Bearing a Burden
I’m a 38-year pastoral veteran, now serving a semi-urban multi-ethnic congregation; and I have never felt more overwhelmed. While not clocking in more hours than in previous times, I am investing more grief and empathy. Add to this all the hours spent mulling the threat to (and opportunity for) love, justice, unity, and mission that today’s issues present, and the mental stresses are real. Plus, life just keeps going on with one task after another. I may not be busier (in terms of hours), but I do feel more burdened.
For many reasons—including pastoral care situations, racism, injustice, riots, COVID, competing political factions, unbiblical cultural ideologies, and a dearth of in-person congregational worship—I have sometimes gone to bed weighed down, only to awaken in the same condition. I’m nearly paralyzed some days, due to excessive and unrelenting human need, and a great uncertainty about what to do about it. Some will judge this as a lack of faith, and it probably is. Still, there is no point in denying it.
What Did Jesus Do?
God has helped me push through my numbing awareness of need by reminding me of Jesus’ comment that the poor will always be with us (John 12:7). This means that disadvantage—and all that goes with it—will be an ever-present and unrelenting reality. And it is clear from Scripture that other human woes—oppression, prejudice, partiality, classism, racial tensions, injustice, disease, loneliness, imprisonment, hunger, and unequal opportunity, to name but a few—will always be with us, too. I find strange comfort in knowing that we are never going to fix these problems this side of God’s Cosmic Renewal Day. It reminds me that we aren’t meant to.
But since planet earth (in this age) will always include these sorrows, we need a path of divine wisdom to guide us through the chaos without losing our bearings (or our minds) along the way. To that end, we would do well to ask what Jesus—God’s Wisdom incarnate—has done in the face of life’s ever-present and intransigent needs. One observation is that while on earth Jesus’ To Do list (as touching human need) seemed as long at the end of each day as at the beginning. After one busy day there was always another. A second observation is that Jesus left a lot of unfinished business behind when he returned to heaven.
Jesus didn’t get it all done even though as God, he could have. But he did devote his entire earthly life to people-oriented and compassion-driven works of gospel-preaching, healing, justice, mercy, leadership development (for his Church), caring for the poor and outcast, delivering the demonized, and a great deal more. Tellingly, he did all this, even though none of these “causes” would be fulfilled, or needs would be fully met, or injustices would be fully rectified in his lifetime. From this I draw this conclusion: Jesus did not do these things to get them done. He did these things because he was a just and good person, and these are the things that just and good people do.
This perspective can release us from the paralysis induced by need and ministry overload. The goal of life is not for us to get it all done. A person isn’t righteous because he ends world hunger; he’s righteous if he cares for the hungry. Life’s aim is not to bring everyone to faith in Jesus, but to bring some. It is not to eradicate poverty, but to help the poor. It is not to fix the world so there will be no more refugees, but to be a person who welcomes and serves the exiled when they come knocking at the door. It is not to end all injustice, but to do justice. It is not to alleviate all misery, but to comfort the miserable and lessen their grief. It is not to banish disease and death, but—like the Samaritan—to help and heal some of those who cross our path (Luke 10:30-37); and to comfort the dying in their dying.
We are not called to create a racist-free world, but to have racism-free hearts that respect, serve, and uplift all we know. Our cause need not be to end all abortion everywhere, but perhaps to care for and bless whatever abandoned pregnant moms we may meet. It is not to turn back all that is evil in human society and systems, but to call society and systems to account that some things might be changed at least a little, and that more people might be helped.
Here is hope for those of us who sometimes find ourselves staring glassy-eyed and mind-numbed at a world full of hurt. We will never get everything done. But we can do something—even if it is simply the next thing in front of us to do. There is something we can put our hand to and someone we can give our heart to, today. And that is what the Lord asks of us.
To this end, we are wise to remember that this present earth is not heaven. Earth is the realm of the “Do”, while heaven is the realm of the “Done” (Revelation 21:3-6). Ours is not to change the world in our lifetime, but to choose a few good works in the next 24 hours. Ours is to go and find something to do today (Luke 10:37)—and then leave the rest to God who will get it all done on That Day.
In the Scheme of Things
You and I may not—indeed we almost certainly will not—make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. In fact, that’s the very reason why Jesus will have to return to make all things new. Cosmic change is his business, not ours. Still, not long before he returned to heaven to prepare a place for us, Jesus left this charge with us: “Engage in business until I come” (Luke 19:13). Be about the Father’s business. Be doing what you can. Having appointed allotted days and resources for us (symbolized by minas in Luke 19:13 and talents in Matthew 25:14-15), Jesus tells us to stay busy using both in doing until he comes back. He doesn’t tell us to fix or finish everything, but simply to steward what he has given us to some worthy and holy end.
So what might that look like when the Post-It reminders accumulate, and it seems that there is too much to do and not enough that gets done? How can we do something today without being overwhelmed by everything? What might our own personal scheme of things look like? Here are some suggestions; not offered to give you more things to finish, but to remind of some worthy things to continue. Don’t try to do them all. Instead, pick one or two, or perhaps a few, for today, and see what happens:
- If you’re married be a faithful husband or wife
- If you’re single, be devoted to Jesus
- If you’re a parent, cherish and disciple your child today
- If you are entrusted with leadership responsibilities, serve well and humbly
- If a person comes suddenly to mind, pray for him or her
- Ask someone today how they’re doing and linger long enough to get an answer
- Buy someone a cup of coffee or lunch
- Speak gently but courageously and correctively when you hear a racially offensive comment
- Write a note to someone living alone; better yet, call them or invite them to dinner
- Say hello to a teenager and find out one thing about him or her to commend or pray for
- Affirm someone who has done a good job or a good deed
- Check in with someone who is COVID (or for some other reason) isolated
- Ask an unbeliever how you can pray for him or her
- Connect to someone who is culturally different from you and start listening
- Tutor a struggling student
- Provide a meal for a single parent
- Ask an African-American brother or sister how you can pray in light of current events
- Be Christ and grace-centered in your social media activity
- Choose not to believe bad reports—even when about your opponents or enemies
- Notice the poor and oppressed nearby and see of there is one thing you can do for (or with) them today
- Notice the loner along the way and draw him or her in
- Read an article about the persecuted church or sex-trafficking or domestic abuse or some other cultural evil—and pray that God would guide you to some way that you can help someone
If we try to do everything we will soon quit doing anything; feeling ourselves to be miserable abject failures for not being able to do it all. It is wiser to learn from Jesus who wasn’t in a frenzied or frantic rush to get it all done when on earth (or even now, while in heaven). Forsaking the futile illusion of becoming world-changing crusaders, ambitious to multiply our accomplishments, let’s aim simply to do a few good things in our time, knowing that he will get everything done in his.
this is pure balm to a list-makers heart. someone once told me it was better to do one thing well, than a lot poorly, I tend to get overwhelmed by the needs of those around me, let alone the issues of the world. thank you for the scriptures, and ideas and just the honesty and humility in your writing. May God continue to use you for His kingdom
Thank you Lynne. Don’t we all need such balm! Thank you for your prayer for God’s blessing. And Gayline and I hope you are well.
Thank you, Tim. Very freeing and an affirmation of thoughts I couldn’t quite put into words.
It is freeing Debbie. Grateful when truth does that!
I for one needed to hear these words today. Wisdom from a brother who has stayed the course for many years. How many overwhelming and sleepless nights I could have been spared if I had heeded this wise counsel years ago. Never too late! Thank you.
Never too late. These too are comforting words for us all.