What About When Life Overwhelms You?

[To listen to a reading of this article, click here.]

I hate leaving for trips, but I also—sometimes—hate returning. There is so much to do. There are all the things I didn’t do while away, and all the things I normally do when I’m home, and all the things my trip generates.

I returned home late last Friday night from a week long set of planning meetings. Sure enough, my “normal” things for last week didn’t get done by themselves; the planning meetings generated a huge list of terrific things to do; and I had my normal new week’s list just waiting for action.

I felt overwhelmed and weighed down, besieged by an army of action items. As I charged through my to-do list, the battle went downhill. Technology misfired, people were late, misunderstandings abounded, and phone interruptions ruled.

Instead of bleeding with a sword through my heart, I was dying of a thousand paper cuts; instead of facing the hulking, flying Nazgûl, I was surrounded by ten thousand blood-sucking mosquitoes.

But WHY was I overwhelmed?

I once watched an episode of Hoarders. A woman had collected thousands of items, ranging from her son’s childhood clothes to useless garage sale knickknacks purchased over the years. As a counselor helped sift through her “treasures,” the woman broke down and wept. She was overwhelmed.

It wasn’t the volume of work that overwhelmed her (she could have purged everything in a month). It was the emotional work. Each item represented the physical loss of a past reminder or a future hope. And her emotions overwhelmed her.

Likewise, my sense of besieged inundation arose more from an emotional content than from the volume of work. (I can usually catch up in a week or so anyway.) My issue was that I was hoarding. I was holding onto things. I wanted to help friends who were hurting; I couldn’t let go of that fact that I couldn’t “fix” things. I hurt for them.

But I didn’t just hurt for them, I also hurt for myself. While I didn’t want my friends to hurt, I also didn’t want to be “the kind of man” who let his friends down. While I didn’t want to finish projects late, I also wanted to be “the kind of man” who was organized.

My sense of overwhelmed-ness came in a large part—and to my shame—from a selfish sense of self-identity: I wanted to be this kind of man and not that kind. It was overwhelming. My paper cuts were somewhat—perhaps mainly—self-inflicted.

What about unbearable events?

You may have noticed this, but I have to face it: my circumstances were flea bites and my response was pathetic. No one had died, no one was sick, and I wasn’t going to jail.

I have a friend whose son just died, and another friend whose son is in jail, and another friend whose son has a terminal illness. They have a right to feel overwhelmed; they aren’t facing paper cuts, they are being skewered by a dagger in their hearts.

What do we do when overwhelmed by a dagger deep in the heart? Years ago my father-in-law died unexpectedly. The day before he died, he phoned me, but I was traveling and didn’t return the call. The next day he was dead. My grief was palpable. Why hadn’t I returned his call? What would he have said to me? What could I have said to him?

And my grief was small compared to my friend who just lost his son. It was merely a taste—a bitter taste—but only a sip of the cup of my friend’s anguish.

What can God say to this kind of agony?

Something moved me this morning when I read Mark’s description of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus tells his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).

Why was Jesus so “overwhelmed”? Later, he seems so calm, during the trial, and while beaten, and even on the cross. Yet here he is “overwhelmed … to the point of death.” Jesus can’t have been using hyperbole or exaggeration (like I was doing about my life).

Just before this verse, scripture says, Jesus “began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” A friend once told me the Greek word for deeply distressed means to be astonished, stunned, and shocked; and the word for troubled means to be filled with a loathing, full of distress, overflowing with heaviness.

Jesus was stunned; every spiritual nerve was on fire; he was filled with a measure of distress with which only an eternal being could overflow. He was in torment in ways I could never imagine. A commentator wrote,

It was … the horror of the one who lives wholly for the Father at the prospect of alienation from God … Jesus came to be with the Father for an interlude before his betrayal, but found hell rather than heaven opened before him, and he staggered. (The Gospel of Mark, William Lane)

And he staggered

When I read these words, something shifted in my heart. Somehow, in some fashion beyond my imagination, Jesus did more than share every sorrow I’ve known or will know; somehow, in some way, Jesus took the brunt of the shock of the horror of an overflowing distress.

This could only come from a love for me—and for you—that is unquenchable, unbreakable, unbeatable, and unimaginable. Jesus voluntarily took on himself every pain, every sorrow, every shock, and every distress ever known to any one.

He is with me in every fire, not merely present, but absorbing the flames in his staggering person so that I can live.

I am beginning to feel overwhelmed. With his love.



27 Responses to What About When Life Overwhelms You?

  1. Rachelle says:

    If only we could keep our focus on Christ all the time. We are so easily distracted, aren’t we? Thanks for the reminder of how He took on every distress.

    • Hi Rachelle,

      Yes, we are too easily distracted–like my mini-distractions. But sometimes the issues are big, like illness, death, or disaster.

      Even there, I think we can find our hope–our only hope–in Christ, that he was overwhelmed for us.


  2. Great post Sam, as I feel the pressure this week of being overwhelmed. As you know I am a counselor, coach and consultant, so many of my clients, friends and fellow workers are in states of being overwhelmed. It is so easy with our culture to become overwhelmed, but perspective is the great neutralizer. Thanks for reminding us what truly is overwhelming, and for reminding us of how deep Jesus’ love is for us.

  3. Rosa says:

    Good words,this really spoke to me, thank you!

  4. anna t says:

    this blessed my heart today sam. thank you

  5. Joseph Villa says:

    Sam, I too have felt the overwhelming feeling when being kicked to death by grasshoppers (or so it seemed). God usually has a way of giving us reminders that those feelings will pass. It’s when I pause and go to Him that feeling of His love overwhelms me. That’s a feeling I can live with.

  6. Mary says:

    Thanks Sam. Just what I needed to hear right now.

  7. This was good to read. It helps me to remember that my problems are always comically insignificant when compared to my God.

  8. Guy says:

    Great timing with that post again Sam. So on the money for what’s been happening for me. Cheers and Jesus meet us in the storm.


    • Cheers back at you Guy,

      How are things down under–other than overwhelming!


      • Guy says:

        Things aren’t just overwhelming, they’ve been stunningly overwhelming! I can see God moving in the midst of it which is all that is keeping me grounded (at least most of the time), but you have no idea how poignant this post has been for this time. And everyone else’s comments seems to be saying the same. Keep writing from your heart Sam. It blesses us all. Love to chat with you when time permits. How are you now? Have things died down a bit?


  9. Lyle Regan says:

    Sam, my reading and writing this morning centered around “God is in control of ALL things, even tho they hurt.” I have come to understand that my small story that I live in is only a part of God’s larger story. This past sunday, Charles Stanley gave a great message on just that topic. “Are we victims or victors ???”
    Go to Intouch.org to view. Thanks Sam, Lyle

  10. This is really encouraging. I have been feeling overwhelmed lately too (trying to graduate and find a job…) and I’ve been learning that I need to depend on God.

    • Hey Perfect Number,

      It’s weird, actually, I’ve been learning to “depend on God” for about 55 years.

      And here is the weird thing. It keeps getting better. It’s not like I hadn’t learned anything before, it’s just that I learning there is so much more to God than I’ve imagined, and trusting him is more nuanced and joyful.



  11. “My sense of overwhelmed-ness came in a large part—and to my shame—from a selfish sense of self-identity: I wanted to be this kind of man and not that kind.” Ouch – painfully and liberatingly true. I just spent much of the working day cursing my faltering internet connection for “stopping me from sending the emails God needs me to send” (ha!) – a microcosm of my eagerness to blame anything and anyone else for the discomfort of failing to live up to my own fallen, self-important, worldly standards. Thanks for this piece, a very helpful lens to process frustration with.

    • Hi Paul (or Michael?),

      I love your sense of humor, “I just spent much of the working day cursing my faltering internet connection for ‘stopping me from sending the emails God needs me to send.’”

      Ah yes, I know that. Thanks for the lift and the observation. I love it.


  12. kenstewart says:

    Great post, Sam. One of the best I remember you writing. I especially liked the twist at the end…”overwhelmed. With his love.”
    I remember 2 books which I’ve read excerpts of by Dr. Richard Swenson (author of HURTLING TOWARD OBLIVION, which I have read and highly recommend), titled MARGIN and OVERLOAD SYNDROME. In the first, he likens our lives to a book–difficult to read if there are no margins. I am finding more and more that spiritual margin only comes through time spent with the Father, or with Jesus, or in the Spirit–however you want to word it.
    Another point I’ve learned through John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart teachings is that perspective makes all the difference–our expectations and/or disappointments about food, what’s important, etc. are drastically different depending on whether we view life as a luxury cruise ship (we want to be catered to) or a battleship (in the heat of battle, who cares about luxuries? What matters is, “Do I have enough ammo? Can I count on the guy next to me when the bullets are flying?”).
    I am 60, and I have been through enough battles that perspective is easier. But still, I get overwhelmed, as you say, by fleas–I’m reminded there of Betsie, Corrie ten Boom’s sister, thankful for fleas in the concentration camp where she died–she told Corrie, “It keeps the guards out and lets us pray!” That’s a perspective I’m thankful I haven’t had to work through yet….

    • Hi Ken,

      First, I love your image of margins, books are difficult to read without margins. That is so good, and your application–margins as spending time with the father–is perfect.

      I began reading a book this morning called, One Thousand Gifts. It is a book about gratitude. Your Corrie ten Boom story reminds me of the book (and vice versa): We’ve been given so much, and yet I don’t experience gratitude. The real truth of the matter is that God is doing so much, even in the midst of all the struggles; and i focus on the difficulties instead of all God is doing that I may never know.



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