Do you ever feel that you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders? That the responsibilities, duties, and burdens of life press upon you with their almost intolerable reality?
“The weight of the world” might refer to your vocation, to the calling that you have in life. The pressure of a calling can feel crushing. There aren’t enough hours in the day. There aren’t enough resources available. The possibility of failure is real; it looms on the horizon. You feel pulled in too many directions, and at some point you’re going to break.
“The weight of the world” might refer to the burdens in your family. Parents feel the enormous gravity of raising children, of having the responsibility to shape and mold the souls of our kids. We want so much good for them. We long to give them everything they need. And again, we feel our limits. We can’t change hearts. We can’t protect them from everything. We are neither omniscient nor infallible.
Sometimes “the weight of the world” is simply the sheer gravity of existence, of reality. We are mortal. We live in a world where death is certain until Jesus returns. More than that, we live in a world where eternity hangs in the balance. Heaven and hell are real, and everyone we know is journeying toward one or the other, toward eternal joy or eternal misery. In his inimitable way, C.S. Lewis expressed this kind of existential burden in his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. (45)
A load so heavy that only humility can carry it — what does this mean? And how can we grow in the humility necessary to carry the vocational, familial, and existential burdens that we face?
Heavy and Growing Burden
In my own life, especially in those moments where the burden feels greatest, I find myself returning to a few sentences in Lewis’s novel Perelandra. It may be odd to find solace in a science-fiction novel, but Lewis is a master of embedding truth and comfort in stories.
The novel is the second in Lewis’s Ransom trilogy, in which the hero, Elwin Ransom, journeys to the planet Perelandra in order to stave off disaster. The novel is Lewis’s variation on the temptation narrative of Genesis 3. The Queen of Perelandra is tempted by the Unman, a human from earth who has been possessed by a demonic power. The Unman attempts to draw the Queen into disobedience to Christ (called Maleldil in the novels), appealing to her imagination to elicit a tragic act of rebellion to Maleldil’s law.
The variation on the temptation narrative is the presence of Ransom. He is on Perelandra not merely as a witness, but as a participant. He is an intrusive third party, and he feels the burden of preserving the innocence and righteousness of the Queen in the face of the Unman’s lies and deception. For days he attempts to argue with the Unman, countering his lies with truth, only to see the truth twisted to serve the Lie again. His burden grows as he sees the Queen’s imagination clouded by the lies and her resolve weakening.
Then, one night, Ransom encounters Maleldil himself and comes to realize that he is not there to argue the Unman into submission, but to engage him in physical combat — to fight him and kill the body that the devil has possessed and is his only anchor to Perelandra.
‘Be Comforted, Small One’
With the burden of Perelandra’s future resting on his middle-aged shoulders, Ransom submits. He attacks the Unman, wounding him, and then pursuing him across the oceans, until the two are pulled beneath the waves and cast ashore in a cavern beneath a mountain. In the end, Ransom kills the Unman, but only after enduring a tremendous crucible — the combat itself (in which his heel is wounded), the descent beneath the mountain, and then the long, arduous ascent out into the light.
After his journey, Ransom finds himself in a great mountain hall, speaking with two eldila, angelic powers who serve Maleldil. In the course of their conversation, Malacandra, the eldil who rules Mars, informs Ransom that “the world is born to-day.” The Queen has passed the test, and the King of Perelandra has passed his own as well. As a result, “To-day for the first time two creatures of the low worlds, two images of Maleldil that breathe and breed like the beasts, step up that step at which your parents fell, and sit in the throne of what they were meant to be” (169).
Hearing this, Ransom falls to the ground. The weight that he has borne is too much, and he is overwhelmed by the burden. And the burden not just of the responsibility but, apparently, of his own success. It is at this point that the angelic power speaks the words that have been such an encouragement to me when I feel the weight of the world.
“Be comforted,” said Malacandra. “It is no doing of yours. You are not great, though you could have prevented a thing so great that Deep Heaven sees it with amazement. Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! It is beneath your head and carries you.” (169)
Great Comfort of Smallness
Here is the paradox of comfort that Lewis offers. On the one hand, Ransom really did have a responsibility. The burden of fighting the Unman rested squarely upon him. It lay within his power to embrace his calling, or to shrink back. And yet, after completing his task, at the moment of triumph, the words are clear: “It is no doing of yours. . . . He lays no merit on you.”
“Resting in our smallness, we are delivered from fear, lest our shoulders should bear the weight of the world.”
The comfort offered here is the comfort of smallness. And Lewis offers it not only to Ransom, but to the reader. Ransom is not great. Neither are we. Everything we have is gift, and therefore we ought to receive and be glad. Resting in our smallness, we are delivered from fear, lest our shoulders should bear the weight of the world. This is the humility that keeps our backs from being broken by the weight of glory.
Bear Your Load with Hope
Lewis is not the only one to comfort us in our smallness. King David too offers this comfort in Psalm 131. David’s heart is not lifted up, he says; his eyes are not raised too high. His mind is not occupied by realities above his station (Psalm 131:1). In humility, David refuses to carry the weight of the world. Instead, he comforts himself in his smallness.
I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)
“Bear the load that is yours with humility, like a weaned child, as one who hopes in the Lord forevermore.”
A weaned child does not attempt to bear the weight of the world. A weaned child is content in the arms of his mother. He seeks no merit; he labors under no delusions of grandeur. He simply embraces his smallness with gladness.
And so, when I feel the weight of leadership, or teaching, or pastoring, or parenting, or the sheer weight of existence pressing upon me, like David, I seek to calm and quiet my soul. In the face of lofty thoughts that are too high for me, in the teeth of turbulent passions and emotions, under the weight of reality, I say to myself,
Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit upon you. The weight of the world is not yours. It was borne by another, by one whose bloody shoulders were able to bear it — up to Golgotha, into the tomb, down to Sheol, and then out, out again into the light of resurrection. Have no fear, small one. Bear the load that is yours with humility, like a weaned child, as one who hopes in the Lord forevermore.