Whether you’re a counselor, pastor, or friend, when you love hurting people you’ll eventually feel the weight of their pain. And when you carry lots of people’s burdens, you may start to feel stretched beyond your limits, and spread thin, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”
You might respond by internalizing the sorrows, and literally losing sleep. Or maybe you are struggling to solve the problems of burdened people, and suddenly find yourself replying to more emails, having more meetings, reading more books, and thinking harder than you’ve done in months. Exhaustion creeps in, peace races out. What do you do when the weight of a hundred peoples’ crumbling worlds is all on your shoulders?
Feel the burden
There’s no escaping it – when we carry someone’s heavy story, we will feel the weight. We cannot don a Teflon heart and let the sadness slide off. In fact, we shouldn’t do this. We should feel the burdens. This is part of biblical “one-anothering,” as we share in another’s joy and sadness (Rom. 12:15; Gal 6:2). It is distinctly God-like to feel with other hearts, to weep with other weepers, and know their soul’s troubles (Isa. 63:9; Psa. 31:7). This means that a sad story should sadden you, and a grieving person should spark a flicker of grief in your own heart. This is compassion, and this is Christlike.
Offload to Christ
Yet, the same God who asks us to bear each other’s burdens promises to carry our burdens. We can offload these burdens to God, because He actually cares about us, and will personally strengthen and support us (1 Pet. 5:7, 10). We are not holding all the hurting people up—He is sustaining us (Psa. 55:22; Isa 40:11). Bear the burden with your friend, but then give him or her hope by lifting the burden to stronger hands.
How do we do this? Audible prayer is a good start. Instead of suppressing our reactions or tumbling headlong into busywork, we externalize the burden by praying out loud: “God, I’m really upset by what I just heard. I don’t know what to do next.” Feel it, vocalize it, and surrender it: “This is too heavy for me, I can’t carry it. Please help.” Quiet yourself, rest in Christ, affirm your dependence on Him (Psa. 131; John 15:4-6).
After you’ve engaged God and relinquished the burden, it’s time to do the next right thing. Do you need to phone a colleague, schedule a meeting, or send a podcast to your counselee? Do it. Then move on: go on a run, make dinner, or take the next appointment. But keep moving, because the burden is on Christ’s shoulders (Isa. 41:13).
Be small, not strong
Ultimately, carrying and letting go of burdens is about reflecting and glorifying God, the true Burden-Bearer (Isa. 53:4; Rom. 15:1-6). The focus isn’t on us and our strength to bear other people’s griefs and carry their sorrows. Rather, we become small, and He looms large (John 3:30). This posture of self-forgetfulness frees us to listen to other people fully, without being crippled by our own responsive emotions or fear of letting them down.
“The result [of humility] is that we shrink, and end up seeing ourselves as less—less nice, less able, less wise, less good, less strong, less steady, less committed, less of a piece—than we ever thought we were…The Christian will practice curling up small, as it were, so that in and through him or her the Savior may show himself great.”
Ministry burdens are evidence of God’s grace, because they remind us of His greatness; they remind us we’re not strong enough to carry people by ourselves. Anything that moves us away from self-reliance and toward God-reliance is a sweet thing. And from this place of God-reliance, we can shoulder other peoples’ burdens while pointing to Jesus (not ourselves) as the Strong One.
 “People are not burdens; people have burdens,” says a caring pastor/counselor I know. So, if you’re reading this as a person receiving care, please know you are not a burden. Your suffering isn’t your identity, and it isn’t something that disqualifies you from relationship or makes you “too much” for pastoral care. You’re not a burden. You’re carrying one.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Great Britain: HarperCollins, 1994, orig. 1954), 32.
 “We should be willing to suffer with our neighbor and to take part of his burden on ourselves. Otherwise, how is that rule of ‘bearing one another’s burdens’ fulfilled? If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens except when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens when we bear no burden at all?” (Jonathan Edwards, “Christian Charity,” in Works (Edinburgh, 1979), II:171. Style updated.) Quoted by Ray Ortlund, “Bearing one another’s burdens,” on The Gospel Coalition (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/ray-ortlund/bearing-one-anothers-burdens/ published June 29, 2012).
 For me, it looks like sprawling flat on my counseling room floor after a tough session (it’s undignified, but effective). I soak in the quietness, and take a few minutes to lament my counselee’s story, and my own feelings in response to it.
 For an excellent resource on how to “keep going” when ministry life is hard, see CCEF’s podcast, “Self-Care” https://www.ccef.org/podcast/self-care/ by Aaron Sironi and Alasdair Groves (posted April 5, 2019).
 J.I. Packer, The J.I. Packer Classic Collection: Daily Readings for Your Spiritual Journey (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010), 70.