Life feels heavy these days. The weighty burden of everyday life seems to be exacerbated by a relentless stream of headlines that range from the unique (murderous hornets) to the fear-inducing (a global pandemic) to the shockingly horrific (videos of racism and murder). The natural impulse in the face of this unyielding bad news is to cower down and pursue self-preservation. Today’s pandemic has certainly exposed—not caused—our own proclivity toward selfish individualism and isolation.
In First Thessalonians, chapter five, Paul calls the church to a bold faithfulness in light of the certain return of Christ and the assured persecution they will face until then. This passage provides a reminding context that, while it may seem like everything has changed in the span of a few months, that God’s church is sovereignly designed for troubling times. But it is in these unsure moments, that his people, then and now, are tempted to hunker down in isolation and fear resembling those without hope and without the gospel. But that impulse is not the way of Jesus. In the worst of days, Christ calls us into relationships.
All of the commands found in verses 14 and 15 are relational in their very orientation. We can’t obey any of them individually. They require human relationships. It’s as if Paul knew that the secret to facing life in a fractured world necessarily involved others.
There is only one challenge given to all: “be patient with everyone.” The other commands require a degree of intimacy to gain personal knowledge. Somehow, we must be invested in the daily lives of others to know who is idle, who is discouraged, who is weak, and who has done evil. Once I know who fits these descriptions, I’m then able to cater my intentionality in relationships to fit their situation. I don’t “warn the weak’—they don’t need warning, they need “help.” I don’t “comfort the idle”—their obsession for comfort requires a “warning.” I have to know others well enough to know what they need, and in the same way, I must be known in such a way that others can speak grace-filled words of hope or challenge in the ways I need it most.
We’ve seen this need expressed as smaller subsets within local churches have begun to reconnect in-person in some places around North America. As they do, people begin to relay real pain, discouragement, and burdens that they are experiencing. The situations are different. The challenges real. The burdens weighty.
We see the burdens that racism brings. When we reduce God’s beautiful handiwork into human targets to unleash our base fears and insecurities, the burden intensifies. When God’s children cannot feel safe amongst those who are charged to protect them, the burden intensifies. When a smartphone camera is the only way to bring to light the horrors that a people have endured for generations, the burden intensifies. And this burden is owned by many around us.
We see the burdens that poverty brings. When hard working people are no longer employed, the burden intensifies. When simple things once thought of as basic needs suddenly become luxuries, the burden intensifies. When ‘food insecurity’ becomes a household phrase, the burden intensifies. And this burden is owned by many around us.
We see the burdens that a pandemic brings. When ailing loved ones are locked away in hospitals and nursing homes with no opportunity to receive the comfort of family, the burden intensifies. When 100,000 lives are snuffed out in less than three months, each with a family, a future, a story – the burden intensifies. When normal is flushed, and hope for a new normal seems miles away, the burden intensifies. And this burden is owned by many around us.
Yet many of us are largely unaffected by systemic racism, the pain of poverty, or the devastating effects of this pandemic. We have no real burden. We see the pain as we scroll through our social media feeds, but we are insulated, detached, and smugly grateful.
But a snooty prayer of thanksgiving that is reminiscent of a pharisee is not the response the Spirit of Christ invokes in his disciples. He pushes us out of our comfortable safety and into the burdened lives living among us.
This is where the magnetic power of burdens presses us to engage. You’d think that burdens would foster greater isolation, but actually the opposite is true. Burdens draw us together. Why? Because we have a shared understanding that the only way fallen humans endure life’s pain is in the joy of community. We know that our own idleness, discouragement, evil, or weakness doesn’t change while we linger in our self-made prisons. Freedom is only found when we engage with others and allow others to engage with us. Regardless of where we might fall on a scale of introversion or extroversion, we all need others investing in our burdens if we are going to thrive.
It’s impossible to put too fine a point on exactly what this means for each of us. At a minimum it means that this season of isolation shouldn’t foster increased individualism. We have to combat the gravitational pull away from honest relationships that this season inspires—if not, our mission will be stunted. Jesus’ mission necessitates a selfless orientation that presses—wisely and winsomely—into the lives of others. It means I care enough to engage—even, or especially, when this engagement comes with a great personal cost.
And ironically enough, all of our regathering conversations can miss this point. Physical presence in a worship service is actually insufficient to press us into one another’s lives. We could begin to meet together again over the coming months and still remain distanced from the very people who God has designed to be our greatest help.
So, fight that urge now. Take time today to warn someone who is idle, comfort a discouraged brother or sister, help someone who is weak, show patience to someone who gets on your last nerve, and repay good to the one who has intentionally done you wrong. Act in this way toward others in your church so that the watching world notices the uncommon love that we have for one another.
And, act in this way toward outsiders, knowing that the most pressing need they have can only be found in Christ and His love flowing through His people. People like us.
And by training our hearts to enter into the burdens of others, we at the same time will find ourselves entering into the unburdening peace of Christ.