Do you ever feel overwhelmed? You might be thinking I might as well ask if you ever get out of bed in the morning. Of course, all of us at times get overwhelmed! Hopefully, not every time you get out of bed, but some of us do go through those seasons in life.
Life, like grapes, comes in bunches, and it sometimes, perhaps, feels more like “the grapes of wrath” than a relaxing glass of wine, or for us non-drinkers a refreshing gulp of grape juice. Things can pile up in a hurry right next to a huge pile of angst, worry, and frustration. Sometimes the worries of the day at hand get compounded by worry over the demands of the days ahead; some days can leave us feeling perturbed, perplexed, and even powerless, wondering why life has to be so hard. Maybe, it’s supposed to be to remind us that the weight of the world is too much for us to bear; that there are some things that we just can’t bear alone.
Feeling overwhelmed reminds us that we are human, we are very finite creatures with limited strength and ability, and we need help, from God and neighbors. The first thing I do when I feel overwhelmed is turn to God in prayer. Often I immediately feel the burdens lifted, knowing that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” Psalm 46:1 (ESV).
Burdens come in many different shapes and sizes, different for different people depending on one’s circumstances and vocation, but with commonalities to us all. The privilege of being a husband and a father of five, as I am, comes with wonderful blessings, more than I deserve, but it also comes with the weight of responsibility. That weight alone, well …, it can weigh on you to the point of strain. Then I am also a son, the only child, of a wonderful woman, now an elderly widow and physically quite feeble, who relies on me. And, of course, I am a pastor and a preacher, with all of the joy that comes with it, there is still the weight of significant responsibility, first of all before God, and to the people to and with whom I am in ministry. By God’s grace, as 2 Timothy 2:15 says, I have tried to fulfill my ministry responsibilities with the goal of standing approved before God, knowing and experiencing the fact that this means being rejected by the world and the worldly within the church.
As a pastor and preacher, a naturally introverted one at that, I have felt the weight of the normal duties of the calling, hurting with the hurt, binding the wounds of the wounded, sharing the burdens of the weary in prayer and counseling, warning the wayward. Then there is also the extra burden of concern over the incalculable number of potential ways someone may be offended, including at some of the most raw and sensitive times of life. And, of course, there’s the pressure to produce professions of faith and increase attendance and support for the church, even though the only thing we can do is sow the word and water it, not change hearts so that it can grow, because only God can give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
That being said, in terms of preaching and teaching, and writing as far as that goes, I do not do it to make people comfortable with sin; I do it to make people uncomfortable with sin so they will flee from it to find comfort in the forgiving and life-transforming loving arms of God the Father through Jesus Christ. I know this won’t land me a show with Oprah; it won’t even win me applause among the majority of the leadership in my own denomination. If ministries were measured by the number of “likes” on social media mine would be an abysmal failure, but we are to seek the glory that comes from God, not the applause of peers in particular, or people in general (John 5:44). Standing on the word of God leaves one stepping on a lot of toes, as they say.
All of these things, not to mention my own sin and brokenness, weigh on me. At times it has been gut-wrenching, sometimes neck-knotting, other times spine-crushing, sometimes all of the above at the same time, overwhelming to say the least. But when I am overwhelmed, I turn to God, who is my refuge and strength (Psalm 61).
It’s not that God takes the demands and responsibilities away, but He does at times take away the extra burden of fear and anxiety that make our rightful responsibilities too heavy. Sometimes God to takes these away; but God does even more, He also gives us strength and help, which at times enables us to continue even with the fear and anxiety. In reality, without Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5); with Him, we can do all things (Philippians 4:13).
In the spring of 2012 I was trying to finish up my last semester of Divinity school, while pastoring a church. My wife was suffering terribly from depression, which required hospitalization. She had battled depression off and on for many years; we had been through a couple of very dark episodes before. I had exams and papers, pastoral responsibilities, at the time three children to console and take care of, and a move to plan for, including moving my mother, all with a wife who was very, very ill.
Regrettably, much of what we were going through was due to my own neglect, and even resentment, of my wife’s illness. Because of busyness and some stubbornness I hadn’t done a very good job of helping her with her burdens, which brought me an extra burden of guilt. Just a couple of months after, Christi, was hospitalized we made a move to another church half way across the state. In the meantime I had to move my mother a number of times before finally securing her a place to live near us. The church I was appointed to was in the midst of a major crisis of its own, financially and otherwise, as many churches are now a days, and my denomination was and still is coming apart at the seams. In the midst of these circumstances I believe God called me to take a public and clear stand on controversial issues in a denomination that seems to be able to bear a lot of things but the truth.
Only by the grace of God have I not been crushed under the pressure (2 Corinthians 4:7-18). God’s grace has been sufficient, but quite often it has come through the hands and feet and words of comfort and confidence of God’s people, sometimes from remote and unexpected places. I could not have made it without the prayers and help of neighbors and brothers and sisters in Christ.
God just doesn’t work directly in us; often God’s help and strength come from a neighbor and fellow follower of Jesus in the body of Christ. By the Holy Spirit God works in one person not only for the blessing of that individual but to bring aid, strength, and help to others. That’s the beauty of the body, the head of which is Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it build itself up in love” (Eph 4:16). We certainly need God but God chooses to work through others, so we also need each other. We need to help each other; and also to be helped by each other.
Lent leading up to Easter reminds us that there are some burdens too heavy to bear, some too heavy to bear at all. Our most threatening burden, the burden of sin with its legal demands, debt, and debilitating effects were lifted from us at Calvary, high up on the cross of Christ Jesus. The one who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:4) will also work in us so that we too can “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
1 John 3:16 “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”