Question: "What does the Bible say about burnout?"
Answer: Anyone who has experienced burnout knows it is not something he ever wants to experience again. Burnout is commonly described as an exhausted state in which a person loses interest in a particular activity and even in life in general. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, social, and spiritual exhaustion. It can lead to diminished health, social withdrawal, depression, and a spiritual malaise. Many times, burnout is the result of an extended period of exertion at a particular task (generally with no obvious payoff or end in sight) or the carrying of too many burdens (such as borne by those in the helping professions or those in positions of authority, among others). Burnout can be common among those in high-stress jobs who feel forced to please an earthly master in order to maintain their job and continue to provide for their families. The god of money reigns in Western culture, and his demands often lead to burnout. Christians are not immune to the demands of economic realities or to experiencing fear of failing to meet those demands. Unfortunately, burnout can also be common among those in vocational Christian ministry and those highly involved in their churches. In these cases people sometimes feel compelled to serve the god of productivity and works. Burnout can happen anywhere. It is the result of overwhelming demands or responsibilities, either placed on us by others or by ourselves, that we simply cannot bear. So what does the Bible say about burnout?
Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28–30). The ultimate solution for those currently experiencing burnout is to find refreshment in Christ. For those with a particularly high level of burnout, this refreshment may include obtaining medical support and drastically altering their life activities. Others may find refreshment through seeing a counselor. Reading encouraging Scriptures (such as Romans 8, John 15, or Psalm 139) can be very life-giving. Even simple activities like cooking, going for a walk, playing with the kids, or watching a funny show can be restorative.
The prevention plan for burnout is to rest in Jesus and follow His direction for life.
Burnout is often the result of self-reliance. The self-reliant take upon themselves the role of savior rather than trusting God to accomplish His own will. They begin to see every need as their call, rather than asking for God's wisdom and direction. This can play out in a ministry setting when a pastor attempts to do the work of the entire Body of Christ, in a business setting when someone forces a certain plan or project, in a family setting when a parent takes responsibility for the success and happiness of a child, and in numerous other settings.
Another cause of burnout is a lack of self-care. Those who do not take care of themselves fail to understand how much God values them. They fail to accept His rest and His love for them, instead martyring themselves on the altar of pleasing others. They may sacrifice sleep, nourish their bodies poorly, over-extend their schedules, or neglect their needs in other ways. Whether it's a lack of self-care or an insistence on self-reliance, burnout stems from a lack of understanding of the character of God and His expectations for our lives.
Work is part of the human calling (Genesis 1:28; 2:15; Colossians 3:23; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). Generativity is a portion of what gives our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. Christians are also expected to be self-sacrificial, at times giving beyond themselves. However, nowhere in the Bible does God equate our acceptability or our identity with our work. And nowhere does God command or condone working so hard that we become burned out. Rather, our work is to be energized by Him. He demonstrated the importance of rest on the seventh day of creation and with the Sabbath command (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2:27). After one particularly busy time, Jesus invited His disciples away from the crowds for a time of rest (Mark 6:31). Jesus said to come to Him with our burdens and take His yoke instead. He also gave us the Holy Spirit who can give us discernment in what tasks to say "yes" to.
Moses would have burned out, but for the wise counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro. The story is found in Exodus 18:14-23. Moses thought he was doing the will of God by sitting as judge and hearing the people's cases. However, Jethro rightly recognized that this was not a job for one man to handle alone. Eventually, Moses would burn out, and the people would be left unsatisfied. To avoid burnout, Moses had to accept that not every need was meant to be filled by him. God charged Moses with leadership, not with performing every duty. Jethro advised Moses to delegate the task of judging the nation to other trustworthy men. That way, the people were provided justice, others had an opportunity to participate in God's plan, and Moses' need for personal care was met.
The apostles in the early church also wisely delegated some tasks in Acts 6:1-6 when they appointed deacons to help bear the burden of the ministry to the church. Jesus provides rest for our souls and boundaries for our schedules. He also gives us a community to help carry out the work He has prepared for us. The Body of Christ is meant to function as a whole, each member helping carry the others' burdens, and all resting in Christ (Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:16; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:7, 27; Hebrews 4:9-11).
The author of Hebrews wrote, "And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Hebrews 12:1b-3). To persevere—to continue in our calling without burning out—we must remain focused on Jesus. Or, to use another metaphor, we must stay connected to the Vine (John 15:1-17). This is good biblical and psychological advice. In some studies, avoiding burnout has been linked with spiritual well-being. The better we feel spiritually, the less likely we are to experience burnout. When we are in vibrant relationship with God and receiving our fill from Him, we are less likely to push the boundaries God has set for us or to work ourselves beyond what He would ask. We are more apt to recognize what God is calling us to do and what He is not calling us to do. God equips us for what He calls us to (Hebrews 13:20-21; Ephesians 2:10). When God continually fills our spirit, it is impossible to dry up and burn out.
But what does relying on Jesus look like practically? It will be different for each person. For some it will mean examining their own hearts and removing the idols of self-reliance. For others it will be challenging their trust in God by learning to say "no." For some it will mean consulting with God before saying "yes." For others, it will mean being more intentional about self-care. Self-care implies not only caring for one's body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) by getting proper exercise, sleep, and nutrition; it also means taking time to laugh, to engage in hobbies, to be with friends, to be alone, to go for a hike, to soak in a bath, to read a book, to journal, in essence to actually enjoy those things that God has made to be life-giving to you. Taking steps to rely on Jesus may have very real consequences. Often when we first begin to set boundaries, such as those required in order to avoid burnout, some of those around us do not respond well. When a person is used to your continual "yes," he may not know how to handle a "no." Employers, families, and fellow church members may not understand what you are doing. You may even suffer the loss of relationships, but you may also find yourself engaging in even richer relationships and truly enjoying the activities of life. When we are following God, we can trust that He is faithful to provide for our needs (Matthew 6:33). God has designed us and He knows what is best for us. When we rely on Him, we can trust Him to make our paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6). It takes wisdom, discernment, and faith to live within God's parameters, but it is there that we find true life.
We recover from burnout by entering God's rest. We avoid burnout the next time by staying in tune with God's specific direction for our lives. That means we consult Him about our schedules, we take time to care for ourselves, and we learn to depend on His strength to carry out our duties. Our identity is not drawn from the tasks we accomplish but from our relationship with Jesus. We do the work He calls us to, and we do it with all our hearts, but we do not go beyond the limits He has set. We accept help from others because God has called us to community. We accept His rest because it is the gracious gift of a loving and wise Father. God is more interested in our relationship with Him than He is in our work (Hosea 6:6). There is nothing spiritual about "burning out for Jesus."