Intimacy and EternityThe Art of Burden-bearing
Part Two, Chapter Thirteen
No one is useless in this world
who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
The Art of Burden-Bearing
ONE OF THE FAIREST FRUITS of intimacy with God is to be able to carry each other’s burdens, and in this way fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). It is precious beyond words to join ourselves in spirit with loved ones at times when they are meeting together or are in special need of prayer. When our spirit is untroubled by other worries (admittedly, a big when!) we can feel as close to them as if we were physically in their presence.1
I am taking it for granted that most of us have read plenty of books about prayer, which frees me from having to go over familiar ground. What is needed is often not just more prayer but rather the ability to enter with faith and imagination into the lives and situations we are concerned about. With the Spirit’s help, any of the issues we read, see or hear about can become the raw material for prayer.
In the words of a contemporary hermit, ‘An intercessor’s heart must be a furnace of love for sinners.’ Shutting out all the needs which disturb us will assuredly not help to stoke up the fire within us. Our prayer burdens will be as different as our characters, but if Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud tears and cries, then may the Lord give us something of the same zeal!
We thought earlier about the advantage of setting aside Cherith weeks (see The Trysting Place). Like an athlete benefiting from long months of training, so we need to sharpen our prayer life by avoiding too much contact with the spirit of the world.
A season of more intense prayer, perhaps without food, may do wonders to help us identify with the suffering of people we would not normally even think about. Occasional times without fiction, television, or some other comfort we have come to take for granted may likewise do much to revive a flagging spiritual life – or to enrich an already deep one.
Avid reader of the newspaper that I am, I found it beneficial recently to spend a week without one. I made use of the time instead to pay more attention to the excellent Christian publications I receive. Our primary call is to meet with the Lord and to resist evil; it is not necessarily our duty to know about every issue that the far from Spirit-led media is currently featuring.
As time goes by, we will find ourselves particularly drawn to pray for certain people, places and professions. We usually pray best and most sincerely for the subjects that are closest to our hearts – but beware of unhealthy biases!
A Way in to Wider Prayer
If you are one of the many who find the thought of praying for wider issues so daunting that you rarely make a start, here is a simple way to approach such subjects.
Suppose, for example, that you want to pray for the education system, but feel intimidated by the size of the topic.
Start by praying for one teacher or child whom you know, and take them as representative of the whole group. Pray for them by name. Then move on to pray for the school that they are part of, and then for the other schools in the region.
Before you know it, you will find yourselves praying for the whole education system. It is easy to do the same with the Health Service, perhaps by praying first for someone who works in a hospital, or who is currently hospitalized. In such ways, any issue, institution or even nation comes within reach.
Ideally, prayer requires both time and energy, but God is ingenious when time is at a premium. We considered in ‘The Pace of Life’ how we can use the odd moments during the day, including our times of travelling.
We must also learn to respond quickly when the Lord wakes us in the middle of the night, or when we sense that He has a reason for keeping us up late (or waking us early).
It is precious to spend time with Him at an hour when there are few distractions around.
Spending time with people who are further along the path than ourselves will also help our desire to pray. We are inspired by their fervour and encouraged by their expectation that God will act when they pray.
If strategy is central to success in business and military circles, why should it be any less so in the realm of prayer?
After all, if one country is going to invade another, the commander-in- chief does not allow every ship, regiment or squadron of aeroplanes to start fighting when and wherever they feel like it. He concentrates his forces according to a master plan. As Christians we are engaged in serious spiritual warfare. It is important for us to discover the Commander’s plan, and to play our proper part in it.
If we do not think ‘strategically,’ our prayers may quickly degenerate into mere idle longing along the lines of, ‘Oh if only the government would show more interest in the unemployed!’ Such longings tend to be ineffectual, and lead either to long ‘shopping lists’, or worse, to naive assumptions that so-and-so is the ‘goody’ and someone else the ‘baddy’.
Prayer can all too easily degenerate into a self-righteous condemnation of those who do not think as we do. This does nothing to advance the Kingdom of God.
Our warfare is not against flesh and blood but against intelligent people without bodies: the principalities and powers of darkness. Most traditional church prayers contain little hint of this dimension of spiritual warfare. Perhaps this is because it is naively assumed that the institutions of state will always be used for the maintenance of religion and all good values. Whilst we have much to be thankful for in our nation, we cannot afford to be under any delusions; the prevailing ethos in our society is profoundly ungodly and displeasing to the Lord. The devil has a vested interest in making the state a servant of Mammon, and an instrument of oppression. Churchill’s maxim, ‘constant vigilance is the price for ongoing freedom’ is a reminder of the need to keep on praying for the Lord to watch over our nation during these times of upheaval.
Establishing Lines of Communication
When we are linked by the power of prayer, we, as it were, hold each other’s hand as we walk side by side along a slippery path; and thus it comes about that the harder each one leans on the other, the more firmly we are rivetted together in brotherly love.
(Gregory the Great)2
When we enter the combat zone in the heavenly places we encounter fierce opposition. It is not in the least unusual to find Christian workers labouring under afflictions that go far beyond what we might associate with the Refiner’s fire.3 We saw earlier that, in some mysterious way, the Lord makes use of evil to help us seek Him more wholeheartedly. But Scripture urges us not only to come near to God but also to resist the devil (James 4:7-8). We will do this much more effectively if we are part of a group which prays for each other. Pastors, and those involved in high-profile spiritual work, are in special need of prayer cover and support.
There is much we can do to help each other. A teacher of religious education came to me one day, deeply distressed about a particular class who were playing her up. Many of the children were actively involved in the occult, and highly cynical about the claims of the gospel. I suggested that she ask her house group to pray for her. She came back the following week beaming. Her class was transformed, and the biggest trouble-makers had been going out of their way to be helpful! Such examples can be multiplied almost endlessly as we learn to harness the power of prayer.
This matter of ‘rounding up’ prayer covering is such a crucial issue that I do not leave it to chance. I know from much experience the difference it makes when I am being prayed for. Physically I am not strong, but times without number I have known extraordinary strength surging through me when I have most needed it. Spiritual gifts likewise come within reach when our prayer covering is in place.
Before embarking on important projects I therefore go to considerable trouble to inform people of what I am planning to do. It is much better if these ‘lines of communication’ are in place before emergencies occur. Then, when a serious situation develops, we know immediately how to mobilize the necessary prayer.
Most of us find it hard to pray when certain distressing situations come our way. It can sometimes be hardest to pray with objective faith for people we are particularly close to. It is enormously releasing if we can find someone who is less emotionally involved than ourselves to pray for these people, because they can do so with much greater faith and objectivity than we are able to do. At other times we can do as much for them in the areas where they struggle.
Guarding the Burden-Bearer’s Timetable
Given the sheer amount of information that comes our way in the course of an average day, it is hardly surprising that our minds sometimes feel overloaded and we begin to suffer from compassion fatigue. We are shocked by the scale of suffering that afflicts the world, and consequently tend to shut out needs and problems we feel we can do nothing about.
The devil is all in favour of this. If he can’t stop us praying at all, then he sets out to exhaust us with needs and burdens that we were never meant to take up. As burden-bearers, it is wise to spend time with the Lord before accepting fresh responsibilities and engagements lest our own ‘need to be needed’ leads us to take on more than we should.
To help us bring our lives into balance, Gordon MacDonald introduces us in Restoring your Spiritual Passion4 to some of the different types of characters we have to deal with. These include VTPs (Very Trainable People) who we should invest in heavily, VIPs (Very Important People) whose wisdom sharpens our lives, and VDPs (Very Draining People) who have a peculiar way of ‘leeching’ our time and energies. Gordon warns against allowing such people to take up a disproportionate amount of our time. The devil loves to see us spending huge quantities of time with people we can ‘almost’ help, instead of being with people we really could help, or be helped by. If we are not careful, we can find ourselves left with insufficient time to befriend the people who would most benefit from our input. Trainable people are often highly sensitive to our perceived busyness, and hold back from imposing themselves on us. It is therefore up to us to sense their hidden giftings, and to go out of our way to spend time nurturing and encouraging them.
This is not to write the VDPs off. By God’s grace all and any can change, but it is a call to examine our calendar. Are VDPs dominating our lives? If they are, then we will not be inputting into the strategic VTPs, let alone be receiving nurture ourselves through VIPs. It is worth reflecting that the Lord Jesus walked past many people who were in need. In other words, He did not allow a person’s need to automatically dictate His actions. We must also learn to take time out to refresh ourselves when VDPs have exhausted us, and to make the effort to maintain contact with the VIPs who keep watch over us.
Bearing Burdens in the Spirit
The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
Much of the art of burden-bearing centres around the ability to recognize the particular ways in which the Lord brings people to mind whom He would have us pray for. This often happens out of the blue – when we are doing the washing up, or driving along, for instance. It is not in the least unspiritual, however, to make lists of people and subjects we wish to remember regularly in prayer. Carefully chosen topics add structure to our spiritual lives. They jog our woeful memories and focus our wandering minds. I was amused to come across a man who kept a long list of people to pray for pinned above his bed. As he hopped into bed late one night he called out wearily, ‘Same as usual for a Monday night, Lord!’
Amusing though this anecdote is, it highlights a genuine problem. By nature, burden-bearers are supremely concerned to succour the needy. As John and Paula Sandford explain, burden-bearers will be down on their knees praying for a deeper work of grace among God’s people at the time when others are off to enjoy themselves at parties.5 For he, or more likely she, (for women tend to be more instinctive burden- bearers than men), has already sensed the hindrances that are not so readily discernible. Conversely, when the church begins to feel challenged, and to mourn its sinfulness and lack of power, there will be joy in the burden-bearer’s heart.6
This ability to empathize is such an important key to effective intercession that the devil tries to distort the gift. By making us identify too deeply with some distressing situations, we are in danger of ending up almost as despondent as the people we are praying for. As so often in the spiritual life, our greatest strengths can easily become our greatest weaknesses.
This, I believe, is one of the reasons why many of us subconsciously prefer to limit our involvement to matters close to home and heart. The mere thought of certain types of suffering may be enough to induce in some people a degree of spiritual paralysis. The Lord Jesus warned us that because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). We must not allow difficulties to rob both God and people all around the world of the good we could be doing on their behalf through prayer.
If we are to associate ourselves with those who are suffering, it is crucial that we know with all our hearts that Jesus is Lord, that heaven is stronger than hell, and that praise lifts us into the dimension which God inhabits. Otherwise we will merely worry. Were we to open our hearts to every need we hear about, we would be crushed by the weight of sin and sorrow. It is inevitable that we set up barriers and filters across the entrance to our mind in order to protect ourselves. The risk is that we go too far, effectively ‘privatizing’ our faith. Our subconscious springs to its own defence, and we end up praying little more than a grown-up’s version of ‘God bless Mummy and Daddy, and keep us all well-fed and well-paid.’7
It grieves me greatly that most churches pay so little attention to prayer in their Sunday services. How can it be right to leave it all to the relative handful who attend the midweek prayer meeting? The more the Lord teaches us about the power that can be released into world situations through prayer, the more we realise that we are not so powerless after all. God has given His intercessors authority in prayer, so that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18). We must find ways to harness this gift of prayer and to give it its rightful place in the life of the Church.
Bearing Burdens in the Spirit
The world scoffs at the thought of a man weeping for his neighbour’s sins as if for his own, or even more than for his own, for it seems contrary to nature. But the love which brings it about is not of this world.
(Angela of Foligno)8
I asked the Lord once to show me more about what it meant to be a burden-bearer. By way of a reply, He showed me in the spirit a picture of an eastern lady. She was walking along, carrying a pitcher on her head without apparent effort.
When I tried to do the same it proved much harder than I had expected. The pitcher slipped from my head to my shoulders with the result that I was staggering along, bent almost double under its weight. The Lord revealed that the secret of carrying burdens lies in ‘poise, posture and practice’.
The Lord wants us to be able to carry heavier burdens for longer periods of time without becoming excessively drained in the process. There is much to ponder here. As burden-bearers, we will often find ourselves identifying with the pain and struggles that others are going through. ‘Who is weak and I do not feel weak?’ asked Paul. ‘Who is led into sin and I do not inwardly burn?’ (2 Corinthians 11:29).
Shortly after we were married, Rosalind and I experienced a day when we became extremely tense and irritated with each other. It crossed my mind that the Lord might be using this to highlight the intense warfare that is being waged against Christian marriages. Minutes later, I heard that a man in our congregation had left his wife in a storm of violence. (Mercifully the separation was only temporary).
I wish I could say that we only get uptight with each other when we are identifying with other people’s problems! Nevertheless, there is an authentic aspect to such identification which we do well to be aware of. We may, for example, sometimes experience in our own bodies some of the symptoms of a sick person we are praying for. It is surely far more useful to cry out to the Lord when we are feeling sick or weighed down than just to soldier on. At the very least it transforms our apparently negative emotions into powerful intercession.
With experience, we learn to recognize when we are feeling deflated, and hence less able to bear burdens. These times often follow hard on the heels of particular blessings.
Another risk that burden-bearers run is that we begin to derive our sense of self-worth from what we do on behalf of other people. In extreme cases, we can become so taken up with the needs of others that we lose any real confidence that the Lord loves us for our own sake at all. So deeply ingrained is this need to be strong for the sake of others that we risk repressing our own feelings, until the day comes when they burst out like a pent-up volcano.
When our inner being is cluttered and confused by all the needs and hurts around us, however, it is all too easy to develop manipulative ways to protect ourselves, and to control the environment around us. I have seen men driven by powerful insecurities imposing a tyranny of rigid rules and regulations on their families – rather like Captain von Trapp in ‘The Sound of Music’ whistling his orders to his young family. Much of the poignancy of this story lies in the way his future wife pierced his defences and brought down the walls that he had built up to protect himself.
All such control mechanisms must be seen for what they are: a sinful intrusion on the freedom of others. If staying open and remaining flexible is costly, the alternative is worse. The walls that we build to protect ourselves have a way of keeping out many of God’s choicest blessings – including the people who really could have helped us. We are unwise if we become too selective in who we will see, and when. Who are we to say what is really best for us?
It is much the same in the life of the Church. It is not as easy as it sounds to allow the Lord Jesus to be the unconditional Head of His Church. Many leaders regulate and surround activities with all manner of restrictions in order to keep them ‘safe’. In the process, many devout and free spirits are trampled on. Some never recover.
Intercession is not magic. God does not take away our free will, and neither must we in our prayers for each other. We cannot take a burden completely off people who are unwilling for it to be taken from them. Scripture is quite clear that each one should carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). What the Lord may give us is the authority to ‘lift’ the weight of whatever has been causing the problem to the point where a person is free to decide for him or herself how it is that they want to live.
The intercessor is used, therefore, to ‘narrow the gap’ between the way things are and the way God wants them to be.
You see something wrong? Then pray about it! You see someone in need? Then pray for them! You will find that you have entered into the ministry of heaven itself, and you will experience much sweet fellowship with our Risen Saviour, who is even now interceding for His children.
There are some favours that the Almighty does not grant either the first, or the second, or the third time you ask Him, because He wishes you to pray for a long time. Often, He wills this delay to keep you in a state of humility.
Do you live and work in the fast lane? Then take time to pray for those who are in the Lord’s slow lane: prisoners, (both criminal and religious); the bereaved; the seriously ill; the spiritually isolated – especially those who struggle to survive as Christians in hostile countries.
Have you been slowed down and wonder what you are doing in the slow lane? As you look across at the fast track, it is easy to feel out of things. Try to turn these feelings round by praying for those who are in the public eye: media presenters, politicians, church and mission leaders and the such like, people doing tasks that you, for the moment at least, have no opportunity to do. The one who knows how to bear burdens in prayer need never feel excluded!
Lord, I want to take this call to prayer seriously. Fill me anew with the Holy Spirit of prayer. Keep my heart free from unnecessary preoccupations so that I can share more fully in this holy work of lifting others before Your throne. Prompt me to pray for the particular people, places and situations that You bring to my attention. Remind me, too, of all those burdens You have given me in the past, and which I have so often neglected. Thank You that you want to give me joy in the house of prayer! In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. 1 Corinthians 5:4.
2. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints Jill Haak Adels. (O.U.P.).
3. We often come under attack in the precise areas we have been praying about. It is also worth being aware that there are satanic covens who meet regularly to call down curses on pastors and their families, and on Christian enterprise in general. This is not to be underestimated. For those who feel they may be afflicted in such ways, I would recommend Francis Frangipane’s book The Divine Antidote, together with specific prayer and fasting.
4. Gordon MacDonald, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion (Highland).
5. Ecclesiastes 7:2-3.
6. John and Paula Sandford, The Elijah Task (Logos International). We can continue to ‘burden-bear’ even when we are in the midst of other pursuits. The gift of tongues is a wonderful asset in this respect. It is obviously better, though, to find a place where you can devote your whole attention to the matter you feel called to pray about.
7. There are no simple answers to this dilemma. Richard Foster’s book The Freedom of Simplicity (S.P.C.K. Triangle) is a modern masterpiece on the inner life, as well as a serious examination of how we should be living in the light of gross global inequalities.
8. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P.).