Like everyone, I have struggled emotionally/spiritually/physically at different times over the years. Too many long hours, too little rest brings you to the brink of burnout. The demands are as many as ever, but you don’t have the energy to keep working as hard. Your Irish guilt kicks in and depression begins to take hold.
You keep asking yourself, “What’s wrong with me? How can I fix this?” You don’t feel God’s presence the way you used to. You feel like you’re walking a long valley on a very dark night.
Hebrews chapter 12 spoke powerfully to me this week.
“For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always right and good for us because it means we will share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening — it is painful! But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. So take a new grip with your tired hands and stand firm on your shaky legs. Mark out a straight path for your feet. Then those who follow you, though they are weak and lame, will not stumble and fall but will become strong.” (Hebrews 12:10-13 NLT)
We all struggle in different ways, at different times. If we are immature Christians, we may blame God. The truth is, most of my problems are self-inflicted. In truth, God has blessed me beyond anything I’ve got a right to expect.
But I’ve been struggling and wondering, “What’s wrong with me? How can I fix this?” Now wisdom speaks to me from Hebrews 12 and helps me see the struggle as God’s discipline in my life.
When we think of discipline, our thoughts usually go straight to punishment. But the Greek word translated in this passage means much more than that. It also means the training and education of the whole person, something that builds up the body and cultivates the soul. Even when the training is hard, it is right and good.
Hebrews 12 helps me think of this emotional/spiritual/physical struggle as something God is doing for me — a gift from a loving father who wants me to learn and be more like him. Like the passage says, there’s no joy in it. Nothing but sorrow. But it promises the result of my struggle will be “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” It tells me God is taking me through this so I can share in his holiness.
That Greek word translated ‘discipline’ is talking about a person being who he ought to be, a condition of integrity, virtue, and purity in which the way you think, feel, and act are acceptable to God.
So how do I get there? Verse 12 is pretty blunt: “Take a new grip with your tired hands and stand firm on your shaky legs.” In other words, suck it up. Hang in there. Persevere. Endure. Keep getting out of bed or up off the couch. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. God is taking you somewhere you really want to go. Don’t give up.
And verse 13 helps a lot too: “Mark out a straight path for your feet.”
When you are struggling with burnout and depression, you distract yourself with piddly pastimes that keep you from thinking about how bad things are. You wander here and there, anywhere but to your list of things that need to be done. Hebrews says “Draw a straight line from where you are to where you need to be and follow that straight line.”
That line may take you to the office of your pastor or doctor, or a professional counselor. It may take you to a friend who can encourage you. It certainly takes you to your desk. Even finishing the smallest task on your to-do list helps push back the darkness.
But what spoke to me most out of Hebrews 12 wasn’t the tough love advice to suck it up and get something done. What blew me away was the second part of verse 13: “Then those who follow you, though they are weak and lame, will not stumble and fall but will become strong.”
When you are depressed, the last thing you are thinking about is how your stumbling affects those who are following you. When I’m depressed, it’s all about me and how hard things are. The Bible says I need to be more concerned about the people watching me
who are in even worse shape than I am.
My hands may be tired and my legs may be shaky, but the person following me is lame. My self-pity keeps me from noticing that person is having an even harder time than I am. What if the result of my self-absorption is that he falls and his entire leg is thrown out of joint?
As much as I need help, my limping brother or sister needs it more. I need strength, but they need healing. Focusing on someone’s else’s struggle takes your mind off your own difficulties. It also gives you new strength at the same time it helps them find healing. When you make a straight path for your feet, your limping friend can follow that straight path and is less likely to fall.
So if you are struggling, reach out to someone else. You need help; get it. More importantly, reach out to someone who is having a harder time than you are. Jesus says, “Love each other the way I loved you.” The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens. That means you need to let others help you carry your burden. It especially means you need to help others carry their burdens.
Jesus put your needs above his own, even when he was enduring awful suffering. That’s the example we need to follow. That’s the straight path out of your dark valley.
The result for both you and your brother will be ultimately arriving at a place where you are who God wants you to be, on a day when you can savor the peaceful fruit of righteousness in your life and your brother’s.