By Whitney Parnell 12-18-2017

The first thing that’s going to happen to you when you are supposed to do an assignment is you’ll get upset … God will let you feel what he feels, see what he sees, and let you hear what he hears … Sometimes God will just wake you up and let you see what he’s been seeing … Something troubles you, and it makes you do an assignment; not a job, an assignment.

This was a recent message from my pastor, Keith Battle of Zion Church in Landover, Md., during his sermon series “Our Greatest Assignment.” Throughout the series, he highlighted the components of engaging in our specific life purposes, and I was particularly struck by his emphasis burden’s vital role in a purpose-driven life, rather than its detriment.

While Pastor Battle wasn’t specifically relating this message to social justice, I saw very clear alignment for my own life’s calling. I often grapple with balancing my personal greatest assignment as an activist for social change, with my expectations of society’s mutual responsibility to achieve this ultimate goal of shared humanity — a world where everyone is embraced for who they are, and able to thrive to reach their highest potential. My personal burdens are clear: the challenge to promote social justice and the direction to change the status quo by mobilizing, equipping, and igniting the masses to actively work toward solutions.

Recognizing my personal burdens has provided clarity about my own greatest assignment, but I see larger implications about the actual role that burden is meant to have in the Christian faith. Christians often reference the importance of having God to relieve our burdens: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he shall sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22).

I agree that God is meant to be a comforter and a refuge, and I try to refuel through God regularly. God heals my brokenness and fills my cup when it is dwindling or empty. I often come back to God’s words in Matthew 11:28–30, and feel that God is personally speaking to me when God says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

God is, in fact, the safe refuge where I can lay my burdens, without whom I could not do this difficult justice work.

While casting our troubles onto God is a critical aspect of our faith, I fear that we often interpret burden as one-directional, particularly with how we react to social injustice. These days, it is hard to miss the consistent threat to human rights on multiple levels, but it is still possible to avoid responding to them. Particularly during the past year, I have heard so many colleagues verbalize their decisions to avoid watching or reading the news because it’s too distressing. Furthermore, common responses from Christian colleagues to my (admitted) rants about the world’s concerning state include “It’s not of God to worry,” and “All of this is a part of God’s master plan.” The feedback that strikes and disturbs me most is when I hear that we should ultimately go to God to comfort our distress over the world’s injustice, often insinuating self-soothing over action.

I worry that this is a dangerous misinterpretation of how Christians should see our collective burden. While God is meant to be there for our personal pain, God is not meant to shield us from responding to others’ pain. In fact, God calls us to do the opposite. God calls us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The role of “burdens” in Christianity does not end with how we can relieve our own. We are charged to recognize the burdens of others, and commit to carry them for as long as they exist.

A critical component of our faith is social justice, to which Christ consistently called us throughout his time on earth. This should particularly ring true in areas where we hold privilege — having compassion for others’ oppression and pain, and seeing it as our personal responsibility to work toward a world where they are no longer marginalized. That is what it means to be a true ally: Feeling for others’ burdens, and ensuring that they are not alone in efforts to relieve them on individual and systemic levels. Even if social justice is not the full-time calling for all of us, it is still a significant calling of our faith, as Jesus said “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

“Some of us are comfortable just talking about what burdens us, but we never move to make a difference,” Pastor Battle says. Burden has no value without action, and he emphasized that, “There’s going to come a point where you’re going to have to do something about what you’re burdened about.”

Thus, we should not run from burden, but recognize it; and in the case of injustice, we should not ignore others’ burdens — we should seek to carry them together. And in the case of social change, we should not just carry others’ burdens in solidarity, we should actively work to dismantle their root causes until the injustices no longer exist.

God is, in fact, a comforter meant to replenish us, and show us that we are not alone as we live out God’s calling for our lives as faithful servants. We were blessed with the opportunity to have an example of Christ’s own life and relationship with God. A fundamental aspect of Christ’s time on earth involved challenging oppressive systems, feeling with those who were suffering, and calling others to do the same. God is meant to be the shoulder on which we may cry in our own pain, but also our cup-filler in a lifestyle that commits to carrying others’ burdens. Thus, my personal challenge is to always recognize every burden’s source, and determine the appropriate action from there. Running from it is never an option.

Whitney Parnell is a rising black millennial activist, and the Co-Founder and CEO of Service Never Sleeps (SNS), a nonprofit that mobilizes communities to promote “Allyship”—An active way of life that exercises bridge-building to ensure equality, opportunity, and inclusion for everyone. Whitney is also releasing social justice album this fall, titled What Will You Do. The album uses empathy as a call to action, and all proceeds will go toward SNS. Whitney is excited to create a movement of service and Allyship by igniting social change through mass civic engagement, bridge-building, and empathy.

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