When Stress Changes Our Plans
In 2015, my Labor Day did not go according to plan. Instead of spending an enjoyable day with friends, I sat in an emergency care center learning that I had shingles. One of the diagnostic questions the doctor asked me was if I had recently been under significant stress to which I exclaimed, “YES!”
Four months earlier, I had watched the girls I’d discipled all through their college years graduate, and their college years were a crash course for all of us in how to deal with sexual sin—particularly masturbation and porn that had reached addictive levels. When they all graduated, I thought I would get a break from the emotional and spiritual heaviness, but that August, I had six girls in one week who approached me about their intense battles with sexual sin. The shingles came as a result of knowing what the journey ahead involved—and that walking with them would truly be a journey. Obviously, I did not handle the stress well, hence the shingles.
Contracting shingles was an clear indicator that I was being crushed by the weight of the burdens I was attempting to carry. But it’s not always easy to discern the difference between bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and being overcome by them. So, what’s reasonable with burden bearing, and what’s not? Consider these questions:
Are you depending on yourself or on the Lord?
It’s not always as obvious as having shingles, but you can discern who it is you’re depending on to bear such burdens. Are you regularly communicating with the Lord? Are you spending time reading and studying His Word? Are you renewing your mind (Rom. 12:2)? I find that if I’m doing these three things specifically, I am more inclined to trust and depend on Him rather than myself. Burden bearing becomes harmful to myself and to others when I try to do it in my own power. In our flesh, we will try to depend on ourselves, others, or things instead of God, but burdens quickly become burdensome when we seek a substitute for Him.
Why are you helping?
Take an honest look at your own motivations. While you may have started with the pure desire to help another believer, to encourage them, or to call out sin, our motivations can swiftly change. For me, I have to watch out for my own pride as I counsel and disciple, especially if there’s some measure of success in my efforts. I can easily see myself as a sort of savior, even though I would verbally acknowledge that Jesus is the only Savior. It’s definitely time to take a step back if you realize that you are helping someone because of what it does for you or how it makes you feel.
Who are you to each other?
Have you become another person’s crutch (or vice versa)? Does someone cling to you (or you to them)? Do you feel jealous or possessive about the friendship? Are you joined at the hip to the other person, to the extent that folks rarely see one of you without the other? Do you know where you end and the other person begins? Do you know what you are responsible for and what they’re responsible for?
If you answered the above questions affirmatively, it’s likely that the relationship is no longer healthy because it has become an idol for one or both of you. I have seen several same-sex friendships turn into homosexual relationships when these characteristics have been present. If warning bells are going off in your head about the questionable health of a friendship, I encourage you to read the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend and this helpful blog post from Desiring God.
Is the other person always “on the mat”?
In Matthew 9:1–2, Jesus heals a lame man who was brought to Him on a mat by his four friends. I once a heard a sermon about this miracle where the pastor commented that we all have times when we’re on the mat and other times when we’re the friend carrying the mat and bringing the person to Jesus. Being on the mat isn’t a bad thing, but if a friend is always the one on the mat, there’s a problem. Such a relationship isn’t reciprocal; it’s one-sided because the person isn’t living as though other people have problems too, and that life isn’t all about them. This scenario isn’t bearing one another’s burdens; it’s carrying it completely for them. The person who possesses the burden must take personal responsibility in addressing their situation.
Here’s the thing: you shouldn’t do more to work on people’s problems than they do. If they take a step, then you can match them. In meeting with girls, there have been times when I’ve had to tell someone that I wouldn’t meet with them again until they took the step that I asked of them. There’s a time to talk, but in all the talking about problems, there need to be steps identified and taken to address them. If no steps are taken, then we will not talk again about the issue until movement happens. You are not being selfish in having and maintaining such boundaries; in fact, it’s actually more loving to have them because you are stewarding what God has given you (time, energy, etc.) and recognizing that what people want and what people need are often two different things.
Can you let it go?
This past year, one of the small group leaders I coach had a tough situation with a small group girl who was unrepentant. This leader got to a point where her appetite, sleep, and emotions were affected. She couldn’t step away, shut things off, and take a physical, mental, and emotional break from the situation. So, we had to make some changes and create some boundaries in order to help her be able to lead and love her small group girl from a healthy place.
I am not advocating that you become cold toward the sin or the hurts of others. But you cannot let the burdens of others consume you. While we hope and pray for healing, for repentance, for relief, the person or their situation may never change. And we cannot make it change. We can only be obedient in obeying God’s commands and in lifting up the person and their situation. That’s what we’re responsible for, and if we can’t let it go, it’s an indication that we are not truly trusting God with them and that we are no longer emotionally healthy. Their life is their responsibility, not yours. And your life is your responsibility, not somebody else’s.
In light of your answers to these five questions, are you “bearing one another’s burdens” in a healthy way? Or are you being crushed by their burden, or even carrying it all for them? What next step do you need to take? How will you take that step?
Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Singles 20s/30s Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. She has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a Certificate of Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. While Ashley has a passion for discipling young women, she also loves her city, and when she’s not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer’s market or trying some new local restaurant.