In 1964, a young woman by the name of Catherine Genovese was walking home from work when she was attacked and brutally murdered. Shortly after the incident, a newspaper reported that 38 people had witnessed the attack but did nothing about it. Although later reports disproved the apathy on the part of some of her neighbors, the overall lack of intervention on the part of some of the bystanders was formulated into a theory known as “Genovese Syndrome” or “bystander syndrome”. This theory states that when there is a large group of people, it is less likely for individuals to intervene in a dire situation. It is a mental passing the buck whereby one convinces himself that someone else will intervene and help.
In the book of Nehemiah, we are introduced to a man who saw a desperate need, but instead of passing the buck, rose to the challenge and took personal action. The children of Israel had been captives in Babylon for many years and the wall of Jerusalem was in ruins. At the time, Nehemiah was living in a place of prominence and had been given the responsibility of being the king’s cupbearer in the royal palace. Yet, although he was many miles away from Jerusalem and living in the luxury of the king’s palace, Nehemiah’s heart was focused on the needs of the distant city of Jerusalem. When Nehemiah received the news that the remnant that were left in the city of Jerusalem were “…in great affliction and reproach” and that “…the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (v. 3) Nehemiah “…sat down and wept…and fasted, and prayed…” (v. 4). Nehemiah was heartbroken by the news of his people being in affliction and of broken-down walls in Jerusalem. But Nehemiah’s grief was not a short-lived wave of emotion that came and went like the tides of the ocean. Rather, Nehemiah’s grief was heartfelt. He allowed the burden on his heart to drive him to action. Nehemiah asked God to allow him to help rectify the dire situation. It is clear that Nehemiah did not experience “bystander syndrome”. He didn’t just see the need and ignore it or casually glance at the need and pass it on by. Rather, he was saw the great need and allowed God to work in his heart a plan of action to help. When Nehemiah prayed to God, he asked God to do a work through him: “…prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man…” (v. 11). Nehemiah didn’t ask God to get someone else to fill the need. Rather, he asked God to use him to rebuild the walls in Jerusalem.
When we come face-to-face with a need, are we ready to act? Or do we suffer from ‘bystander syndrome’ and mentally pass the buck to someone else? When we see someone with a physical need, are we quick to intervene on their behalf and lend a helping hand? When we recognize the multitudes that are still without Christ, does it drive us to action and lead us to share the Gospel with the lost and to support missionaries to go abroad? When we see a need in the local church, are we quick to step up to the plate and volunteer to help? Whatever the need may be, may the Lord help us to resist “bystander syndrome” and have an eye to see the needs around us and a heart ready to take action to help meet that need!
~Pastor Aaron Francis