Once upon a time, I had a conversation with a friend in ministry that left me dismayed. Though she’d experienced burnout before, she was now overworking again, held captive by small but pressing tasks that could be outsourced. I tried to caution her, but my words didn’t seem to sink in. “I need a vacation,” she said, “but I won’t take one until the end of the year. I’ll probably need several weeks, but I’ll probably only take a few days.”

I’ve encountered this cavalier attitude over and over again, this idea that if you’re a missionary or pastor, it’s almost expected that you burn yourself out for the sake of the gospel. Anything less is not working your hardest, giving God your best.

“How are you?” I asked a different friend recently.

“We’re doing well. Very busy. But that’s the life of a missionary, isn’t it? We’re so busy we’ll probably burn ourselves out. But hey—God called us to be sacrifices—we’ll be burnt offerings!” He laughed.

Burnt offerings are, by definition, dead. But the Bible says:

“I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” [1]

We’re called to be living sacrifices, not dead ones.

What does being a “living sacrifice” entail? I find the description in Galatians most helpful:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” [2]

Notice that the emphasis on this type of sacrifice is living. “Live” and its various conjugations are mentioned 4 times in this one sentence!

When God calls us to be living sacrifices, He’s talking about submitting to Christ. The Christian life is not about us living our own lives, asking God to help us along the way. We are not the main character in our life stories. Jesus is.

The Christian life is about allowing Christ to live His life through us. It’s about allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us wherever He wants us to go, and set us alight with His holy passion and fire. We are called to burn with the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to burn, not to be burnt.

It’s the difference between the burning bush that Moses found in the desert—alight, but not consumed—and a piece of charred, dead meat. One is full of miraculous power and sustenance, and the other is the result of sin. Burnt offerings would not have been needed if humanity hadn’t sinned.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites were neighbours with nations that worshipped an idol called Molech. This idol required human sacrifices—burnt offerings of human lives. [3] God detested Molech and his sacrifices, and I believe that he detests our self-inflicted burnout just as much. Deep burnout is, after all, an emotional and psychological death of sorts.

You see, when we offer ourselves up as “burnt” sacrifices, we are essentially engaging in idolatry. Our idol is our own strength and effort. When we flirt with burnout, we’re creating a self-guided walking tour, rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our spiritual journey. We may be doing outwardly-Christian things, but inwardly, we’re not following Christ. We’re going against the very definition of the word “Christian” by following our own plans and not allowing God to set our agenda.

Before I go too much farther, I want to make it clear that not all burnout is sinful. Sometimes we engage in risky behaviours out of ignorance or inexperience. Sometimes we find ourselves in unavoidable circumstances that lead to burnout. However, in Christian circles, these non-sinful sources seem to be the exception, not the rule.

Why can burnout be sinful? Because self-sufficiency is often at its core. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” [4]

God has given us finite resources of time and energy, and He expects us to use them wisely. When we depend only on our own strength and efforts, we essentially disconnect ourselves from Jesus, our Vine. Often, we stop observing the Sabbath or connecting deeply with God in our devotions. We let the worries of our day shorten our times with God. When burnout is near at hand, our times with God should get longer, not shorter. We should recognize our desperation for God, and allow it to fuel our ministries.

Whenever I hear myself or someone else say, “I have no choice”, this is a red flag. Usually, the person saying this phrase has gotten themselves locked into unhealthy habits that are difficult to break free of. “I have no choice” is a clear signal that there probably is an alternate choice in our lives, but that we’re too blind or stubborn to see or consider it.

I’m training myself to reexamine my life whenever I hear myself saying these words. Have I gotten too stuck in the rut of my pet ministries? Is God tapping me on the shoulder, and asking me to give back His work to Him? Does He want me to change something about my mentality or schedule?

We often apply the Bible verse “God loves a cheerful giver” [5] towards the gifts of money we give to the church and other Christian ministries. However, it can also be applied to the service we give to God. If I’m too tired or close to burnout, I am not serving with my whole heart, cheerfully giving my gifts of time and service to God. Chances are, I’m resentful, and not very loving towards God or people. This is not cheerful giving and does not honour God.

Over the past few years, we’ve had several friends who have experienced burnout. Some are able to bounce back and lead normal-looking lives, but three are shells of who they used to be. They still have not recovered even years later.

I, too, came close to burnout last autumn. I’ve been taking care of most of our ministry for two years now, while Peter recovers from health problems. I really needed a vacation, but the one we went on last August wasn’t relaxing at all, and I ended it far more exhausted at the end than when we started. Thankfully, we were able to recognize the danger signs.

We emptied our savings accounts and stayed at hotels a few times on our weekly Sabbath day off to get deeper rest than we would at home. Yes, it was expensive, but after seeing what our friends had gone through, we knew that it would be far better to have no savings than to enter into a situation from which there was potentially no recovery. God also showed me where to cut back on ministry while still nurturing valuable relationships. Now I’m fine.

God wants us to be healthy, sustainable, and able to showcase His fruit of the Spirit. But can a burned out person consistently exhibit this fruit in its entirety? What about joy? What about peace?

Some of the brightest testimonies shine from healthy, whole, healed people. We take God’s name in vain when we willfully break ourselves “for Christ”.

So how do we avoid burnout and adopt healthy attitudes to work and rest? If you’re a Christian worker, I would implore you to read Wayne Cordeiro’s Leading on Empty. It’s a fantastic book that belongs in the library of anyone in ministry. It covers how to lead an intentional life with a healthy perspective, not being blown about wherever the winds of chance may take us. It also covers not only how to avoid burnout, but also what can be done to avoid relapse if you’ve already burned out.

In our current culture, where burnout and stress-related disorders are so prevalent, let’s resolve to remain connected to the Vine and allow His life-giving blood to cleanse, refresh, and rejuvenate our spirits and our ministries. 

[1] Romans 12:1, emphasis mine.
[2] Galatians 2:20, NASB.
[3] Jeremiah 32:35.
[4] John 15:5.
[5] 2 Corinthians 9:7.

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