Avoiding Burnout

by

Every true believer has sufficient grace to finish well. If this is true, and I believe it is, why do so many believers burn out?

What Is Burnout?

The term burnout was coined by rocket scientists to describe shutting down a jet or rocket engine by exhausting or shutting off its fuel. Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberg, in his 1974 book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, was the first psychologist to use this term. He defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

Christians committed to Christ’s work can experience physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion similar to what non-Christians experience. Christians also have to deal with the added challenge of spiritual burnout. If burnout detectors were placed at every church entrance, we would be shocked to see how many who began by the Spirit are now trying to be perfected by the flesh (see Gal. 3:3).

Why Does Spiritual Burnout Occur?

Literature on spiritual burnout suggests many causes. Some of these include failure to maintain one’s devotional life, trying to do too many things with too little time and too few workers, unconfessed sin, zeal without knowledge, wrong motives, seeking to please people, and frustrated expectations. In my opinion, many of these are not causes but symptoms of burnout.

The root cause of burnout is the failure to draw on the power available from our union with Christ. The heart is continually a battlefield for the spirit and the flesh. If the human spirit does not draw on its union with Christ, it defaults to the flesh. During these battles, the devil whispers in the believer’s ear, “If God really loved you, would He make you suffer like this?” This can cause doubts that may move believers to try to do God’s work for Him.

The great patriarch Abraham attempted this, with disastrous results. God had promised him a son. Six years passed without a son, so Sarah suggested they help God keep His promise. She told Abraham to use Hagar, her Egyptian maid, to produce his heir. Ishmael was born and the Lord rejected him as Abraham’s heir (Gen. 16:16). Another fourteen years passed before Isaac was born (Gen. 21:5). Sarah was ninety and Abraham was one hundred. Ishmael made fun of his baby brother, so Sarah demanded that Abraham get rid of Ishmael and his mother. The consequences of Abraham’s attempt to do God’s work for Him persist to this day, as Ishmael’s and Isaac’s descendents—the Arabs and the Jews, respectively—continue the conflict that began in Abraham’s house.

God wants His people to be His coworkers. We should trust and obey Him, not try to do His work for Him.

Can We Avoid Spiritual Burnout?

The Apostle Paul survived incredible hardships (some of which are recorded in 2 Cor. 11:23–33). Toward the close of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Soon after, Paul was executed, probably beheaded by the Romans. He avoided spiritual burnout and he finished well; therefore, he can help us avoid it.

Some may say, “Paul is not a good example for me because he was such a unique person and had such an exceptional calling.” If that is true, why did the Holy Spirit inspire him to tell his readers to imitate or follow him? (see 1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6).

The primary factor that helped Paul avoid spiritual burnout was that he relied upon his union with Christ:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:19–20)

Paul believed that the Christian life could not be lived with mere human strength and resources; it requires the infinite Christ who lives within believers. John Calvin said,

To that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank. When Christ becomes ours, he makes us partners with him in the gifts with which he was endued. Hence we do not view him as at a distance and without us, but as we have put him on, and been engrafted into his body, he deigns to make us one with himself, and, therefore, we glory in having a fellowship of righteousness with him. (Institutes 3.11.10)

In his writings, Paul combines the preposition in with some designation for Christ more than two hundred times. No matter where he was, no matter his circumstances, Paul knew he was in Christ and Christ was in him. When I read the many truths Paul declares about Christ and realize he is speaking of the Christ who dwells in my heart, I “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Paul trusted the indwelling Christ to supply all his needs and enable him to “do all things” (Phil. 4:13, 19). Therefore, Paul avoided burnout. He finished well, and so can you.

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