My confessor and spiritual director once shared with me that when we notice ourselves growing in irritability and losing our equanimity and peace at an increasing frequency, it is usually an indication that something is going “off” in our relationship with God. If and when we notice this happening, we need to intentionally take the time and space we need to attend to these symptoms of spiritual malaise and recalibrate, otherwise, it can quickly become a slippery slope into an even greater estrangement from God. This is no small matter because it is usually the case that the further we slip away in our relationship with God, the more difficult we find it to right our bearing towards our True North; and the further we drift away from Christ being the anchor and source of our life, the more hardened our hearts become to its own sickness.
As I write this post, the people I am thinking about are not hardened sinners or those who want nothing to do with God. In my work, the people I come regularly in contact with are Catholics and Christians from other denominations who desire to deepen their friendship with Christ and many of these people are active in the mission of the Church. They serve in at least one ministry, journey with a cell group or community and are often called upon to step up into some leadership role in their area of service. Several are even serving in ministry in some kind of full-time capacity. However, I have come to realise that this group of faithful and active Christians just as often neglect the warning signs I had mentioned at the start of this post. They don’t ignore it out of ill-will or laziness – many of them are simply TOO BUSY SERVING to slow down and take the time necessary for self-reflection and recalibrate their interior journeys. In fact, their schedules are so tightly packed, they literally cannot slow down without there being some negative impact on their productivity or ministry.
Someone I know of who has been in leadership of her ministry for many years was burning out behind the scenes and was regularly burning up with resentment and anger at being taken for granted and having to take on so many responsibilities at the last minute during major events. She was always the person “picking up the slack” and making sure that the ministry’s events were functioning as at high a standard as possible. Eventually, she came to a realisation that she was in a very bad place spiritually even though she was spending almost every other waking hour planning and working on her ministry. There was no more joy or passion, and yet, those closest to her treated her as an indispensable pillar of the ministry so much that she felt she could not take leave of it. No-one in the ministry, not even her fellow leaders, seemed to pick up on how miserable she was. At her lowest point, she said that she had even wished she had contracted a critical illness so that she could have a “good enough reason” to take a break.
She is not the only ones with a story like this. And these are not isolated Catholics or people unaware of the importance of community or the interior life. But sometimes it is especially because of the communities they belong to that they find it hard to admit their struggles. There seems to be a prevailing culture that it is godly to serve without counting the costs and so a good disciple should just buck up, pray harder, learn to “rely on God more” and keep going. To me it is very alarming to see how many people sincerely believe that their real, human needs do not matter in the service of God. This is extremely dangerous because when we do not take our own human needs seriously, we become blind to the same needs in the people around us. And that is why this kind of culture is self-perpetuating, and why ministries and communities made up of leaders who routinely sacrifice their legitimate human needs often fail to be good pastors to others.
Is it a wonder why when we look around our ministries and communities more deeply, we wonder where the abundant life that Jesus has promised us has gone? While there may be a veneer of civility and kindness on the surface, those who are deeply engaged in ministry all know that beneath that veneer there is resentment, anger, envy, pain, and above all – FEAR. There is a fear of doing the wrong thing, of letting people down, of betraying other people’s trust, of being a bad example, of being irresponsible, of abandoning ship when it is sinking etc etc. Yet, while trapped in all these, we continue to point to examples of when God has come through for us and comfort ourselves that therefore, we must be on the right track.
“I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.”Jn 10:10
Somewhere along the way, we have started treating people – ourselves included – as a means to an end instead of as ends in themselves. We regularly press people into service, not even bothering to find out what’s going on in their lives or if they are in a season or place of vulnerability or need themselves. We keep calling upon the same few people who have not said “no” to us in the past and we are blind to the fractures in their own families, marriages, or the fact that they are running away from the light God wants to shine into their messy lives by immersing themselves in serving God. We have wandered far from believing Jesus when He said, “Without me you can do nothing” Jn 15:5. We have not learned how to sit at the feet of the Master and to incline our ears to His voice first, and to keep returning to this posture of a disciple and then “Do whatever He tells you” Jn2:5. Instead, we have gotten into the habit of running out and trying to save the world ourselves and our prayers are filled with petitions for God to help us in our endeavours instead of listening and uttering, “Thy will be done, thy Kingdom come.”
What was it that Jesus said about how his disciples would be recognised? Wasn’t it by our love for one another (Jn 13:35)? The early Christians bewildered the world around them by the love their showed to one another because GOD IS LOVE. Christ never said that his disciples would be recognised by how constantly busy and productive they are – or how many events and programs they run to proclaim the Good News. What is any of this worth – without love? The Good News IS LOVE. And how can we say we love one another if we do not know how to honour the dignity and beauty of every individual? What kind of Church are we becoming if our communities are not safe spaces in which anybody – especially our leaders – can be authentic and admit when they are weak, and are supported and loved when they do so?
Perhaps we can begin just with our own selves and ask ourselves some hard questions. Are we too busy serving to feed our soul? Are we too busy serving to waste time with God? To rest with our families? To tend to our own human needs – the same human needs God gave us out of love for us? The limits God put into all of Creation contain the laws by which they can flourish. Perhaps we should put some time in understanding these “laws” God put into our hearts, our bodies, our minds, our souls… in order to be better stewards of our lives.
As one person once put to me, “There are only three persons in the Trinity, and I am none of them.” Let us learn to love our creatureliness and to bring God glory by loving ourselves and our neighbours as God’s beloveds and not treat one another as servants whose well-being matter less than their productivity, for there is surely no glory or honour to God in that!