A couple of months ago a friend who lives in Turkey asked me what it looks like for us to walk with one another through difficult things without picking up the weight of another’s worries. How can we bear another’s burdens without burning out ourselves? Can we be obedient to the mandates of scripture without it killing us? What might that look like?
Several months ago I wrote a blog piece entitled Burnout—A Retrospect:
Somewhere in all of that cross-culturaling I think it was actually our theology that killed us. We had role confusion. We took on jobs that are God’s. Lowell was committed to building Christ’s church and the gates of Hell would not prevail against him. Not if Lowell had anything to say about it. And I, bless my heart, I was inviting people to come to me if they were burdened and heavy laden and I would do my darndest to give them rest. I would look after them. I would make it all better.
It’s a recipe for burnout for sure. It’s also heresy.
As I thought of an answer for my friend it struck me that there are at least three things we could have done differently. I think they might have prevented some of the weariness in well doing we experienced. I wonder if they would have staved off our self-pity and our burn out as well. They might have helped us correct our theology and understand better how to bear the burdens of our friends without slowly self-destructing on the inside.
We should have remembered to leave room for God
I remember once years ago, a young couple, came to faith in Christ. Looking back on it now I think one of the main reasons they came to Jesus was for a baby. They had struggled with infertility and the poignant shame attached to that for years. They had also been exposed to Christ-followers who, similarly had battled infertility, but who, by a variety of miracles had welcomed babies and children into their lives. Adopted toddlers snuggled up on their mommies laps during our weekly worship services. Naturally born, miraculously conceived, babies peeked out behind their daddy’s shoulders. They saw those children and they wanted one of their own. They desperately wanted to shake the shame off their empty laps. They desperately wanted to fill the empty spaces in their affections. People who came to Jesus seemed to get a free child thrown in on the side. I think that’s why they came.
I remember agonizing for them. I wanted them to have a baby SO badly. I wanted Jesus to come through for them. We prayed fervently. We hosted fundraisers to raise money to contribute to specialized medical treatments. We prayed some more. We brought meals when they were low. We invited them over when they were discouraged.
We crossed the line.
At some point our prayers became manipulative and whiny. We lost our dignity. We were groveling, begging, pleading with God to do something. (We thought we were somehow defending God’s reputation…but really our own reputations were on the line). We started to wish we were God so we could do what needed to be done.
But what if God didn’t want them to have a baby? What if he actually wanted the empty space at their table to forever remind them that He is enough? What if their emptiness would serve to push them into His fullness? We had stopped listening to God…. we were pushing ahead with our own agenda. We needed to leave room for what God really intended. Perhaps infertility was an integral part of their story. In which case we created expectations in them that really weren’t from God. We thought we were introducing them to the God of all Miracles but really we introduced them to an impotent Santa Clause—who hears our wishes but has no intention nor the resources or capacity to grant those wishes. We meant to lead them to God but instead we led them to deep disappointment.
We should have done only what we had been asked to do.
We meant well. We really did. However, sometimes we took on the burdens of our friends that we were never meant to take on. It’s imperative if we want to avoid playing God that we only do what we’ve been asked to do by God himself. Sharing each other’s pains and bearing one another’s burdens is the sweet fellowship we are called to but only the pains and burdens we are called to.
My friend, Susanne, over coffee, once shared this illustration with me. According to the story, God asked a man to carry five rather large stones to the top of a nearby mountain. The man obediently loaded up the five stones into his cart and started pulling the load toward the mountain. Just as he was about to begin his ascent a neighbor waved him down, “You going up the mountain? Could you take this goat with you?” The goat was loaded into the cart. The man continued on his way. A little way later he passed a woman and her daughter. The daughter was dressed for school, she had her backpack on and her lunch box in her hand. The woman called out to the man, “You going up the mountain? Would you mind taking my daughter? She missed her bus and her school is at the top of the mountain.” The little girl jumped onto the cart and squeezed in beside the five stones and the squirmy goat.
By the time the man was half way up the mountain he had five stones, one goat, one little girl with a backpack and a lunch box, two dozen cookies, one load of fire wood, one rather large chair, one ream of paper, two pairs of shoes and one dog in a kennel! The man couldn’t do it. He set the cart down, wiped his brow, took a swig of water from his bottle and started to complain to God, I’m so tired. I can’t do this. I can’t go another step. You promised an easy load and a light burden. You promised rest for my soul. Where is the light and easy load? Where is the rest? I’m exhausted. I cannot do this. It’s too much. God shook his head with some sadness, “Where did the girl, the goat, the chair, the cookies, the paper, shoes, dog and the fire wood all come from? I did not ask you to take those things up the mountain. All I asked you to cart up was the five stones.”
We need only to listen to the voice of God. There will be demands from others, there will be requests and manipulations and great pull from brothers and sisters that we meet their needs too. But unless Jesus asks us to do something we are far better off saying a gentle no.
We need to not put heavy burdens on each other.
I think we also need to be careful not to be the ones asking each other to carry our goats, our girls, our wood, our paper, our shoes. We need to first and always push into Jesus with our longings and our needs. He will meet our needs as he lean into him. (I’m NOT saying that we never ask for help. I am saying we ask for help, knowing that, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Ps 121:2)
It’s really important that we don’t heap unrealistic expectations on one another or on ourselves. I often tend to judge myself with great grace and accommodation and judge others with a critical eye, or, I am extremely gracious with others and greatly demanding of myself. The balance is always off. In Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus is describing the religious leaders. At one point he says, “Don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Matt 23:4). How silly it would be for us to load up each other with huge demands and then step in, all self-righteous and humble-like, to help bear the load… or even worse, just sit back and watch each other struggle under the weight of it all.
We are called, without doubt, to enter into each other’s lives. But let us remember that we are all dust. We are all broken and wounded. None of us can save each other. None of us can come to the rescue. It’s all about Jesus: for Him, from Him and through Him. When we listen to Him, receive our instructions from Him and obey—He is glorified. Any other kind of involvement is messy. When we take on things we’re not asked to the hurting ones become dependent on us and the glory of God is muddied. We need to leave room for what He wants to do. He has broader, bigger, more gallant things in mind. He knows the whole story.
I think knowing these things might make a difference. They have the capacity to change how we relate to our own souls, to one another and to our Good Shepherd. Understanding them at a deep level and living out of that understanding might even prevent weariness, self-pity and even, maybe, burnout.