I have been feeling overwhelmed by life lately. I am sorry to say that it is an all-too-familiar predicament: I find myself smack in the middle of too many commitments and then feel bad that I can’t give my best to all of the things I’m doing. After a long, difficult season of anxiety and postpartum depression, when I was isolated and had such a limited capacity to do anything outside of survival, I have emerged feeling energetic and ready to get back to thriving instead of just surviving. In my zeal, I have become involved with many good things for the purpose of self-improvement and growth as well as to assist others in their personal growth.
Priscilla Shirer, in her Bible study called “The Armor of God,” talks about our tendency to focus on changing ourselves instead of spiritual health. She articulates my predicament so clearly and accurately that I have been turning this over in my mind. I am so excited about what God has been doing in my life that I have taken it and run with it, trying to chase after personal growth at an accelerated speed without pausing often enough to check in and seek God’s guidance and discernment.
In one of the video portions of the study, Shirer compares our sins to a Whack-a-Mole game, where we keep trying to swat at them even as more are popping up because we are not looking at the deeper root cause. Instead of chasing after self-improvement, which is a good thing, we do better to cooperate with sanctification, which is the better thing. There is a subtle difference between the two. In self-improvement, we are driven to try to make ourselves better, but in sanctification, we partner with the work the Holy Spirit is doing to conform us to the image of Jesus. Both require effort and discipline, but sanctification is driven by the leadership of the Holy Spirit rather than the wisdom of men.
As adults, we are all drawn to some form of excess—too much food, too much dependence on others, too much independence, too much pride, too much fear, too much anger, too much of an addictive substance, and on and on. I’ve noticed that I get caught up in a pattern of getting involved in too many activities and commitments, becoming overwhelmed and exhausted, pulling back from everything so I can rest and refocus, and then jumping back in again. Often after a season of withdrawing and reprioritizing, I emerge refreshed and more in tune with exercising discernment in what I say “yes” to, but in my excitement, I quickly fall back into saying “yes” to too many things.
In Luke 4, Jesus spends all night performing miracles of healing and casting out demons. Exhausted, He withdraws to a deserted place, presumably to spend time alone with God. The crowd comes after Him and entreats Him to stay, but He refuses, saying that He must preach to other cities, “because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:43). We have no one-size-fits-all answer for most of our decisions; sometimes God calls us to go, sometimes to stay, sometimes to reach out, and sometimes to pull back. Staying connected to the Father helps us to stay connected to our purpose, set by God, who steers us away from the mediocre and even the good in order to redirect us toward the best.
Recently I was pondering my overwhelmed state during the worship time at church. Surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, I leaned into the familiar intimacy I find with the Lord when I join the congregation in singing worship songs. I prayed earnestly for sanctification, feeling hopeful and refreshed to remember that the Holy Spirit is at work in me continually. As I was praying, thinking about the Whack-a-Mole image, I pictured my heart with sins like tree stumps popping up all over. Then I saw Jesus come and level them all, pulling up all the roots in the process. In this mental image, my heart was laid bare, smooth and shiny and exposed. The pain of the leveling was like a wound from a life-saving surgical operation. Then I saw Jesus on His hands and knees, using His hands to smooth a healing salve onto my heart. I was overwhelmed by the tenderness of Him tending to my vulnerable, hurting heart. This is a picture of the painful process He allows in order to save me from the deeper pain that comes to an untended heart. Like a doctor sewing up the sutures after a surgery, Jesus provides the comfort I need while I wait for the healing wounds to heal.
Tears poured down my face as I found myself again overwhelmed by the tenderness of Jesus toward me. The more I experience intimacy with Him, the more overwhelmed and in love with Him I feel. As I reflected on this feeling, I realized that it has become increasingly familiar. When I feel overwhelmed by life and by my own brokenness, taking time to pull back and reconnect with God shifts everything. Instead of being overwhelmed by circumstances, sin, and brokenness, always striving to prove and improve myself, I am overwhelmed by His tender love and kindness toward me. Ephesians 4:22-24 says we ought to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” When I let go of a destructive behavior or attitude, the letting go is not enough; I need a positive replacement behavior or else I will return to my old ways of doing and being.
Perhaps we become overwhelmed easily because we were made to be overwhelmed. God created us to be overwhelmed by everything good in Him: His love, grace, righteousness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, compassion, mercy, gentleness, power, and justice, to name a few. Our limitations give us an appreciation for His boundlessness; our need points us to His sufficiency; our scarcity mentality positions us to receive from His abundance. We become overwhelmed by life because we are small, fragile, broken beings, living in a broken world. We have a choice to make. Will we be overwhelmed by life, by our sin and brokenness, leading us to try to cope through our own ineffective strategies? Or will we let ourselves be overwhelmed by the love and goodness of God? We cannot conjure this up on our own; we can only experience this through the intimacy of relationship with Him, by our cooperation with His Holy Spirit.
My mom has a bank of stories about her children that we have heard repeatedly as we’ve grown into adulthood. In one of them, she says that as a little girl, I would often ask her to buy toys at the store and she would respond, “No, Lindsay, that’s too much,” meaning that it was too expensive. One year for Christmas, she asked me what I wanted for a present, and I responded, “I want something that’s ‘too much!’”
God delights in our desires for “too much” because He is the only one who can meet them. In an old journal from several years ago, I wrote and asked God for “more,” and wrote that I wasn’t even sure what that meant. He took that prayer and exploded my reality, my understanding of who He is and who I am in relation to Him, and I will never be the same. C. S. Lewis says it this way:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are
half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite
joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum
because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are
far too easily pleased.
-C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses
Let us allow the goodness of God to pull us into an intimacy with Him that explodes our preconceived ideas and opens us up for healing, freedom from bondage, and abundant life through our intimacy with Him. When we feel overwhelmed by the cares of this world, instead of returning to our dizzying attempts at coping with brokenness, we can begin to recognize that feeling as an indicator light that points us to Jesus. He longs to overwhelm us with Himself. After all, the gift He longs desperately to give to us is decidedly “too much.”