Bystander Syndrome

Bystander Syndrome

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, this 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 Jerusalem was in ruins. 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 some 800 miles away from Jerusalem and living in the luxury of a palace, Nehemiah’s heart was focused on 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 broken by the news of his people and of Jerusalem. But Nehemiah’s grief was not a short-lived wave of emotion that came and went like the ocean tide. Rather, Nehemiah’s grief was heartfelt. He allowed the burden on his heart to lead to asking and seeking God to allow him to help rectify the dire situation. Nehemiah did not experience “bystander syndrome”. He didn’t just see ignore or casually glance at the need. Rather, he was overcome by the 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 make things better.

When we come face-to-face with a need, are we ready to act? When we see someone with a physical need, are we willing to give? When we see the lost world around us, are we willing to share the Gospel? When we see a need in our local church, are we willing to serve? May the Lord help us to resist “bystander syndrome” and embrace a readiness to act when the need arises!


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