A parishioner wrote to me because she was feeling overwhelmed and guilt ridden. Her feelings are understandable. She says as she looks at the big picture that she sees a corrupt government with the media as its accomplice, which leaves her without hope that things will ever improve. She sees Christians around the world being persecuted, churches being burned and Islam extremism on the rise. She sees the horrors of abortion (928,000 this year to date in the US) and the tragedy of homelessness with people begging on our very streets. On the local level she sees people in our own parish facing joblessness, health issues and untold other struggles. Her guilt comes from feeling so blessed but not knowing what to do and how to respond when the needs are so monumental. She prays continually about it but she insists that all of us need to do more than just pray.
I will respond with several suggestions but first I want to acknowledge that her struggles come in part because she has a heart of love and she is to be commended for that. The very real pain that she feels is part of the cross that she carries for being compassionate. However going in the other direction and learning to be insensitive to the needs of others is not an option for her, so in part she must learn to live with the pain. Still there are other things that she can do to lighten the load.
First, it is important to remember that this is God’s world. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and all that dwells therein.” We are His servants. The Bible even calls us His coworkers. But we must not take on more than is ours. I make this mistake all of the time. Years ago when planting a church I could not sleep and worried constantly about the future of the parish. As I battled to find the right perspective I decided to call the Bishop and ask how he coped with the burdens of being a spiritual leader overs scores of churches. He said, “I do what the Pope does.” I asked, “And what is that?” He said that the Pope at the end of the day says, “Well its your church Lord, I’m going to bed.” I figured if the leader of over a billion Christians can have this perspective, then a vicar in Tennessee ought to able to sleep. I still have to remind myself frequently that it is His Church but when I do it works to take ease my burden. So remind yourself that this is God’s world and don’t try to carry God’s burden.
Second, the Bible is clear that we are to walk by faith. The Apostle tells us that which is not faith is sin. So in discerning what you are to do in response to the needs that you see, you must not be driven by guilt or fear. You are to walk by faith. We are to have what the Scriptures call “the peaceable fruits of righteousness.” I have learned to follow that “peace of God which surpasses all understanding” when discerning what the Lord would have me do about something. When I sense God’s peace then I move. But if I am wrestling with guilt or fear, I wait because that is not of God.
Additionally you should not feel guilty for what you have because all that you have has been given to you by God. “All things come of Thee O Lord, and of Thine own have I given Thee.” Imagine how you would feel if you saved up to give your child a bike for Christmas but your child would not ride it because she felt guilty that your neighbor did not have a new bike. We must be mindful of the needs of others, and we should share from our resources through tithes and offerings, but it is false guilt when we feel guilty about how much God has blessed us. In a sense, when we do this, we are saying that God does not know what He is doing and we certainly don’t want to go there.
Third, have hope. The Scripture says that hope is the anchor of the soul. Without hope we descend into worry, fear and despair and none of these are fruits of the Spirit. Jesus very practically asks us if we can accomplish anything through worry and the answer is of course that we cannot. But hope is something quite different and we can have hope because we are in the Beloved. Jesus said, “In this world you will have much tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world.”
While these are very troubling times the truth is that there have been far worse times in the world and even in our young nation. I would not have wanted to be around during the times of the plagues in Europe or during our own Civil War. It may seem like all is going to hell in a hand-basket but we must remember that ultimately God is in control. The Bible says that He looks at the plans of His enemies and He laughs. If there were ever a people who should be given to optimism it is Christians. As the old preacher once said, “I read the back of the book, we win!” We have enemies but we have a Shepherd who prepares a table for us in their presence. We serve a God who is sovereign and who is able to work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Jesus has promised us that the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against His Church. So there is reason after reason for us to have hope.
Once we have established that this is God’s world and that we are to walk by faith and be people of hope, then we are in a better place to discern our role. AA has a great expression, “Do the next right thing” which I submit fits well with Jesus’ many teachings and parables about being faithful servants. Rather than being overwhelmed by a mountain of needs, we discern how to respond to the need that is right in front of us. Then we do the next right thing.
There is an old story of a boy walking on a beach after a storm that has washed hundreds of starfish on shore. Every now and then he would bend down, take up a starfish and throw it back into the sea. An older gentleman was watching him and overtaken by the futility of the boy’s actions decided to confront the boy. “What do you think you are doing son? Given the hundreds of starfish still on the shore you are not making one bit of difference.” The boy leaned down and grabbed another starfish and just before throwing it back into the sea said, “It makes a difference to this one.”