The realities of how our world, and more specifically our American culture, is structured are such that the demands are never ending. What concerns me in this? The church has structured herself in the same sort of way.
It’s not uncommon to have a pastor who is planting a church, while sitting on the city council board, leading local outreaches, is working on his PhD, and raising half-a-dozen kids. It is not just one missionary who feels the pressures of both her local context and her supporters, trying to meet all the needs around her by working from sunup to sundown, babysitting kids, leading worship, discipling women, running English camps, working at homeless shelters, and doing street evangelism, only to come home and answer emails after dark. It is not just one person, one family who has left ministry, the mission field, or whatever it is they were doing because they found themselves tired, overwhelmed, burned out, and disillusioned.
The needs were great and at some point, the exhaustion becomes greater. I’m worried that the people of God are going to run themselves into the ground if we keep up this Usain-Bolt-type-pace.
We may not be sensitive to the biological and physiological issues caused by overworking (which in and of itself is concerning), but I find myself confused that we don’t seem overly concerned with Jesus’ model for it either. If we’re supposed to be “imitators of God” (John 13:13-16, 1 Corinthians 11:1, Ephesians 5:1-2, 1 Peter 2:20-22, 1 John 2:6), shouldn’t the primary basis for our action, response, and engagement in ministry be that of our Lord?
Even the Gospel of Matthew, which seems focused on thematically emphasizing the works and preaching of Christ (Matthew 9:35-38), still makes space to note the significance of solitude with the Father. In one chapter alone (14), Matthew mentions twice that Christ went to be alone and even sent people away to go “up into the hills by himself to pray” (14:22). Matthew is also the only Gospel who records Jesus saying the following about life in Him:
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and the burden I give you is light” (11:28-30).
Even the writer who seems predominantly focused on the scope of what Christ is doing finds it necessary to record that He offers rest.
For all of that, Matthew has nothing on Mark and Luke when it comes to recording Jesus’ pace and emphasis on being alone with the Father. Mark’s description about the life and ministry of Jesus includes different details than Matthew, often recording the ways Christ not only pursues rest Himself but often calls out His disciples for neglecting self-care and having an improper orientation. We don’t get a chapter into Mark and we already see the city stirring for the presence of Jesus, the disciples eager to send Him out before the people. Christ’s first response is one of movement away: “We must go on to other towns as well, and I will preach to them too. That is why I came” (1:38).
Another example of this sort of pulling away, even from places of considerable stirring, is in Mark 6. The disciples come back to Jesus, excited about the ministry that they’ve just gone out and done (6:7-12). Yet, Jesus’ response is not one of enthusiasm, planning, or eagerness to send them back out. There seems to be little focus on the needs of the villages. Jesus calls out the apostle’s orientation and need for rest. Honestly, he seems more concerned with the fact that they haven’t eaten:
“’Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.’ He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat” (6:31).
Are we comfortable with the idea that there are times in Scripture where Jesus moves away from places where we perceive potential fruitful ministry? That there are places where people need Him, need the Holy Spirit, and need healing, and we see Him walking away? This isn’t to say that Jesus ever moves or acts lightly; when He walks away from a city or a crowd, He’s not being neglectful, unloving, or unfaithful. Even in His humanity, He is still God. He knows the will of the Father because He’s making space to hear the Father. We see Christ underscore that in places like John 5:17-23 and John 8:28-29.
A missionary mentor in Asia wrote the following once: “The need is not the call. The call is the call.” A mom to some incredible, adopted children, she has constantly been bombarded with questions of why she closed the doors on taking in more children. After all, if anyone could do it, she could. The Lord could do it. And gosh, look at the need. But that has been exactly her point: We aren’t called to look at the need, we are called to look at Jesus. There’s always need, and until we reach eternity, there is always going to be need.
Our view of maximized efficiency and meeting the most needs aren’t the same as the Lord’s. We don’t see things like He does (Isaiah 55:8-9). The needs of the world orient us towards our calling and the heart of Christ, but if we keep our focus on them then it is no wonder why people don’t last more than two years when serving in ministry. Jesus was acutely aware of every need and we see Him stopping to meet needs when the Spirit, the same Spirit that lives inside of us, compels. He’s not afraid of interruptions. But it is always rooted in rhythms of rest and a nearness to the Father. He’s also not afraid to say “no” and pull away.
If Jesus, as a human, recognized his own needs and limits, where did we get the idea that we’re somehow being holy by ignoring ours?
An orientation towards calling, knowing what God is asking you specifically to do and operating from a place of intimacy with Him, makes it easier to say “no” to everything else, no matter how good or needed it seems. I’m not saying that’s easy or that I’ve figured it all out, but the more I read about the ministry of Christ, the more central it seems to become. Obedience and faithfulness may seem counterintuitive to modern principles of efficiency, but we know that God’s order is very different than ours (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Knowing that comes from a deep and intimate knowledge of the Father and His voice.
I’m not saying that the needs aren’t important. I’m not saying that Christians should be content with laziness or apathy, or that it’s okay if our hearts don’t break at the places of brokenness in our world. Christians are not allowed to throw their hands up, shrug their shoulders, and live blind to the screams of a dying world. Our hearts should burn, leap, and weep for the world. If anyone modeled that, it’s Jesus. He felt and feels more deeply for the needs of the world and the “lostness” of the people than I ever will. His heart moves with compassion and He often welcomes the interruptions of those who call upon Him (i.e. Matthew 10:36, Matthew 14:14, Matthew 19:2, Mark 3:20, Mark 7:24-25, Luke 8:27,).
Yet, and this is what I’m concerned the church has lost, even in those interruptions, His focus is solely and unashamedly on the Father and what He is being instructed to do. There are an equal number of times where He dismisses the crowd or leaves what seems to be places of potentially fruitful ministry (i.e. Matthew 10:30, Mark 1:36, Mark 3:12, Mark 5:36, Mark 7:17, Mark 8:33, Luke 5:42).
We should pray with a fervency for all the things that are wrong in the world! We should learn to lament places of hurt and pain! We should be giving ourselves passionately and wholeheartedly to the things that God has called us to! But all of that must happen from a rootedness in the Holy Spirit, a dependence on Christ, and an intimacy with the Father. We only cultivate those things by having time and space for them. Give yourself wholeheartedly to what God has called you to do. I’m not you, but based on what I see in the life of Jesus, I find it hard to believe that He’s calling you to a-hundred-and-one-thousand things in this season, especially if it’s at the expense of your primary calling (and the place every other calling flows out of) to love and worship Him.
Christ knew the will of the Father because half of His time was spent listening for it. I see Him operating from a place of refreshment and rhythms of rest, by saying “yes” and “no” based on obedience and faithfulness, rather than the perceived needs around Him. The question for you and I then, is are we?