Later on in the life of the Apostle Paul, we find him at a crossroads in his work. Faced with an open door of opportunity, that God himself had opened for Paul to walk through, we see Paul saying “NO.” He writes that he would not walk through an open door of opportunity; he said “no” to the opportunity. Paul said “no” to going through an open door.
In 2 Corinthians 2: 12-13, we find Paul in a conundrum. It is that space of knowing the possibilities that could be, that lives that could be touched, that changes could be realized—but we learn that Paul said, “No!” He writes:
“When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.”
Paul is telling us his “spirit” was not at rest. What does that really mean? It means Paul was living with inner tension. Paul was living through a stressful time; perhaps his capacity was at its limit. Paul was not doing well.
When I show this passage to busy leaders, they all reply: “I’ve never seen this in the Bible before.” Then we look closer to what Paul says, why he says it, and what we can learn in an age where we say “Yes” way too much to everyone for anything, and never learn to say “Yes” to ourselves.
First, it’s important to note that Paul was an older man when he said this. He had been around the block in terms of life and his work. He was not in his 20’s or 30’s; he was more seasoned and more mature when he penned these words. This is interesting to note because understanding our capacity is often learned in the school of hard knocks. We start out strong. We want to do it all. We want to comply. We want to see results. We want to help. I’m confident that most of us know this side of Paul’s life and passion. But, then life changes.
As life unfolds we grow, and more importantly, we feel like we simply cannot keep up. By the time Paul had written this text, he had traveled widely. He had championed the cause of church planting all over the then known world. But by the time we get to this passage, we see a shift in his thinking and perhaps his own theology or thoughts about God.
J. B. Phillips translates Paul’s words for us in a way that we can easily understand. He says that Paul was “on the edge.” Living on the edge is the plight and diagnosis we give so many leaders who live thin lives. A thin life is a life that is fragile; a life where one can hear the ice cracking underneath. A thin life is a life with no margin; no place to take a deep breath; no place to charge the inner batteries. This is a life where we run on empty; stay on empty and die on empty.
A cardinal rule of caring for your soul is to look at our input and your output. Let’s start with output.
Output is what you do every day, every week, and every month to make your life work. It is all the places you give, serve, lead, and manage. If you are giving too much in our outtake then your body is going to absorb the stress; your relationships will feel the strain and your internal “joy meter”—the measurement of how happy you really are—will all suffer. It’s a long leak in the soul that often results in burn out and dead ends.
In-take is how you are replenishing your inner life; how you re-charge; how you receive the food for the soul that the soul requires. Input is about sleep.; in-take is about rest. Intake is about embracing silence for some moments in each day; it is about life giving friends and not life draining friends.
(For more on ‘intake’ and ‘output’ please listen to the Potter’s Inn Soul Care Conversation Podcast where Gwen and I talk with Dr. Randy James about what does it mean to be healthy? ) LISTEN HERE
Help comes for us when we, like Paul, begin to understand our limits and re-think our capacity. Forward a few chapters into 2 Corinthians and we see Paul lamenting over his self-diagnosis and plight. He writes, “ For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within” (2 Corinthians 7:5).
It’s not a very good diagnosis:
Afflicted at every turn.
This is the state of Paul’s soul. Sadly, we find that this diagnosis is the state of so many leader’s souls who lead companies, organizations, and ministries.
When we look at the Apostle Paul’s own words together, we see Paul learning to say “No” in order that he can say “yes.” He did not think it selfish to say no in order that he might spend time with his soulfriend, Titus. He knew he needed to have more intake. He took the steps to receive what he needed.
This is the first step of re-thinking our capacity. Until we learn to say, “No” we will never experience a sense of inner peace and contentment that marks the lives and souls of people who are growing and maturing in their understanding of themselves, God, and how to do life and faith better.
Here something very important happens! Here, we receive permission to re-think our output! Giving our self permission is critical and when we eventually learn that it is a good thing to live out our lives as Paul did, then we can regain our footing, become healthy, and live in a life-giving rhythm.
What is your input each week? Are you scheduling time to receive what is life-giving and healthy? What is your output? How much are you giving away to make life work? Is it too much? Most of the time, it is. We learn from Paul, that we cannot give what we do not have.
Rather than doing more, Paul chose to simply “be” with his friend. He chose to trickle charge and come back to life. He knew he could not run his life on empty and survive. Paul got comfort from this time and so can we. We do not have to live in shame when we choose to simply “be” rather than to “do more.” To be—to understanding our limits and embrace our own capacity gives us the permission we need to simply say, “I’ve done enough. Yes, there is more to do—but not today. I need to leave my work and begin my life.
It’s at this juncture that so many of us get confused in what I call, “role and soul confusion.” When we have role and soul confusion, we are living our lives out of our roles and jobs. We become what we DO. We lapse in our understanding of who we are apart from our work. It’s tangled, enmeshed, and unhealthy.
I explore this more in my book, SOUL CUSTODY (Chapter 7) and it’s an important section to not only read but to understand. Our role in our life is not our life. We may be a teacher, preacher, or salesman. But our true identity is not based on our role. It is based on something much deeper. It is precisely at this place of the soul where we can get a glimpse of, and grow deeper into, our understanding of our true soul. Until we understand this distinction, we will not even want to draw boundaries with our work and our lives.