Those engaged in justice ministry must practice emotional and spiritual self-care or face overwhelming exhaustion and despair, a global justice ministry expert said in a recent webinar titled “Still Trusting the God of Justice.”
“Helplessness and hopelessness can set in pretty quickly. The darkness and weight of injustice can crush us,” said Alianore Smith of the International Justice Mission. She spoke for a livestreamed discussion hosted by the Center for the Study of Bible and Violence. Both organizations are based in the UK.
Smith, whose organization ministers to victims of global slavery and violence, presented sustainable methods for “going the distance in justice work and continuing to trust God despite all the evil that surrounds us.”
“We must consider the idea of staying faithful in justice work for the long haul,” she said, adding that developing resiliency requires tapping into deep reservoirs of spiritual strength even while frequently witnessing the anguish and grief of those being served.
Justice workers must “think about how we hold those in tension — that deep sadness and that hope that God is just and he is powerful and he is at work.”
Even high-functioning, passionate and impactful ministers may fall prey to the erroneous belief that they are responsible for the success or failure of their efforts.
Avoiding despondency begins with maintaining a healthy perspective of ministry and its outcomes, Smith said, noting that even high-functioning, passionate and impactful ministers may fall prey to the erroneous belief that they are responsible for the success or failure of their efforts.
“Everyone here is doing some incredible work engaging with justice issues. You are working hard for God’s kingdom. You are changing people’s lives. But friends, if we don’t throw off the weight of this mission onto God, we will collapse. It will crush us. It’s too big. And so, you and I, we need to work on throwing off the weight, on giving it back to God regularly, aggressively, relentlessly.”
It helps to remember that God also despises violence, slavery and other injustices, she counseled. “If you care about this issue, it’s because God has given us his passion. We do not need to convince God to care about it. You and I are not more passionate about justice than God is. So, it is our work because God has given it to us to do.”
Smith compared that perspective to a moment during her childhood when her mother invited her to help bake a cake.
“Fundamentally, my mom didn’t need my help. To be quite honest, my contribution was very small and the cake would certainly have been made without me. But my mom loved me and loved that I wanted to be a part of what she was doing.”
“The mighty creator of the universe invites us to be a part of his work, not because he needs us but because he delights in the fact that we want to be a part of it.”
It’s much the same for those working in justice ministries, she continued. “God in his kindness lets us join in this work that he’s already doing. The mighty creator of the universe invites us to be a part of his work, not because he needs us but because he delights in the fact that we want to be a part of it.”
But acquiring that outlook requires other self-care approaches, Smith said, citing as examples practicing lamentation, proper rest and nourishment, stillness and solitude and developing community.
She urged justice workers to go to the Psalms and other Scriptures when the weight of suffering feels heavy: “We don’t hide from the tension of tragedy or pretend to have it all together before God. There are no stiff upper lips. We bring our most intense theological questions into the sanctuary.”
Withhold nothing in lamenting of human suffering, not even bitterness, she added. “Be a psalmist. Don’t be afraid to express your anger and outrage to God. He can take it. Yell if you want to. Write it out. Weep. Don’t hold the weight inside, pretending it’s not there.”
Just as important is the need to retreat often into rest, she added. “Rest is built into the order of creation for a reason. It’s good for us to sleep and find rest in the sabbath and the sacred healing that comes from doing work.”
“Resting and refueling are key to sustaining us in mission and in sustaining us in the work of justice.”
Healthy food has a similarly healing effect on body and soul and is a “conduit for hospitality,” Smith said. “Resting and refueling are key to sustaining us in mission and in sustaining us in the work of justice.”
Cultivating stillness and fellowship are other key habits in maintaining healthy perspectives about ministry, she said. Stillness “means integrating stillness and solitude into your daily life at times when you’re not driven by a to-do list or the demands of those around you.”
Community enables justice workers to experience the joys or pain of ministry with others, Smith said. “Find and invest in those special companions … who encourage you to embrace laughter, beauty, feasting, fun, silliness, music, art and nature. Joy is the oxygen of doing hard things and coming up for air and recognizing that while the world is full of pain and suffering, it is also full of goodness.”