When Work Gets Wearisome
I don’t know about you, but I have experienced frustration in my work. In a chapter entitled, “Anticlimax” in my book on leadership called From Weakness to Strength, I wrote:
For us pastors, anticlimax can take many forms. In spite of our best efforts and most faithful prayers and shepherding and preaching, the popular church down the street still attracts some of our members. In spite of the comprehensive, compassionate, and costly care given to a hurting church member, he says that he feels uncared for by the church and then leaves in a huff. In spite of counseling a couple for two years in hopes that their struggling marriage will heal, they get a divorce. In spite of putting hours of study and preparation into preaching, three emails arrive on Monday telling you how disappointing, offensive, or theologically imprecise your sermon was. In spite of putting in your best effort to craft worship services that artfully draw people into the presence of God, the varied criticisms still come: the liturgy is too formal and too informal; the music is too upbeat and too mellow; the song selection is too contemporary and too traditional; the people are not welcoming enough and too invasive. In spite of spending countless hours of prayer that God would bring revival and renewal to your church, the church remains stunted in its growth, mundane in its ministry, lukewarm in its love, invisible in its impact, and held back by the demands and drama of its most narcissistic and divisive members. Or so it seems.
Stuck in frustration and anticlimax, or what Scripture alludes to as the vocational “groan,” I sometimes feel that I’ve been doomed to a similar plight as the mythological character named Sisyphus—whose story, in truth, is no myth at all. Remember Sisyphus? The one doomed to the eternal torment of pushing a rock up a hill, and then lose grip of the rock as he nears the top, only to return again (and again and again and again…) to the bottom of the hill to try once more.
Do you relate to Sisyphus? Perhaps the myth is truer than our dreams of what work should be. Perhaps we’ve all been condemned to a lifetime of hard work that will be met, at the end of each effort, with a rock rolled back down to the bottom of a hill.
Or, perhaps there is a bigger, brighter, more hopeful story being told behind the scenes in relation to our work—a story that can provide hope and even flourishing in the midst of what seems mundane, fruitless, and pointless to the naked eye. Could this even be possible?
As I reflect on the frustration associated with my own work, especially at the points of deepest discouragement, I think of one who struggled and groaned in much deeper ways than I as he toiled to complete his assigned task: Jesus. In truth, the groans of his work make my groans seem like child’s play.
Jesus was unique to be sure—he was the flawless worker, who was always about his Father’s business, and who never erred in his motives or mission. He poured all that he had into his twelve disciples over a period of three solid years. But at the end of those three years, Judas sold him out for a small bag of coins, Peter renounced him three times publicly, and every single one of them abandoned him in his darkest hour.
How must Jesus, as the Architect and Perfecter of faith, have felt each time he used the term “you who are of little faith” in reference to the disciples into whom he had poured so much of his life and energy? And how must he have felt about having only 120 followers after he rose from the dead and appeared to over 500 people (Acts 1:15; 1 Corinthians 15:6)?
It turns out that even Jesus, the one with enough power to speak the galaxies into existence by speaking, had to endure the Sisyphus experience in his work of saving souls and loving people, places, and things to life. Shouldn’t we, who are far less strong and far less perfect than he, expect similar things for ourselves? If Jesus, who will one day resolve every groan in his good creation, was subject to the groan, shouldn’t we expect to be also?
And yet, if the story of Scripture also represents the unfolding Story of God and his universe, we can also take comfort in knowing that the Story’s final chapter has not yet begun. In fact, we currently live inside what amounts to a single sentence in a single paragraph in a single chapter of God’s Book—a sentence that, in many aspects of our work, represents the groan more than it represents flourishing, life, and peace.
However, the best is yet to come.