Stepping back

There are moments when we have to carry on. Moments when the stakes seem too high, the deadline too close, the people involved too important to consider stepping back.

That’s what we tell ourselves, anyway.

Moments when we’re leading and others are relying on us. Moments when we’re counselling and there doesn’t seem to be another person to step in and help. Moments when we just don’t want to let others down – or risk them looking down on us. So, despite being exhausted, we press on. And on. And on.

Stepping back is hard
It’s hard to step back. In Kingdom work, there is often an urgency. The spreading of the gospel is a life-saving labour. In counselling, people can be fragile and we don’t want to cause them more hurt. It’s not that we don’t see the biblical call for rest: the pattern of creation makes it abundantly clear that we are finite beings. The 10 Commandments remind us that God isn’t just suggesting we rest but telling us to – because he is good and he cares for those he has made. And, of course, we know that the Lord is quite capable of doing his work without us (well, we sort of know it at least). But still we tell ourselves, “you’ve got no choice” – “keep going”. We focus on the fact the Bible does not issue an invitation to ease, sacrifice is always part of the deal.

But, whilst it’s undoubtedly sometimes the right thing to do, is pressing on really always the best course to take?

The narrative of 1 Samuel 30 is not one that’s highest in most people’s minds, but it speaks deeply into that sense of having no choice but to press on. Here the anointed, but not yet crowned, David is leading his men and having the worst of days…

David and his army are returning home. They’ve been travelling, they’re exhausted and their hearts are heavy with disappointment. As they approach their current place of residence, it’s clear that all is not well. Ziklag is in ruins. A raiding party of Amalekites has swept in while they were away. Their wives, their children, their possessions – all gone.

Unsurprisingly, David’s men were keen to act. But to what extent were they truly called to press on?

Stepping back might be wise
It’s probably fair to say that none of those men had much strength to keep going. They were crushed: physically and emotionally. And those Amalekites would not be easy to fight. But David knew where to turn. As verse 6 states, “David found strength in the LORD his God”. He actively turned to God in prayer. But not just a “please help me carry on” prayer but a heartfelt seeking of the Lord to discern whether he should act at all.

It’s worth letting that sink in for a moment – it’s easy for that part of the narrative to pass us by – in the face of losing his wives, children, everything he owned, he honestly asked the Lord if it was appropriate to act.

No-one can accuse David of being a passive man! He was dynamic, skilled, tenacious! Often, he’s the kind of biblical character who inspires us to fight on. But here he is honestly asking God if he should act at all.

There will have been an element of practical wisdom to this, I am sure – he doesn’t want to risk his men’s lives in a fruitless pursuit. But, more than that, there is a humility here. Action is not always right. Inaction is an option. And one to be openly prayed-through with the Lord.

Stepping back might be essential
The Lord told him to fight. And so, he – and his 600 men – set out but they were in a sorry state. It wasn’t long before 200 of them felt they could go no further. This wasn’t mere tiredness, this was bone-crushing exhaustion – the type that overwhelms.

Was this the moment David uttered the type of rousing speech that precedes many a Hollywood battle scene? Did he raise his sword and rally the troops at the top of his voice by yelling: “for glory, for honour, for Yahweh”? Not in the slightest. Even though their loved-one’s lives were at stake, the Bible doesn’t make a big deal of a third of these Kingdom members being too exhausted to carry on. Verse 9 simply notes that “some stayed behind”. They couldn’t keep going so they sat down. No pressure. No drama. Just rest.

Stepping back is not shameful
David and his now 400 men pressed on. In the Lord’s strength (and with a spot of help from a beleaguered Egyptian slave) they found the Amalekites and retrieved all that had been lost. The wives, the children, the possessions were all safe. And David gained some flocks as the spoils of war. Then, of course, came the tricky conversation about how to divide up what had been gained. Obviously, wives and children went back to their husbands and fathers but what about the rest? Maybe those who had fought ought to get a little more than those who had rested. After all, pushing on is better than stepping back, isn’t it?

“All shall share alike” (v24) said David. We don’t treat those who had to step back as second class to those who pressed on. Brothers are brothers – and in the Kingdom, there is equality of blessing even when there is difference in activity.

For David’s men, stepping back was an option. Stepping back, for some, was essential. Stepping back wasn’t shameful. Even when the task was urgent, the people loved and the pressure high, that freedom to step back rung out loud and clear.

It can feel a bit shocking. All somewhat countercultural. Certainly, rather different to the thoughts going round my head! It’s the kind of narrative that is worthy of our particular attention and time when feeling we have to press on. The kind of story that redoubles in its impact when we remember that our King is not the good but fallible, David but the omnipotent and sovereign Christ. His purposes involve us but they never fail when we are exhausted and need to do far less.

I don’t know what you are facing this week. You might be soaring – you might be crushed. And, in the middle of that, the Lord might be calling you to carry on (in his strength) – he sometimes does. But it’s worth at least considering, prayerfully, the alternatives and asking whether stepping back would be wise. You can – it’s OK – in fact, it’s sometimes best.