A couple months ago, I was living in South Africa. Our power went out regularly, our water was kind of chunky some days, and there was a fair amount of crime. Race relations continued to simmer, as they always seem to do there. The combination of factors pressed upon me.
Then I went to Lebanon to learn a bit about the Syrian refugee crisis.
I heard from Charbel, a pastor who used to be in a “Christian militia” fighting Syrians before God intervened. He started to follow Jesus and even started to love Syrians, wanting to talk to them and care for the ones who were hurting.
Today, his little church, 20 minutes from ISIS-controlled territory, serves 260 Syrian families per month with food parcels, vouchers, and other tangible care, in addition to prayer and worship. And those 260 families are a tiny sliver of the 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. As I talked with him and other Lebanese Christians, the scale of the situation felt staggering.
And then I moved from South Africa back to the U.S. And planted a garden. And started raising pigs. And restarted dozens (or hundreds?) of face-to-face relationships. And moved into a new office building. And went through every item my wife and I own as we unpacked and tried to simplify our life (and sell stuff at a garage sale). Also, my wife is getting ready to start a new job in a few weeks, while finishing her dissertation. And our kids were deep in end-of-school-year activities, like making a costume from the Seven Years’ War. And both of our kids had birthdays soon after we returned, so we were planning three parties and figuring out presents.
So yeah, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed at every level, from the global to the professional to the geographic to the personal.
Can being overwhelmed be any good?
It’s true that there are different kinds of overwhelmedness. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed because I’ve not discerned what’s really important to do or I’ve not been disciplined about sticking to those really important roles. That’s not good.
But when I’m overwhelmed by the great needs in the world, both near at hand and far afield, I’m growing in what seems to me to be a thoroughly Christian worldview. Perhaps you can find some upsides in being overwhelmed.
Admitting you are overwhelmed is a step of honesty.
Today, we can stay up to date on issues like the Syrian refugee crisis (and a bunch of other ones). To know about any of them is overwhelming, if we’re honest. To grasp a bit about all of them certainly overwhelms us. In facing this truth, we cease to fake ourselves out. And this is very good.
Being overwhelmed humbles us. We arrive at the end of our rope. We admit we can’t do it all. We can’t fix everything. We are not superheroes. We are small, and we need help.
Overwhelmedness prompts us to reach out. When we acknowledge that we can’t do something, we start to enter into real community with other people. We share our burdens, and together, we bear them. And we also start to really pray—we offer our inadequacies and deepest needs to Christ.
Perhaps being overwhelmed is the beginning—and much of the substance—of the Christian life. My friend Lisa pointed out that being overwhelmed shows that we care. She is not overwhelmed, for example, by the number of stuffed animals that get thrown out each year. She’s not overwhelmed because she doesn’t really care what happens to stuffed animals. But she is overwhelmed and grieved by the systemic injustice and oppression Black Americans live under every day.
We get overwhelmed about hundreds of thousands of families who have had to leave their homes in Syria because we care about them. We care about people. So being overwhelmed indicates we’re living as the body of Christ, connected to others near and far in meaningful community in a broken world. We care about the work God has given us to do. And because we are to deeply love others and to bear one another’s burdens, we will feel overwhelmed.
If we don’t feel overwhelmed at least occasionally, perhaps we should be concerned.
Because when we are overwhelmed—and we admit it—God graciously works within and through us, helping us begin the long, slow work that’s needed, whether for Syrian refugees or the person next to us today.