essential lesson for anyone wanting to live a better story. A story worth telling is full of conflict. If you want to live more compassionately, pain is inevitable.

The Cost of Compassion
Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

What compassion costs

Did you know that the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”?

If you’re trying to serve someone who is hurting and it doesn’t hurt you in the process, you’re doing it wrong.

The cost of compassion isn’t money. It’s comfort.

I know this, because I’ve lived it. And I know others who have, too. When you hold in your arms a baby dying of AIDS or put a pair of shoes on someone’s bare feet, it doesn’t make you feel good. It hurts.

If you’re being truly compassionate, your heart breaks for all the needs that you’re not meeting in that moment.

When we can get in touch with this part of our hearts, we begin to truly come alive — to tap into that part of ourselves that has grown numb to the pain all around us. We begin to be restorers and redeemers of a broken world.

Your choice

You don’t have to care about this; I’m not asking you to do that. That’s your choice. But if you do, or even if you want to care, I hope you do something about it.

Because it takes more than a broken heart to heal the world.

Of course, I hope you allow your heart to be broken, for your soul to be wrecked by a need you can’t possibly meet on your own. But I hope you are transformed beyond feeling mere pity. I hope it hurts more than you know or understand.

This is what it feels like to do good. It hurts. Real bad.

When someone tells me the only reason to help the less-fortunate is so that you can feel better about yourself, I laugh. They obviously have never lived amongst the poor, the destitute, the heart-broken.

This idea that philanthropy is self-medication is just not true. Not if you’re really helping. Not if you’re with those who are suffering. You can’t help but hurt a little, too.

And that’s the whole point.

How to know if you’re living compassionately

This is a good litmus test for those of aspiring to make a difference: Do we feel good about what we’re doing? Or does it hurt a little? Maybe even a lot?

If so, then you’re on the right track.

This is not Disneyworld. It’s the real world. This is life — real and raw and gritty.

If you are going to change something, you are going to have to enter into the pain.

The only escape is to live only for yourself.

“Love hurts, but sometimes it’s a good hurt,
 and it feels like I’m alive.”

To read more a personal experience with this (including my own wrestling with skeptical, selfish thoughts) read this piece I wrote for Reject Apathy: “Embracing Raw Community.”

Oh, and that book I talked about? I just might write it. Like, real soon…

Have is it ever felt bad for you to do good? Share your experience in the comments.

*Photo appears courtesy of Lachlan Hardy (Creative Commons)

59 thoughts on “The Cost of Compassion: Why It Feels Bad to Do Good

  1. This, my friend, this. LOVE it. Perfect lyric from Incubus too. Compassion has nothing to do with throwing money at a cause. That’s charity. And people don’t need charity. You can’t change anything with charity.

    Love this line:

    “I hope you allow your heart to be broken, for your soul to be wrecked by a need you can’t possibly meet on your own.”

  2. This is why to me, short trip missions is a joke. People go to a country with great needs, stay in a comfortable hotel and come home to give yourself a pat in the back and call yourself a missionary. I know, I’ve done this for the last 4 years. I don’t lose sleep over those people’s needs. I may give some cash and may visit again later. But it doesn’t hurt me. 

    Like an old missionary once said. True love for the hurting and true missions is taking a boat to the land of the needy, getting off and burning the boat. 

    Today, we take the boat, pay it parking, and when it’s right, take the boat back home.

    This is a very convicting post. I need more hurting. 

    1. Thanks, Moe. To be fair, I think there is a legitimate place for STMs. They just need to be done well. Happy to put you in touch with some people who are doing just that.

      1. You are right. I should have been more clear. Some people go just for the experience. Don’t get me wrong, even that I think has a purpose. But I have seen too many people on STM trips just to say they have gone. 

        I think STM trips with the purpose of supporting LT missionaries makes a lot of sense. 

  3. I feel this way with counseling. There are so many people who go to my church and are hurting. There are many times where I have helped them and I feel drained. I feel sad. I feel helpless even though I’ve offered them some help. Thanks for this post! Grand slam!

  4. I’ve heard it said, “If you ask God to use you, don’t be surprised when you feel used.” I think this goes right along with the idea of hurting with people who are hurting. It’s not easy, but it’s good. It takes its toll, but it’s necessary. 

  5. Hi Jeff,
    I feel so happy visiting my dad in the nursing home. And I always leave crying. When I walk out the doors to my car the floodgates open. Every time. The loneliness is palpable. I can feel it from every person sitting in the hallway or propped up in their beds watching as I walk by. I’ll stop to talk and I just want to stay forever. It’s the same with the “homeless”. I love hearing their stories and finding common ground. I’m always humbled and ofttimes broken by the experience. Seems like I have so many more choices than they do. The only thing I’ve ever been able to give of lasting value has been my time, my smile, and a good conversation. There are beautiful people out there. And they don’t have much of a voice.

  6. “This compassion stuff ain’t nice and tidy. It’s horribly messy. And this is an essential lesson for anyone wanting to live a better story. A story worth telling is full of conflict. For the person wanting to live more compassionately, pain is inevitable.”

    This is something I try to make real to my college students. Not just compassion, but even just serving God. If you’re going to be a leader in a ministry, if you are going to truly impact people’s lives, if you’re going to have true community, it means getting messy, and dealing with other people’s scars and getting hurt yourself. 

    But it’s worth it.

    Great post Jeff!

  7. In about an hour, I’ll be meeting a child in kindergarten who has already fallen behind his class. His life is such that no one in his family has taught him his letters or numbers, or even how to write his name. My heart aches and I’m filled with sadness for the unfairness for this lack of attention, probably due to parents who are working hard to eke out an existence.

    I know helping him to get caught up isn’t enough, but at least it’s something. I’d hate to see that he develop a hatred for school and learning because he compares himself to the other kids, and finds himself lacking.

    So armed with pencils and paper, and stickers for effort, I’ll do this one little thing, today.

  8. Great post! Compassion is so messy and painful. This summer, a young family in a church in Oakland was a part of a drive by shooting while they were feeding the homeless. The dad was killed instantly and the 5 year old daughter wounded. It was such a blatant reminder to me that compassion puts us on the front lines. We don’t get involved because it feels good but because the passion awakened within us due to the pain of others requires us to do something. It is what partnering with Christ truly looks like who “for the joy set before Him, endured the cross.”

  9. I think the key phrase here is…

    “If you’re being truly compassionate, your heart breaks for all the needs that you’re not meeting in the moment.”

    There’s something about that powerlessness — the inability to help everyone and ache of “making a small difference” — that can drive us to find ways to reach more people or swallow us up in the overwhelming needs surrounding us and in the world at large.  It’s a fine line, but one we have to walk if we’re going to be effective.

  10. Yes!

    I read a letter to the editor of our local paper the other day about religi-tainment, catering to the hedonistic self centred side of our ego’s. 

    When you mention doing quiet long term compassionate work with people who are risky, smelly and plain more like those who  Jesus did life with, you certainly feel the cold but comfortable distinction between ‘them and us’. Jesus lost followers, they unsubscribed!, because of his compassion, and it makes me feel both alive and incredibly dependant – on him.

    Dangerous unsettling compassion. 

  11. Well, I think your book has just been conceived 🙂 Yes, it hurts, but it’s the kind of pain that makes you want to endure… Thanks, great post!

  12. I can really relate to this. There is a feeling I get when I am helping someone in need. Its not my own sadness but the sadness of the person I am helping. I am able to feel the void in which I am trying to help get filled. Its a feeling that stays with me after I do what I can to help. I remain concerned that they are still in need. I pray for them a sincere and humble prayer that their needs are met and I am grateful for what I have been blessed with.

    1. I’m thankful to read what you wrote, Softheart.  Many time, I have felt the oppression of another and thought it was my own depression.  I realized that God uses people that are thoughtful (I don’t mean nice; I literally mean full of thought) to get unseen work done.  I’m not saying this as a badge of pride; I’m saying this because it took me a while to even WANT to keep this gift.  It hurts and I am thankful that I am not alone in this gifting.  May God bless you Softheart and may He keep continue to keep your heart soft.

  13. I’ve got mixed emotions about this one.  I was a missionary for 16 months in some of the poorest areas of Guatemala.  I lived very simply and could carry all my worldly possessions in a medium-sized duffle.  Those were some of the hardest and some of the best, most spirit-driven times of my life.  But I can’t live in missionary mode forever.  I’m raising a family.  Now, as part of my work with a women’s group, I’m visiting the dying elderly and helping women in domestic violence situations.  Again, heart-breaking, but rewarding.  The situations are not superficially pleasant, but the feeling of knowing you are on the Lord’s errand, being His hands to those who need help… That does feel good.  It feels good to meet a need, and in the midst of the suffering, I find gratitude for what I’ve been given, which also feels good.  Humility–which is required to serve with compassion–is not a popular or “comfortable” feeling for many, but it is actually quite liberating.  Getting out of the “self” mode opens a world of opportunities.

  14. This is a really insightful and challenging post…

    I lead a young peoples’ charity. A big piece of our work is homelessness (we have a small housing project; rooms and support, and help to move on). I’ve done it for a long time, and it’s become quite comfortable for me. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this past week – that I need to find a different kind of push forward.  As you’ll imagine, this post has set me thinking that I really do need to strive for more and come out of my comfort zone…

    And today, I’ve been working with one of my colleagues on planning some new volunteering and fundraising things. We’re so careful not to ask too much of people, not to be too challenging, to make sure that people feel comfortable and engaged.  In some cases, we try to dress things up a bit and hide some of the more difficult issues.

    I think we need to look at some of those things again.

    Thank you. Hugely. Reading this might just be the difference that I needed!

  15. Heather Sunseri sent me over; I’m glad she did! It does hurt, but it is the good kind. Thanks for posting this.

  16. Yes it hurts to help. We have a nice house. A pool house even; big as some homes. The last few years it’s been booked solid with unwed, mothers-to-be pondering adoption, abused woman, separated husbands and wives hoping for a redeemed marriage that need a little space to make it happen. We’ve had a number of college interns looking for direction in their life stay over the last few summers.

    These people don’t just hang around out back. They eat dinner with us and we share the full spectrum of life.

    If I wanted to feel better, I wouldn’t let my wife hear their story and sit fireside with them and cry. It cuts into our time together.

    If I wanted to feel better, I’d watch the flatscreen in the pool house alone without interruption.

    This past year we are weary of the pain in the world. But, the pool house is always open; when it’s not full.

    We’ve failed a lot in our life but, in this one thing (hospitality) we’ve excelled as a family. Apart from the pain, it is deeply rewarding.

    That’s a bit of our experience.

    P.S. You’ve really put words to our recent weariness. Thanks. We needed this to know it’s o.k. to feel tired.

  17. This is so true, Jeff. Ha, I thought I was doing something wrong because I hurt with these women so much. But I guess that is the only way to live compassionately. I wrote a blog recently about this solidarity in pain–if you are interested:

  18. I work casually for the Salvation Army in Australia. Just in the store, manning the front end, and by and large it’s a good gig. A lot of people come through who’ve been trhough their hard time, and now want to give something back either by donating or simply buying from our store… that’s comfortable, it’s safe, and every ‘God bless you’ is a tiny high the likes of which is impossible to describe if you haven’t felt it. Oh yeah, that bit feels amasing…

    But at the store level we also provide clothing, bedding and simple kitchen items for people who are still in the middle of their hard times. The gentleman I served last week who’d been sleeping on the floor, a single father and his daughter whose house had burnt down that week, a homeless girl with bruises on her face and arms that I couldn’t bring myself to push for answers over…

    I’ve only been working there since April, and I still have to go out back and have a cup of tea after those kinds of customers. The store manager piles in the sugar and assures me it’ll get easier. Judging by the other ladies, it must, none of them cry anymore. At the same time though, none of them seem to get the high anymore either… they don’t seem to float around after ‘god bless the Salvo’s’, not like I do anyway. It all becomes old hat, the never ending parade of human suffering, how they cry and scream, and how they come back weeks later, appologetic and grateful once they can see clearly again.

    I think, when I can’t feel it anymore, it’ll be time to take a break and do something else for a while, until the numbness passes.

  19. Jeff, this is a beautiful post! You should definitely write that book.

    I’ve been struggling a lot lately with the overwhelming thoughts and deep hurt I have felt since leaving Haiti. What’s the best way to make a difference to a country you can’t explain? A country that has such incredible needs that you don’t know where to begin? It’s easy to say or think, “you start by helping one, then another.” It’s also easy for an American to look at a country like Haiti and say exactly what you think is wrong or not working, but once you’ve met and talked with people truly living and surviving there, the picture of their “needs” changes, and your perspective changes.

    I do know one thing for sure. God talks back to me more clearly when I speak to him through compassionate living. 

  20. You’ve put into words what I couldn’t quite understand about myself. This blog post is an aha moment. I guess I shouldn’t have felt that it was an aha. After all, Jesus is called a Man of Sorrows, and who better to empathize than God himself? 

    I help in different ways. Sometimes the help hurts because the people I help could make better choices and have better lives. They just won’t listen. Other people I help are helpless. However, there are many more of them that I can’t help because of limited resources. It is painful.Thanks for expressing what I couldn’t understand how to explain to myself.  

    Write the book, please!

  21. Again, there is the balance.  There are the heart breaking moments, there are tears.  There is also the moment where you feel your heart come alive for the first time.  That moment where you realize what you were made for.

  22. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. I stumbled on your blog and am happy I did.  Someone posted a comment on a nameless popular social networking site (Facebook, which just happens to be the “why and how” I stumbled on your blog).  It was a quote that read “a happy woman is the prettiest woman”.  I commented that I disagreed because melancholy is just as pretty when it produces compassion.  I guess no one understood what I was trying to communicate.  This, though….this blog entry, article, and fantastic piece gave my comment a life!!  You put into words what I obviously didn’t communicate very well.  Thank you and I look forward to following your blog in the future.

  23. Jeff- another brilliant piece. Thank you for starting this

    For three years I had a position at church where I served
    people on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis that had needs. It was rewarding and
    heart-wrenching. I had days when I cried and was down on my knees, and days I
    rejoiced for the progress they made. Then two years into this service came a
    day when my mother’s cancer, my step-father’s cancer, my step-mother’s death
    and my oldest son leaving for a two year mission all came crashing in at once
    and I had to reach out to those I had been helping and supporting for their strength.
    Often the one serving is the one who in the end is raised up. I spent another
    year in this position. Now I’m serving the people in my church (and by extension
    the larger community) in another capacity. My mother and step-father are
    better. My son is thriving on his mission in Brazil and will be home in

    Most often when people think about extending compassion they
    think of big things- serving weekly in a shelter or going to a foreign country
    and working with people in dire straits, but for most people this is not
    possible. What is possible is extending compassion on a daily basis and in seemingly
    small ways. Taking a few moments to visit with an elderly neighbor, driving the
    speed limit and being courteous to the others on the road, turning off the
    music, or other distraction, and talking with, not to, your child, bringing a
    meal to a friend- just because. You never know the ripple effect these ‘small’
    acts of compassion can have in a life, to a family, to a community.

    I would encourage you though to make the conscience choice
    to structure your life and set the goal to serve deeper and harder. It may mean
    working less, or giving up a favorite hobby, or not having a vacation, or
    forgoing a conference, or restructuring retirement so you have the time and
    money to be in the difficult places.  

  24. Hey Jeff 🙂

    The french definition I found adds an interesting element to the standard definition of “suffering with”: it adds that it is also the feeling of being compelled to stop that suffering.
    I have an example that came to mind. I was mentoring one of my friends who is 10 years younger. He was in a bad spot financially and didn’t have proper clothes to go out and network with business people. I was compassionate in the sense that I understood and felt his pain. I then proceed to give him several of my shirts that I almost never wore and were almost brand new.

    So I think the key to compassion is action, not just feeling for the sake of feeling.

    Makes sense?


  25. When parents care for their children, that’s compassion.  When neighbors take care of eachother, that’s compassion.  When people care for the environment, that’s compassion.  Helping others to avoid suffering is as much compassion as is healing ongoing suffering, and doing so does not feel bad.  The idea that if one feels good then one must then not be compassionate is itself an uncompassionate idea.

  26. I find that when I show people kindness they don’t like it. They reject it. It seems to make them uncomfortable. I am an artist and I give away most that I make but I have people not want to accept these gifts. I am wondering why that is?

  27. I whole heartedly agree Jeff! As a nurse and Geriatric Care Manager I have devoted my life to being present in compassionate care. I feel the pain of those I serve and it is through “being there” and “being with” that care occurs. This phenomenon connects our humanity. There is much written on the topic to care. After 33 years of heart felt compassion I still believe its a stewardship, yes almost too great of a experience to describe in words. The shared pain is real. Both a blessing and a curse and always raising my eyes to the lord to continue giving me the strength to serve others. However, Of late I’ve noted more obstacles in care delivery. Exploitation if you will, of those in need by family, Heath care system, etc. most often driven by greed, money, and secondary gains. Not only is it hurting to provide compassionate care and do good, but becoming almost impossible And yet another paradox. Good vs evil.

  28. Without, I hope, coming across as some kind of an ass, yes, I do try, and yes, it does hurt. In my case, it hurts in a real, physical way, because I am disabled enough that all the typing and such that I do is ruinous to my hands, wrists, the whole lot. And I am pretty loquacious, which doesn’t help. And yes, I am trying to make some real differences, to better peoples’ lives (again, not trying to come off as some kind of know–it–all or pretentious twit), and, in all honesty, what I’ve got to work with, came to me as the result of a lot of years of misery, self–loathing (not to mention self–doubt), isolation… It wasn’t, and isn’t pretty. But it did, in the end (well, I hope more the late middle) bear some pretty rare fruit. But, taking these insights and putting them in front of people without credentials or other institutional support? Going to be another kind of pain, likely pretty humiliating. Because just telling people the truth, “I’m autistic, and hyperlexic, and somewhere between the two I’ve got this neuro–atypical tic that is like a search engine for patterns and parallels, under the right circumstances and only if I feed this subconscious google monkey the right questions, in something approaching the right context. And, of course, what I dredge up has to be out there. I mean, I’m not getting the word of god or transmissions from aliens here. If it’s not in the public domain (i.e. sitting right in front of peoples’ faces all this time) then I can’t find it. But that’s just the mechanism, the behind the scenes. I still need to take whatever I’m grinding on and make it convincing, compelling, and engaging. (Or to coin a Goins, Remarkable.) And that is going to involve a lot of open wounds and shortcomings getting rubbed in the salt.

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