Riding the Roller Coaster

by Nicole Austin
Less than two months into a new year that has looked eerily similar to the two previous ones, some of us feel slow and sluggish, filled with an ever-present low-level anxiety that keeps us tired and worn. Part of us just wants to curl up into a ball and wait out whatever part of the storm remains. Some of us, on the other hand, feel like the sun is finally starting to come out after a long winter. We’re more than ready to dive back into community, adventure, and full-throated life, and we’re increasingly frustrated by the things still holding us back.

The hardest challenge is that many of us are both of these people, sometimes on the same day, sometimes in the same hour. We constantly vacillate between feeling like we can conquer the world and feeling like we are carrying it all on our shoulders. This struggle is emotional to be sure, and mental, but it’s also spiritual. So how does the Gospel speak into our lives at this surreal moment in time? What are we to do when we find ourselves riding this roller coaster?

Lean on Him

In Matthew 11, Jesus is preaching to the crowds who have gathered to hear him. After denouncing those who have not repented, his language turns gentle and comforting, and he encourages those who believe in him to share their burdens with him. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…. you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Note that Jesus isn’t telling them not to labor, nor is he admonishing them for carrying a load. He is entering into their heaviness, offering them rest in the midst of it, if they will only come to him.

If you’re anything like me, it is when you are feeling most burdened that you are tempted to carry the load alone. Often it is pride that gets in our way. We don’t want to admit when we’re struggling, because that would mean admitting it not just to others, but to ourselves. In those moments, we tend to self-isolate, thinking we just need to put our head down and power through, thinking we need to be strong. When we fall short of the standard we’re setting for ourselves, we are our own harshest critic, admonishing ourselves for the ways we haven’t measured up. But God never asks us to be strong in our own strength. In Psalm 73, the psalmist acknowledges the simple truth: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26). It is his strength we need, not ours.

In this moment, we also need to get really honest about our own limitations and weaknesses. There’s no point in pretending we’re exactly the same people we were two years ago. We’re not. We’re a little more banged up, a little more broken, a little more fragile. And that’s okay. God isn’t asking us to be anything more. He knows exactly what we’ve been through, and he knows the challenges we still face. In Romans 8, Paul encourages us to remember that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). God is not surprised or angry when we order takeout again because cooking feels like too much at the end of the day, and he’s definitely not worried about the pile of clean laundry that never seems to get folded. He’s after our hearts, not our to-do lists, and often the rules we make for ourselves are far different than the ones to which we’re actually called.

Lean on Others

One of the best ways we can navigate this moment is to remember that we have been created as communal beings. God has called us as believers to be a family. A constant refrain of the last two years is that people have felt isolated. If you live alone, this may have been particularly true for you. But even for those of us whose households verge on noisy chaos, the lockdowns presented us with a very real isolation from our broader community. As restrictions eased, many of us have found it difficult to re-enter relationships and rebuild connections. But at this point in the pandemic, we isolate ourselves to our detriment.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul provides the famous illustration of the body as a representation of the integrated nature of Christian community. “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 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’” (1 Corinthians 12:20-21). As members of the body, we need one another to function properly and healthily.

This might look different depending on your needs. For a new parent who gave birth in the midst of the Omicron surge, it might look like texting a couple of friends and asking for prayer and support (and maybe a Costco run). For someone who lives alone, it might look like stepping out of your comfort zone to attend a church event in person rather than via Zoom or livestream. Sometimes leaning on one another looks like sharing our struggles over coffee. But it can also look like canceling that scheduled coffee date and honestly sharing that what you really need in the moment (even more than fellowship) is a nap.

Co-shoulder the Burden

So what if you’re someone who’s currently feeling healthy and optimistic? You might find yourself frustrated by those who seem trapped in an endless loop of concerns and exhaustion. If you’ve managed to come through the last two years relatively unscathed (or you feel like you’ve survived the war and come out the other side), it can be tempting to wonder why some of your fellow believers are still struggling. After all, God is and has been in control throughout. Shouldn’t fellow believers know this and behave accordingly? What do you do when you’re ready to move forward, and you feel like others are holding you back?

One of the great blessings of the church is that God did not create us identically. He gave us each unique gifts, personalities, and traits that contribute to the multi-faceted beauty of the body. This diversity means, however, that at times we need to bend to serve one another, sacrificing our own autonomy for the good of the whole. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon extols the virtues of helping one another, saying, “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10-12). We’ve all experienced times of hardship. In those moments, we don’t need someone to come along and judge whether or not our suffering is valid. When we’ve fallen, we need to be lifted up, not admonished for not looking at the road or encouraged that the fall wasn’t really all that bad.

Just like our physical muscles—many of which atrophied a bit over the last couple of years while the gyms were closed and the couch was calling—our compassion muscles might need some limbering up right now. We’re a little tight and a little out of practice, and at first exercising those muscles might feel particularly difficult. But Scripture says there is value in making the effort, and our brothers and sisters need us to do so for their sakes as well as for our own. In Ephesians, we are exhorted to bear with one another in love “with all humility and gentleness, with patience” (Ephesians 4:2). In Galatians, we’re told to “bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). At the end of the day, we’re all part of one body. Our collective health depends on co-shouldering the burdens we bear.

Co-shouldering will take on multiple forms, depending on the situation and those whom God has placed in your life. At times, it might mean taking another person’s comfort level into consideration when making plans. At other times, it might require asking honest questions about why you’re clinging to the ways you’ve been operating over the past two years. No matter where we find ourselves on the spectrum in a given moment, it’s worth asking ourselves how we can co-shoulder the burdens of those who see things differently than we do. Either way, we need to invite one another into our struggles, and we need to be willing to speak into one another’s lives as we continue to navigate the path forward together.

Enjoy the Ride

The roller coaster of the last two years has been particularly dramatic, full of twists and turns. Just when we thought the track was coming to an end, we’ve been jerked back up in the air, finding ourselves at the precipice of another towering drop. But the pandemic has only highlighted for us the ever present reality that life is unpredictable, that circumstances change, and that often the things to which we cling turn out to be less stable than we’d hoped. How comforting, then, to remember that the architect of the roller coaster is constant and unchanging, the final destination is fixed, and the harnesses are strong and secure. When we hold on to those truths, we are able to ride the coaster with confidence, perhaps even letting go enough to enjoy the ride along the way.
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