The Anxiety of Mission

8/1/2023   by Matt Lewellyn

"Follow the example of Jesus!" The preacher expounds, "He set aside his heavenly glory to die for our sins - how much more we owe! We ought to live our lives completely in his service and lay them down each day!"

And we try. Our hearts were pricked by the message, knowing full well that we fall short in many ways from that calling. As we reflect, we realize that so many times in our lives, we pick the easy path, take the quick way out, and do as little as possible. We guard our time, we guard our money. We hold dearly to our social status, quality of life, and security.

So with hearts opened to the leading of the Holy Spirit, of course we would like to better follow the example Jesus set out for us. The thing is, there are two ways we can go about that. We'll all tend toward one or the other, but probably end up with some combination of both.

On the one hand, we can be deeply moved by love and gratitude toward our savior. We believe that God is for us, he is our friend, and he wants us to succeed. Our identity is wrapped up in his opinion of us - that is, we are sanctified in Christ as adopted children of God, fully worthy in his sight.

With that fuel, we have space to contain the baggage of those around us. We can deal gently with those around us, because we know our own weakness - and we know that Jesus, our high priest, also intimately knows our own weakness. But that weakness doesn't matter, because we are fueled to serve as we have opportunity, and that can be enough.

And then there is the other way. The more I observe the ebb and flow of church life, the more I am convinced that many, many people up and down the hierarchy of the church order are stuck in this other way.

We can minister to others from the overflow. Or, there's just doing our best from the empty.

It's difficult to come to a place where you can admit to yourself that you are running on empty. We see the work that needs to be done all around us - people everywhere are hurting. People everywhere have needs.

Where does the motivation to carry on come from when we don't have that love/gratitude fuel? Well, we see the simple math of it, and it's rather utilitarian. We have, while others have not. We know, while others do not. We can, while others cannot. Jesus did, so we must do too.

Being disciplined to make ourselves do things when we don't feel like it is a valuable skill. It makes us efficient, gets us promoted in our jobs, and it can enhance our quality of life in very tangible ways. Counterintuitively, it can also make us quite vulnerable to this mode of running on empty. We see things need done, and it needs to be us that does it.

Jesus laid down everything for his mission. We see that in such absolute terms, and nothing short of it will be acceptable. We want to follow that example, and we're not willing to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in any part of it.

It's a simple equation in our minds: put our heads down, get the job done, and damn the effects on ourselves. Anything negative we see is just weakness or temptation.

But we feel unsettled in that, because nothing is ever enough. We won't listen to ourselves think we're too tired, or our schedule is too full.

Part of our problem is that we get tunnel vision. We want to follow the example of Jesus, but we narrow that down to just the hours surrounding the cross. When something that heavy is laid on one end of the balance, we have to be pretty extreme to balance the other end - and no one can live up to that. We want to think we can, but really, we can't.

So, two ways of going about following the savior's example. Which do you tend toward?

One way to find out: a thought for the end of the day. When the day is over, do you tend to dwell on the ways you've seen God move? Or, does your mind (and heart) camp out on what you could (or should) have done better?

If it's the latter, we could stand to do some soul work there. Jesus wants to give our weary souls rest. There is a contrast between that and the way we are compelled to push through the pain, the anxiety, and the disillusionment.

Don't get me wrong - there is a time and place for pushing through. But when we do that day after day, month after month, until we drive ourselves to depression and severe anxiety - that's well out of balance, and our souls will need rest to recover.

That's a hard switch to flip, to go from "full speed ahead" to "rest and recover." We begin to stake some of our identity on the fact that we're the ones that keep going, we never back down, and we'll see it through to the end. So we end up trying to solve the problem somehow to keep ourselves on task. We have this "sunk cost" notion that we've come this far, surely we could persevere another week, another month, another year.

We can push ourselves to the point that we don't see the full picture anymore. We have no assurance that we're doing what God actually wants us to be doing - we just know we're pushing through. We've no idea if the present struggles are worth it - but we've come this far...

When we operate from a platform of anxiety, giving up instantly activates the feeling that we are failure. Not just that we've failed - we could patch that up and move on. No, just as our ability to continue was part of our identity, the lack thereof is entrenched in identity as well. Usually, those notions were already rolling around in our minds, but we were able to silence them by focusing on the activity.

Without that activity - that distraction - we feel like the negative thoughts are fully confirmed.

But life can also throw you a curveball in the midst of all that mission or ministry activity. We run into limitations we didn't see coming. Maybe health failed. Or the money ran out. Or it's the unintended side-effects - something is happening to our family that simply cannot continue. Actually, that can feel worse - we feel like a failure for not being strong enough to overcome the obstacle.

In our driven psyches, we may not give ourselves permission to let go of that feeling of failure. Even with circumstances outside of our control, we can feel the darkness of having let down and disappointed our savior.

If you are feeling any of this, you are not alone. Jesus understands our weakness. It's ok to find trusted friends, counselors, and therapists to talk it out - and not settle for the simple platitudes. It's ok to mourn for things we simply can't do anymore. And it's ok to realize that even Jesus took time for his own soul - to pray, to be in solitude, to get away.

It's ok to get some space for your soul. Because if you are a child of God, then Jesus is for you, not against you. And he's not intimidated or offended by the fact that you don't always feel it.



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