I have been barely functional for the last several months.
Participating in a clinical trial for post-polio since the fall has left me exhausted, struggling with crushing fatigue and discouragement. I feel drained and overwhelmed. So many things have been left undone. My desk, piled with things to do, seems too daunting to even approach. Where do I start? Since I can’t do everything, I wonder if I should bother to do anything.
As I sat at the table pondering my options, I remembered this advice from Elisabeth Elliot. Advice that has taken me through numerous trials and countless days. Days when I felt inundated and didn’t know what to do. Days when it seemed impossible to accomplish anything.
Do the next thing.
These simple four words that have fueled me through the mundane and the monumental. Somehow they brought clarity and strength when I needed it. Direction when I felt overwhelmed.
They provided me a framework after my son died. “Do the next thing” meant take a shower. Write the obituary. Plan a funeral. And after the initial flood of activity, it was invaluable advice in grieving when I still had the daily tasks of life before me. Make dinner. Beg God for grace. Do the laundry. Read the Bible. Call a friend. Take a nap.
And then years later, wondering how I was going to make it as a single parent, I followed the same advice. I was obsessing and lamenting over how our broken home would affect my children. Would they love God? How would they process their pain? How could I even maintain a household in the midst of insanity?
All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry. Give in to self-pity. Make it all go away. But I knew that I needed to face what was before me. I couldn’t hide.
I would ask God for strength, and then do the next thing. Make dinner. Drive them to their game. Prepare my Bible study lesson. Pray with them at night. There was no sense worrying about the future. I couldn’t control it anyway. I could just do the next thing.
And each time, by just doing the next thing, I was able to make it through. I had just enough light for the next step. But that was sufficient. It was all that I needed. More information would not have been helpful.
I had to do the next thing in the strength that God provided. And trust he would supply what I needed. While the future looked dim and unknown, I knew that everything was under his loving sovereign control. I had to take God’s hand in the dark, trust he would guide me and then act on the information I had in front of me.
When I started living that way, I began experiencing tremendous freedom. Somehow the weight of my decisions was lifted. I didn’t need to figure it all out. I just needed to be connected to God. To hear his voice. To be still. And most of all, to trust him.
So now when I feel overwhelmed at the enormity of a situation, I begin by tackling the simplest most mundane tasks. And then move to the things that I have been putting off because they are either unpleasant or I don’t know where they’ll lead. I have discovered that the things I feel inadequate to face fully, I can handle one small thing at a time.
I know I can’t think of everything that needs to be done. I can just focus on the next thing I need to do. Sometimes it’s just to get up and make dinner. Or write an email that I’ve been dreading. Or make a phone call I’ve been putting off. Each time I obey, God gives me clarity to do the next thing after that.
This simple advice, to do the next thing, has helped countless people. I first read it in Elisabeth Elliot’s book, The Shaping of a Christian Family (p. 178-79), from a poem her mother loved.
On her Gateway to Joy radio program, Elisabeth explained how “do the next thing” had been so helpful to her. Elisabeth and her husband Jim had been serving on the mission field in Ecuador when he was martyred, leaving her alone with an infant daughter.
When I went back to my jungle station after the death of my first husband, Jim Elliot, I was faced with many confusions and uncertainties. I had a good many new roles, besides that of being a single parent and a widow. I was alone on a jungle station that Jim and I had manned together. I had to learn to do all kinds of things, which I was not trained or prepared in any way to do. It was a great help to me simply to do the next thing.
Elisabeth goes on to say:
I’ve felt that way <other> times in my life, and I go back over and over again to an old Saxon legend, which I’m told is carved in an old English parson somewhere by the sea. I don’t know where this is. But this is a poem which was written about that legend.
The poem says, “Do it immediately, do it with prayer, do it reliantly, casting all care. Do it with reverence, tracing His hand who placed it before thee with earnest command. Stayed on omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing, leave all resultings, do the next thing.” (The poem in its entirety is here.)
If you are feeling discouraged or overwhelmed, I encourage you just to do the next thing. Pray and then do the next thing after that. Trust God with the results. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. He will guide you as you look to him.
Just do the next thing.