(Also titled: More Than I Can Handle, Part 6)
This is part of a larger series examining a better way to frame the question of whether God gives us more than we can handle. Today we’re looking at ways that the local church helps people in the broader discussion of trials, suffering, hope, and help. If you are new to this discussion, you may find this context helpful, starting with the first post in the series.
Help by Community Prayer
Prayer is not always a private time of conversation with God; the Bible indicates that sometimes prayer is better when other believers join us. (Matthew 18:19-20). How and why, to what extent? I don’t know. It is enough for me to pray with others simply because Jesus says it’s important. Surprisingly, praying with others is not always an easy spiritual practice. It’s easy enough to pray for other people’s faults or vulnerabilities, but much harder to share those things ourselves. Sharing prayer requests is risky for everyone, but it’s a risk that Jesus expects on some level for all of his children, regardless of their personality. Jesus intends our prayers to be met by kindness and trust. May it be so.
Jesus helps us understand the need for both telling the situation and asking for help. When Christians gather, they share their joys and sorrows with each other. We should not dismiss the telling as unimportant, but we do sometimes need to remember we are asking others to join us with a request, not just talking about a problem with our friends. When a blind man comes to Jesus with a vague request “Have mercy on me!” Jesus responds, “What do you want Me to do for you?” (Mark 10:46-52)
Isn’t it obvious what he wants? Doesn’t Jesus already know? Clearly, the question was for the benefit of the one who needed help. Likewise, when we pause to ask ourselves (and God, and each other) what exactly we are asking for, we clarify motives and obstacles that may be relevant for our decision making.
In a way, clarifying what we want can help us take responsibility for our situation, even as we’re trusting in God’s sovereignty for what we cannot do ourselves. Over the years of helping children with math homework, we have experienced both passive and active ways of asking for help. “I don’t get it” is passive. “I keep getting the same wrong answer. Can you help me find where I’m going wrong?” is far better. We tell our children, “when you come for help, always bring evidence that you’ve tried to solve the problem. Ask a specific question; don’t just tell the teacher you are stuck/frustrated/don’t understand.” Likewise, when we ask someone to pray for a specific request, we often do better at thinking through the problem and what we actually need.
James also tells Christians to pray together, for sickness (not especially hard) but also for sin (much harder). When I’ve asked for prayer, especially for a sinful struggle, I am choosing to take my request seriously, not flippantly. Others who join in my prayer may gain courage to ask for prayer for their own needs, and we all strengthened as a group when God sustains and answers our prayers. We grow in trust. Just like with Jesus’ instruction, we may not understand the limits and details and benefits of this kind of prayer, but we do well to attempt it.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.James 5:14-16.
Help through Diversity
But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” … But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.1 Corinthians 12:20-21, 24b-25
One of the most valuable things about the church is how it understands and implements diversity. Instead of avoiding diversity, we rejoice in it! Diversity is not division. We don’t have to have all the strengths, nor does God expect us to. We are not always strong at the same time, so we don’t have to pretend to be or feel guilty because we are not. One time long ago when our family gathered, I was washing dishes while my sisters-in-law chased babies. When they expressed regret that they weren’t helping, I realized that I was truly joyful that my hands were free to help. When I I remembered the same feeling of regret when I had to leave church early, or when I wasn’t able to do all the important things, I realized that I had also been fearful that people resented me for not helping. They weren’t!
We can take joy in the diversity of gifting as well. When my more outgoing daughter needed some encouragement, she benefitted from a friend far more socially gifted than I am. I’ve had to humble myself to ask for help cleaning my garage, finding a new wardrobe– two things that were a significant burden to me at the time. Thankfully, God provided help when I was weak, but I had to go and ask a human for that help.
Two are better than one,Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Because they have a good reward for their labor.
For if they fall, one will lift up his companion.
But woe to him who is alone when he falls,
For he has no one to help him up.
Help by Giving, and Giving by Receiving
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Surprisingly, some of our greatest growing in difficult seasons happens when we draw from our meager resources to serve others. Paul shows us that this kind of giving actually continues the healing that began earlier, redeeming the suffering we experience by using the experience for good. Giving is good for us in other ways, too. It IS more blessed to give than to receive.
Some personality types naturally give well, but they may unintentionally keep people at arm’s length by refusing to receive. They’ve taught themselves to put on a happy face and say “Everything’s fine” when they aren’t fine. God’s word clearly intends us to be honest with our need for help and prayer. When someone asks “What can I bring? How can I help?” we should answer honestly! We don’t want to be a bother, but if we are not careful, we will take away the blessing others would receive in giving to us.
If I am always giving, or if I am always receiving, I may want to reflect and ask for wisdom about whether I am out of balance. If I am noticing gaps in my church, it’s possible that God wants me to meet these needs. “Why isn’t anyone doing XYZ?” might be a clue for us. On the other hand, God calls us to rest in him when we see more gaps than we are able to fill. He loves his church, too, and he will provide in his way and time.
When we are seeking help, we should look to the broader community, including those in other stages of life than we are. Sometimes we are tempted to look for a professional counselor for help that may be better coming from a godly older woman! God intended churches to provide practical help for the very things that woman earnestly desire to get right. For all of our desires not to leave out women who work outside the home, are unmarried or do not have children, we neglect Paul’s list in Titus to our peril:
The older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things— 4 that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.Titus 2:3-5
These are the areas of teaching that should be happening in our churches– all from different women in different stages of life. This plan is a churchwide enterprise– not a single grandmother expert who tells all the younger women what to do. If we want to pursue the kind of community that Paul describes, we will be cultivating relationships across generations. If we talk only to people in our stage of life, we are neglecting a source of help and service that is vital to church life.
Do not dismiss imperfect mentors. Sometimes we lament the lack of mentors without considering that the mentors may not know who WANTS help. If you desire help from an older woman, you will need to ask! It takes practice learning how to ask questions that lead us to greater confidence in God, and not mentors. We do not seek help like the world. Mentors are not God; they have weaknesses and strengths. Many young women dismiss the help that a mentor can give because they see weaknesses.
What can we do to give this kind of help? Mentors can intentionally make flexible spaces in their schedule to meet needs. In the secular world, adults can pack their schedules so tightly with work, sports, school, that they have no time to live in community. When we can make space, we should. We can learn from those who help well, but we should not assume they are the only ones God is calling to serve in this way.
Help in Brainstorming Solutions
Where there is no counsel, the people fall;Proverbs 11:14 (also see Proverbs 15:22 and 24:6)
But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.
In a multitude of counselors, you’ll surely get a multitude of principles to consider. Because you gain the perspective of God’s word understood through different experiences and current stage of life, you gain greater clarity for the decisions you must make.
A multitude of counselors can sometimes be paralyzing when everyone is telling you to do something different. Consider five women with different backgrounds– some growing up in a Christian home and coming to faith as a child, and others who heard the gospel for the first time as an adult; single women and women with children, some women with children our own children’s ages, and women who have grown children. Now imagine all of them with a love for and knowledge of God’s Word. You have a problem, and you don’t ask “What should I do?” (That’s going to get you a bunch of opinions and not always closer to wisdom.) Instead you ask “What Bible principles do you see in this issue I’m facing? Wisdom is sorting through biblical perspectives and making a choice, trusting that God will lead you.
Help by Transparency.
We should be actively pursuing the light, pursuing accountability and transparency. In all of the ways churches help, some level of transparency is necessary.
Jesus talks about the tendency to passively (or actively) avoid the light.
And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”John 3:19-21
Knowing one another is risky, even when hearts are loving and kind with each other. It takes deliberate humbling of ourselves and our natural desire to be well thought of. Wherever you find yourself, it may help to consider the ideal– mutual transparency and love. Transparency does not preclude discretion and a measure of restraint, but if we reject all transparency, we cut ourselves off from a God-given resource. Transparency is our responsibility. Sometimes we place all the responsibility of accountability on others and passively avoid the light. “My accountability partner never followed up.”
When Help Is Absent
Sometimes churches don’t or can’t help. God may use the lack of available help to lead us to reexamine our options and direct our next steps. Am I willing to reconsider my career plans? my desire to homeschool my children? my busy schedule at church? Is my dream house or promotion a bad choice for my family? Should we relocate closer to family? When we were told we had 30 days to move out of a house we were renting, we reconsidered a house we had rejected as unsuitable. In retrospect, that move was exactly what our family needed at the time in particular because it brought us into closer community with a family that was a tremendous help to us in a difficult season.