Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, Jesus Christ Superstar, presents an unorthodox re-telling of the life of Jesus. While there is much in the play to decry, it has nevertheless been a favorite of mine because of its intriguing focus on the humanity of Jesus. One of the most poignant scenes occurs after Jesus drives the moneylenders and vendors from the temple. Perhaps already wearied from this event, new crowds of people emerge from all over the stage begging for Jesus to heal them from their infirmities. As Jesus begins to heal them, we see his weariness and feel his agony at the weight of human suffering. More and more people crowd him:
See my eyes, I can hardly see
See me stand, I can hardly walk
I believe you can make me whole
See my tongue, I can hardly talk
See my skin, I’m a mass of blood
See my legs, I can hardly stand
I believe you can make me well
See my purse, I’m a poor, poor, man
Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ?
Won’t you touch, will you heal me, Christ?
In this scene, Jesus begins to wane under the weight of endless sufferers coming to him for healing. In the staging of the play, they physically overwhelm him and in desperation he cries out:
There’s too many of you; don’t push me
There’s too little of me; don’t crowd me
This scene from Webber’s play often comes to mind whenever I read articles about burnout in the helping professions. Anyone involved in public ministry, the healing professions, or relief work understands the weight of responsibility to care and laments the limited resources to do so. Limited human resources and the constancy of human need often produce mental, spiritual, and physical exhaustion. Recent statistics suggest that “burnout” accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare spending each year. Burnout may also contribute to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and sometimes even death for those under age 45.(1) Members of the clergy frequently report symptoms of depression.(2) Somehow, those whose vocations place them in service to others sometimes believe that this service comes at the expense of themselves and their own well-being.
While the gospel writers never depict the kind of reaction we see portrayed by Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, they make a point to mention that Jesus often sought rest from the crowds that followed him. The Gospel of Luke reports: “News about him was spreading even farther, and great multitudes were gathering to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But he himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:15-16). And in the Gospel of Mark we learn that Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city, but stayed out in unpopulated areas because they were coming to him from everywhere. Indeed, following this statement, Mark tells the story of the paralytic who had to be lowered through the roof due to the crowds of people who had gathered to hear Jesus teach. In John’s gospel, we are told that Jesus “being wearied from his journey” was sitting by the well before asking the Samaritan woman to help him by giving him something to drink. As New Testament scholar Ken Bailey notes on this passage: “As a poor man, Jesus walked with his disciples and grew weary. John’s gospel has a high view of the person of Jesus, the divine Word that became flesh and dwelled among us. But in that same gospel Jesus is very human. He gets tired and thirsty. He weeps and falls asleep. His humanity is as unmistakable as his divinity.”(3)
How helpful it is, therefore, to see a Jesus who though empowered with the Spirit of God, often withdrew from ministering because he knew he needed to rest. What Jesus understood was that in order to care for others in a sustained manner, time away in rest, prayer, and reflection was a part of that ministry of caring. Without intentional withdrawal, focus, strength, and the heart to do good are lost. Like the Jesus depicted by Andrew Lloyd Webber, without rest and self-care, all that is left is the despairing cry for others to “heal themselves.” Isaiah promises that “those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength,” but unless a posture of waiting is assumed, strength cannot be renewed.
A colleague recently shared with me her own thoughts about caring and burnout. She noted that caring work is uniquely challenging because burnout seasons are inevitable. In those seasons, she pays attention to how she might discover new things about herself, including what may be lacking in terms of rest, reflection, and self-care. She seeks to understand what can be changed and what must be accepted in the care of others. She shared that the cultivation of joy, curiosity, and passion in ministering to others is a kind of labor all of its own—a labor that requires the intentional diligence to one’s own needs and concerns in the same way that one would act intentionally to serve the needs and concerns of others.
In his own life and ministry, Jesus provides an example of one who withdrew to lonely places, who rested when he was weary, and who often received care and nurture from others. His example invites us to consider what it means to be human. His periods of intentional withdrawal and rest were as crucial to his ministry of healing as laying his hands on those who were sick. This is what the Father called him to do; it was part of being who he was and is. For those who seek to heal, minister, and care for others directing that same care back towards themselves is a posture that sustains in more ways than one.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) “Companies are facing an employee burnout crisis,” CNBC, 14 August 2018. Accessed 13 February 2019.
(2) Paul Vitello, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” The New York Times, Aug. 1, 2010. Accessed 13 February 2019.
(3) Ken Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 201.