Roads That Lead to Christian Burnout, Part 1

by Debi Pryde

When a Christian worker describes himself as “burned out,” he is usually expressing a sense of having exhausted all of his available physical, mental, or spiritual resources. Those in such a state of mind find it a fitting analogy to compare themselves to a candle that has burned to the place of consuming itself, its flame flickering in its final moments before pryde_road01.jpgextinguishing with a faint puff of smoke. We often use such colorfully descriptive words when continual hardship, fatigue, or weariness of mind have begun to severely erode our sense of purpose, enthusiasm, or resilience to opposition. Just as often, however, we use the same expression to describe a wearisome monotony that can be associated with continual boredom, a lack of challenging goals, unfulfilled expectations, or continual dependence on self rather than on Christ.

“Burnout” or weariness can be caused by one or many underlying problems. It can be the result of something as simple as prolonged physical fatigue or as complex as having chosen wrong goals, motives, or priorities. Sometimes it is a problem that can be resolved rather easily with appropriate encouragement, adjustments in one’s daily routines, or information that provides a new or better perspective. Finding more effective ways to understand and resolve problems, making changes that alleviate unnecessary burdens, or redirecting one’s energy and focus more constructively can produce a dramatic difference in one’s outlook and enthusiasm for Christian service.

While it would be cruel and insensitive to imply that all weary Christians suffer the effects of sinful attitudes or rebellion, some “burned out” servants require correction in areas of spiritual neglect or destructive misconceptions that have led to serious discouragement. Often, discouraged believers find no resolution apart from repentance from sinful thoughts or actions. Nevertheless, no matter what the cause may involve, in nearly every case in which a Christian worker admits feeling “burned out,” he has also seriously contemplated quitting to some degree as a solution to his distress. The problems are real, but solutions are often blurred by the loss of hope in God’s promises.

The path that leads a Christian worker to quit seldom begins as a path that obviously leads to sorrow and destruction. Rather, the road to exhaustion often looks like an inviting, if not exciting, way to go. If one path appears uninteresting while another beckons with apparent beauty and promise, most unwary travelers choose the one that looks most desirable. Once one is headed in the wrong direction, however, each turn leads one farther away from finishing the course victoriously at the desired destination. So what kinds of hidden “wrong roads” lure a worker off course?

Wrong Road #1—No Rest for the Weary

Perhaps the most beautiful “wrong road” is the one that leads to no hotels, no hospitals, no libraries, and no park benches on which to sit and enjoy the countryside. The beauty is there, and you can certainly look and enjoy—but you cannot stop and rest. It is the road on which the traffic always moves but never ceases or slows. Christian workers often deceive themselves—or allow others to deceive them—into believing— that working tirelessly for Christ without stopping to rest is virtuous. If one ministry is good, two, three, or four must be even better. Or perhaps the work piles up, and the laborers, being few, attempt to tackle the whole pile—as if by working tirelessly, it will eventually be reduced to a manageable size or as if the work will one day cease to expand to fill a worker’s willingness to work. Travelers on this road often experience guilt if they stop and rest too long, either because their own conscience wrongly condemns them or because someone implies that such resting is “lazy” or “unspiritual.”

Helping a worker on the “no rest” road involves helping him to realistically evaluate his daily schedule, the hours he sleeps, his priorities, his physical and emotional needs, his limitations, his particular family responsibilities, and the biblical mandate to take adequate rest. Such a worker needs to recognize how his drive to arrive at a destination has become a cruel taskmaster and clouded God’s warnings against such shortcuts. God desires that we enjoy the journey and reach destinations along the way. Most important, He commands us to rest intermittently so we and those who travel with us can endure the “long haul.” The tireless worker needs to recognize the fact that though he may be traveling on a beautiful road, it is a road ill-equipped for restoration of strength. Sooner or later, exhaustion will catch up to him.

In contrast, God’s “right road” is lined with stops after every sixth mile. Scripture passages to consider are as follows: “Six days thou shalt do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest; that thine ox and thine ass [as well as thou] may rest, and the son of thy handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed” (Ex. 23:12; see also Deut. 5:12-15). “And he [Jesus] said unto them [the disciples], Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while; for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat (Mark 6:31). “And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves; but he [Jesus] was asleep” (Matt. 8:24).

Pastors need to carefully guard one day each week as a day of rest from the labors of home and ministry in the same way Christian workers also need to seriously guard one day a week to rest from their labors. Pastors often take Mondays off while Christian workers serve a grueling five-day work week, only to put in two full days of Christian work on the weekend, leaving no adequate time to be refreshed or to worship quietly. Each Christian worker needs to get adequate sleep and to set aside adequate time for relaxation within the framework of his particular circumstances. More strenuous work requires more frequent times of rest in order to properly rejuvenate the body, mind, and soul. Sometimes electronic devices that make us accessible 24 hours a day need to be turned off or left at home. Family dinners, bedtime, special days, and planned events all need to be guarded from unnecessary intrusions or “urgent” matters that, in reality, aren’t as important as rest.

Those who refuse to take vacations or to engage in times of relaxation do not honor God; rather, they disobey Him and choose their own (wrong) path. Scripture condemns driving yourself or others to work tirelessly, week after week, in order to accomplish some self-imposed goal. In Ezekiel 34, the Lord pronounced woe upon Christian leaders who use people to accomplish their goals, disregarding their limitations and needs. He told them they had ruled others with “force and with cruelty” and had consumed their strength with hardships imposed upon them. “He that is cruel,” the Bible warns, “troubleth his own flesh” (Prov. 11:17).

Driven workers tend to drive others around them with the relentless work ethic they adopt for themselves. They show little or no regard for those who are weaker or have special needs. They are often unlike Christ, who is compared to a good shepherd who slows His pace so He doesn’t overdrive the pregnant ewes or exhaust the littlest lambs (Isa. 40:11). The Lord, our good Shepherd, leads us by still waters that cool our feet and quench our thirst. He makes us to lie down in green, refreshing pastures and restores our soul. Yes, He does lead us up the mountain and into the valleys along winding paths—but never without stopping. We always find shepherds who are impatient and cruel, who think they can achieve more by driving themselves or their sheep harder. Perhaps such leadership appears to be working, especially if the cruel shepherd’s flock reaches the top ahead of the others. However, the cruel shepherd often gives little notice to the many sheep who have died of exhaustion along the way or of little ones who perished because they couldn’t keep up the pace. This shepherd has no room in his flock for average sheep, let alone weak or sick ones. Only the strongest survive for long, and even they collapse eventually.

God blesses those who walk righteously, speak uprightly, and “despiseth the gain of oppressions” (Isa. 33:15). Driven people oppress themselves and others to gain something, and they keep up the practice because they wrongly believe it gets them ahead. God warns, “Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways” (Prov. 3:31), Rather than oppress others with hardship, we should seek to relieve the oppressed and to lift heavy burdens. Certainly we are to work hard but never without sufficient times of refreshment! Christ condemned the Pharisees because they put on others “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4). Jesus, on the other hand, invited weary people to “come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

Christian workers who do not set aside sufficient time to rest physically, mentally, and spiritually soon come to believe Christ is a cruel overseer whose yoke is hard and whose burden is heavy beyond endurance. When this distortion happens, the Christian worker needs to recognize that he has often taken a path Christ has not led him to take and has assumed burdens and hardships Christ has not ordered him to carry. If Christ has led us on a path of difficulty, it is temporary. He has either given us sufficient help to make the journey tolerable or offered to carry us in His arms (1 Cor. 10:13). Every now and then, each Christian worker needs to remind himself that God’s requirements may not be those he or others have imposed upon him. Micah 6:8 offers encouragement to these weary workers—“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

debi.jpgDebi Pryde has taught ladies’ Bible classes and spoken at retreats and seminars for the past 30 years. A certified biblical counselor, she is particularly burdened for women and for the problems they face in today’s world. She has published a variety of Bible studies and books, including Secrets of a Happy Heart, Happily Married, and Precept Upon Precept. She and her husband, Tom, are active members at Lighthouse Baptist Church (La Verne, CA). You can read more about Debi, about her ministry, and about her rose garden by visiting her website.
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