Battling Burnout by Beholding
A dear friend of mine—whom my kids call Uncle James—is a missionary in Vietnam. When I first met James, he was on furlough in the States, visiting his aging mother. How did he spend his time while on furlough? He bunked at a nearby homeless shelter, living among the inner–city homeless in order to share the gospel with them. In fact that’s where I met James: serving him breakfast at the homeless shelter.
As we struck up a conversation over breakfast, I learned James didn’t actually live at the homeless shelter: his permanent residence was a rat–infested, one–room apartment in a third–world country. Why? For the gospel’s sake.
Having just returned from Vietnam myself in order to adopt two of our children, James and I immediately hit it off. As it turned out, by this time he had been sharing the gospel daily in Vietnam for several years, but without a single visible convert. I was shocked.
“How in the world do you keep going?” I asked. James replied, “Because Jesus says the fields are ripe for harvesting. And he promises that although one person may sow, another person may reap. I may not be the person who gets to reap, but I can always be the person who sows.”
Behold, the Fields Are Ripe To Harvest
Where did Uncle James get this notion of a ripe harvest? He was quoting Jesus’ words to his disciples, as recorded by the apostle John, “Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35).¹ This statement is made by Jesus soon after beginning his public ministry. And though it is a relatively simple assertion, it could hardly be more emphatically worded.
Before making his actual point related to the ripeness of the harvest, Jesus first embarks on a sort of quadruple prelude.
“I am telling you.”
“Lift up your eyes.”
It is difficult to imagine more attention–grabbing phrasing. It is like flashing signs stacked on top of each other. Over half of the sentence is this “sign” language, signaling the importance of what Jesus is about to say. Why all this preamble to making his point?
It must be that Jesus knows his disciples (and we, his readers, as well) will have trouble perceiving the reality he is describing. Jesus is making a claim that, as simple as it is, he knows we will struggle to believe. Something about our perspective, our view of the world, is about to be drastically changed.
“The fields are white for harvest.”
Behold, the Harvest Is in Front of You
The context of this conversation between Jesus and his disciples is an intentional trip Jesus made with them through Samaria. As they journeyed, Jesus grew tired and took a break by a well, while his disciples went into the city to buy food. Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman who comes to the well and, in doing so, takes the opportunity to confront private sin in her life, remind her of the promised Messiah, and inform her that he himself is the Christ.
In case you’re not aware of the history surrounding this conversation, suffice it to say the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along well together. Actually, they despised each other. Yet here Jesus is, talking to a Samaritan woman! And he’s not just talking about the weather. Jesus is going out of his way to talk to an unlikely recipient of the gospel, about the gospel.
When Jesus’ disciples return with food, they are dumbfounded to see Jesus chatting with this Samaritan woman. John, the narrator, let’s us know they didn’t say anything but wanted to ask, “Why are you talking with her?!” After she finally leaves (after what appears to be an awkward silence on the part of the disciples), the disciples offer Jesus some of the refreshments they just purchased.
Jesus replies that he’s been eating while they were away. Again, the disciples are confused. Had someone already brought Jesus groceries? No, Jesus explains, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” And the very next words out of his mouth are to tell the disciples that the fields are ripe to harvest.
The harvest, then, to which Jesus refers is the accomplishing of his Father’s work. It is the communication, across social and economic and cultural boundaries, of the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
So Jesus turns to his disciples, who are wrestling with all of these barriers, and says, “Behold. I am telling you. Lift up your eyes. Look. The fields are even now ripe.” While his disciples were fiddling around with food and giving this Samaritan woman the cold shoulder, Jesus wants them to know that all along eternally significant opportunities were staring them in the face.
Behold the Eternal in the Ordinary
We can relate to the disciples’ consternation, can’t we? We are often so worried about putting food on the table, or avoiding eye contact with that awkward person, that we forget what God put us here on earth to do: tell others that Jesus is the Christ. Eating is just a means to that end. And other people (no matter who they are or where they come from) are not an inconvenience—they are the souls God has intentionally surrounded us with, so we can speak life–giving truth into their lives.
Behold. Lift up your eyes. Look. Jesus wants you to know the fields are ripe.
It’s hard for us to see, it’s hard for us to believe at times, isn’t it? The fields of Christian service don’t appear ready for harvesting when we feel tired and empty and barren. So, weary and disheartened mother—trying to train your children in the way of the Lord and yet not seeing the heart–fruit you’d like to—look! Jesus is speaking to you, telling you something! Lift up your eyes! See! The field of your family is ripe for harvesting. Do not be weary in well doing; do not stop sowing gospel seed in your children’s hearts, even though sometimes it will be with tears and weeping.
Likewise, if you are an overworked and exhausted father, a Christian with an unbelieving spouse, a pastor in a small congregation, an evangelistic co–worker who doesn’t see any converts in the workplace, or a missionary trying to learn a new language—do not grow weary in your worthy labor.
Our encouragement, or food, must come from the fact that we are doing the will of the Lord, whether we see fruit being borne or not. In the barren desert of real–life discouragements, the stream that never runs dry is the approval of our Savior. On the other hand, the mirage that will never supply is the approval of other people. If you are seeking the approval of others, you may experience years—even decades—of disappointment. Your food, your refreshment, must come from doing the will of God.
“Behold. I am telling you. Lift up your eyes. Look!”
Jesus tells his disciples to look beyond emotional barriers, ethnic challenges, and physical distractions to see the ripe harvest that is around them. What about you? What things do you need to take your eyes off of, to raise your eyes above, in order to see the ripe harvest Jesus has placed in front of you?
This article is adapted from Justin’s newest book Behold: an Invitation to Wonder. Justin Huffman is the lead pastor of Morningstar Christian Fellowship in Toronto, Canada. He and his wife Chau have four children. You can connect with him further at justinhuffman.org.