To the weary and discouraged
Anyone feeling weary or discouraged? I certainly am. Getting through this pandemic is a long, hard slog. Emotionally draining. Empty homes, missed family members, isolation, grief. Practically challenging. A quick trip to the shops has become a military operation: kitting up with my mask; calculating distances and navigating one-way systems; negotiating aisles at (anti-)social distance from enemy troops who seem to confuse metres with feet; coming under friendly fire from unmasked, contact-starved acquaintances in the car park. And let’s not even mention the challenges of keeping church going...
In this short series, I want to draw out some helpful principles from Hebrews 12:1-13. Later, some practical suggestions, bur first, we need to start with our own hearts. That’s what verses 1 to 3 do. The life of faith is a race (v.1) – not a sprint, but a marathon – and the writer is concerned that we might ‘grow weary or faint-hearted.’ (v.3) I think weariness and faint-heartedness arise from the two responses which people opt for when under pressure: activism and apathy.
Activists think if they just make a bit more effort, they can overcome any challenge. They work harder and harder until, eventually, they hit a wall of exhaustion. Activist leaders have responded to the pandemic by producing daily video devotions, adopting live streaming technology from the get-go, and organising socially distanced gatherings. Nothing wrong with those at all, but now the challenge is whether they can be sustained for another six months from a diminishing pool of reserves in the leader. Endless working without proper rest and pacing breads weariness. Burnout threatens!
The apathetic, by contrast, lose heart and their motivation fails. They collapse not from weariness but from faint-heartedness. Apathetic leaders are slow to envisage new ways of being church, and they withdraw from active engagement with people. It’s not that they don’t care, but temperamentally they’re disposed to negativity. When they don’t receive encouragement, their courage falters. Dropout threatens!
It’s important to spot the warning signs in ourselves: persistent negativity, lack of pleasure, constant fatigue, a feeling that you can’t keep going. If any of those describe you, beware and take measures to put things right. The first step towards healing is to acknowledge your need. It’s ok to not feel ok. Even if you’re a leader. (Check out Marcus Honeysett’s blog post entitled It’s OK not to be OK.)
When you are weary or faint of heart, your reserves to fight them are diminished. It’s as if you’re limping along – “lame” as verse 13 puts it. If you keep going as you are, you are in danger of putting your spiritual limbs out of joint. You can do damage that will take years to repair, and you may even be lost to ministry for good. You need healing!
Healing starts with refocusing our gaze on Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (v.2). He is the antidote to both activism and apathy, because He is both the founder and perfecter of our faith. I’ve often read that verse and thought of Jesus as an example to inspire me. That’s not wrong, but the writer isn’t really making that point. Jesus is much more than our example.
Activists need to remember that Jesus is the founder of their faith. You didn’t earn your salvation. All that activity? It doesn’t add a thing to His work for you. Working hard is fine within limits, but you’re in grave danger when you think that your salvation, or the salvation of your church, depends on your efforts. You are bound to grow weary. Those are burdens you can’t carry. And you don’t need to. Jesus founded your faith. He founded THE faith. Salvation depends on what He has done, not on what you do.
So, straighten your paths (v.13). Keep every step focused on obedience to Jesus. That means cutting out anything that isn’t centred on Him and making Him known. Overwork that focuses on the wrong things damages your ability to concentrate on those top priorities. Think carefully about what programmes you’ll sustain or restart. Creativity is good, but simplicity is great. Aim directly for Jesus with no detours.
Apathists (Not a word, but it should be!) need to remember that Jesus is the perfecter of their faith. Perseverance doesn’t depend on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Jesus is the one who brings you safely to glory. You don’t need greater self-belief, you need more Christ-confidence. He endured what you could not and He was victorious. In Him, you have all you need to keep going. He will perfect your faith. He’s still interceding for you. Perseverance depends on what He is doing, not what you can do.
So, straighten your posture (v.13). You can’t run when your arms are dragging, Neanderthal-like, and your knees are bent. Try it! It won’t work. Instead, lift your eyes from your circumstances and look to Jesus. You may not be able to sprint just now – that’s OK – but you can do better than limping along. Don’t let laziness set in. Decide what you can do and do it. One step at a time, with your head held high, not with pride in self but with joy in Jesus.
In the next post I’ll be taking a look at the sins that easily entangle us in times of pressure and our Father’s agenda for us. But for now, straighten your posture and paths by focusing on Jesus. Let Him bring you healing.