We have all experienced it. We come home at night and reach for the familiar switch. But instead of the room being bathed with light, there is a flash and a pop and darkness. The light bulb burned out. And we think, why did that have to happen just now?
In these days of mass production, a burned-out light bulb is easily replaced. It’s much harder to replace a burned out Christian, specially selected and called by God to be a light to the world. But Christians, like light bulbs do burn out!
Burn-out is a way of describing a problem common among deeply dedicated and highly motivated people. It happens when people who have been enthusiastic and committed discover that they cannot keep going. Suddenly, perhaps quite unexpectedly, they lose interest in their work and can no longer turn in a good job performance. Sometimes they even quit completely.
Burn-out is the special occupational hazard of those in the helping professions: counselors, poverty lawyers, policemen and psychiatric nurses, for example. Such people’s jobs involve a high degree of sacrifice and commitment. But a Christian is also a prime target for burnout, for the Christian’s calling also involves self-sacrifice, commitment and extra effort. So let’s take a closer look at burn-out so that we can understand it and, what is more important, know to guard against it.
Professional burnout has been the subject of much study in recent years. Researchers have tried to find out how to help once dedicated people with a desire to achieve who have lost that desire. They have found that those most susceptible to burn-out are people with jobs that demand prolonged self-sacrifice, perhaps long hours in poor working conditions, with inadequate salaries.
Such people can keep going for a while, perhaps years because they work for more than just money. They believe in what they are doing. They share a sense of mission that goes beyond normal commitment to the job. But one day they find that their inner wells have run dry and they cannot give any more.
The symptoms of burnout vary from person to person. Some just become apathetic, no longer interested in making a created contribution. They do just what is required of them, nothing more, and nothing less.
Others resign from their jobs, throwing away good reputations, accrued benefits and lifetimes of effort. They have even been known to turn to hostility on those they were once dedicated to serving and supporting. In some cases, they are driven to suicide.
Perhaps you can recognize some of these symptoms in people you know, or even in yourself. These people don’t pray as much as they have in the past. They become lax in their Sabbath keeping, tithing and Bible study. They lose contact with it. They withdraw from fellowship and no longer participate in Church activities. They become very critical and negative. They still attend services, but their hearts are not in it. Bit by bit, little by little, they begin to leave the Church.
What can be done to avoid Christian burnout? Studies of the subject suggest there are some professions that should not expect a lifetime commitment. Perhaps people should only be expected to work at certain jobs for a few years at most. It was even suggested that an effective working life span for a nurse in a psychiatric ward might be as short as 18 months.
Which is all very well for a psychiatric nurse, but Christianity is a lifetime commitment! If God has called you to endure to the end, you just can’t quit and do something else when the going gets rough. That action of course plays right into the hands of Satan, the adversary, who is dedicated to the failure of God’s Church. As the end time closes in and this earth becomes darker and darker, those whom Christ has called to be lights must be prepared to burn brighter.
So how do we help those who are burning out? And how do we avoid it ourselves? It is a problem that can strike at any one of us, from the least to the greatest.
Our part in God’s Work, be it ever so humble, involves a genuine sacrifice of our time, energy and money. Christ never promised that this would be an easy task. As we grow in commitment and as the demands of the end-time Work press more heavily upon us, we can understand why some of the prophets described their part in God’s Work as a burden (Nah. 1:1, Hab. 1:1 and Mal. 1:1).
Before we ever set out to shoulder this burden, Jesus Christ warned us exactly what we were getting into: “and whoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:27-28). He went on to warn us that our own resources would not be adequate for the task. “We, with ten thousand, would have to go out to meet him that comes against us with twenty thousands” (v. 31). Christ leveled with us, He was going to ask us to shoulder a burden, or carry a cross, that from time to time would almost become too heavy.
Of course, the reward for this labor is indeed handsome, eternal life, while ruling with Christ!
But sometimes this reward seems a long way off, doesn’t it? There are times in all of our lives when the vision blurs, and the reward seems unreal, too distant. The present with its fears, and frustrations, become the real world.
These are the times when we are most in danger of burning out. That is the typical human reaction, as scientific research has shown. It is only the most unusual human being who is capable of prolonged self-sacrifice without a tangible reward. Most of God’s people would not claim to be unusual human beings. So, given the situation, the calling, and the responsibility that we have, it is only human that we should burn out, just like anybody else.
God knows this. There have been times when some of his greatest and most effective servants got discouraged and felt like giving up. Elijah, we are told, was a man just like us (Jas. 5:17). Right on the heels of one of his most significant achievements, he felt like quitting.
In I Kings 18 we read of how Elijah faced the 400 prophets of Baal. He stood alone, before them, challenged and ridiculed them, and then as the servant of God performed a stunning miracle. The false prophets were arrested by the people, and Elijah supervised their execution. It was a day that left its mark on the religion of Israel for many years.
But, Queen Jezebel, furious at the destruction of her religion, was determined to destroy Elijah and put a price on his head. Elijah had to flee to a barren wilderness, where loneliness and weariness began to get the better of him. He came close to burning out (I Kings 19).
The prophet Jeremiah served God faithfully in many different ways all through his long life. But there were moments when Jeremiah’s burden became very heavy. In Jeremiah 20:7-10 he tells God in effect: “You deceived me. You made me do this job. Everyone laughs at me. I do your Work, and all I get is persecution. Even my friends are out to get me. But if I say I am quitting, you will make me do the Work."
Strong words indeed to the Creator of the universe. But God did not strike Jeremiah down, God knew Jeremiah was only human, and his burden was getting heavy.
Like Jeremiah and Elijah, we too become weary in well-doing from time to time and are tempted to slip quietly back into the world.
People who become burned out, such as policemen and nurses might do well to face facts and quit their jobs. If they can be given honorable discharges they can leave without disgrace and start again. But Christ has not given us that option. God also has not left us helpless in the face of burn-out. Remember God’s promise: “there hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man, but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able: but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” ( I Cor. 10:13).
Jesus Christ knows what it is like to be tempted. Today, He has been restored to all power and authority. But He has not forgotten the experiences He underwent as a frail human being. We are told that we have a High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Heb. 4:15). He, as a man, had to cry out to His Father for strength. He had to avoid a burnout that would have had tragic consequences both for Himself and all of mankind.
Christ knows that there is a limit to mere human strength and will. He knows we are vulnerable and has shown us how to guard against it. How do we do this?
How, by preventive maintenance, of course. Anyone who owns a car knows that it is better and cheaper to give it a routine servicing than to try to repair it after something has gone wrong. A good mechanic understands the things that can go wrong and knows how to guard against them happening. He maintains the right amount of oil in the engine, fluid in the brake system and air in the tires.
We Christians should also know what can go wrong. We need to always keep in focus that the Christian calling was not promised to be a bed of roses.
We were told to “strive to enter in at the strait gate” (Luke 13:24), “to fight the good fight of faith” (I Tim. 6:12) and to labor “to enter into that rest” (Heb. 4:11). Striving, fighting and laboring are strenuous activities. If we are to continue to help with the Work, we must take care of ourselves, as we would a car that we expect to work well.
After He had returned to heaven, Jesus Christ would not allow His first apostles to even begin their work until He sent them the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. He knew that, humanly speaking, they were inadequate. They knew that too. They cowered in the upper room, not knowing how, where, or what to begin. But once the Holy Spirit came, well you know the rest of the story.
It is the same today? We, of ourselves, are not adequate for our part in God’s Work. As God places a greater load on us (which He will do if we are growing), there will be times when we will stagger.
We are like weight lifters. However strong a weight lifer may be, there comes a point when he simply can’t lift any more. If he is to carry the extra load, he must get help.
Knowing that we would need help, Christ sent us the Holy Spirit, the same fuel His Father sent Him when He was on earth doing the Work. With the Holy Spirit, the apostles were able to fulfill their great commission. Armed with the same Spirit, we can finish our jobs as well.
The Spirit of God never burns out. But it can be quenched by neglect. And when the Spirit is quenched, then it is only a matter of time before we burn-out. Think of what happens to your car engine if you neglect to maintain its oil pressure.
Paul told Timothy, a young man heavily committed to the Work, to “stir up the gift of God (the Holy Spirit) which is in thee by putting on of my hands” (II Tim. 1:6). He told another young minister to remind the congregation to maintain good works (Titus. 3:8). Paul knew that God gives His Spirit only to those who worship and obey Him.
So how do we, as Christians perform the essential preventive maintenance? By keeping close to God in prayer, and by obeying His laws by doing the right things. God’s Spirit can then flow through us, like engine oil, preventing the wear that leads to burn-out.
Learn from the apostle Paul. He carried one of the heaviest burdens that God has asked of any man. He knew that even if he was humanly brilliant, energetic, zealous and dedicated, unless he had the same fuel driving him that Christ had, he would burn-out.
Paul meant it when he said, “I’m crucified with Christ nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God” (Gal 2:20).
There is one other way we can guard against burnout. The researchers found that burnout is not inevitable. Some people in the helping professions keep on going year after year, producing. And they maintain a healthy attitude toward their work and toward those they serve.
How do they cope? The researchers found that one thing these people had in common was the ability to share their feeling of weakness and frustration with others who understand. Successful doctors, policemen and counselors will act as props for each other. They have learned how valuable this support can be.
“There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s. But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Perhaps those in danger of burning out need to reassess the values of these spiritual relatives.
The prophet Malachi foresaw a time when some members of the Church, tired of waiting for their reward, would say: “It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea they that work wickedness are set up; yea they that tempt God are even delivered” (Mal. 3:14-15).
But Malachi also saw another group “that feared the Lord and spake often one to another” (v. 16) and thus kept the vision, kept the faith and kept going.
There is no such thing as a useless member of the Church, one who can afford to let himself or herself burn out and not be missed. God doesn’t call people He doesn’t want. The Body of Christ needs the effective working together of every part (Eph. 4:16).
Paul said the Church should become knit together in love (Col. 2:2). Take a look at a piece of knitting. Notice how no stitch can exist by itself. Its existence depends on its connections to still more stitches and so on until the whole garment is knit together with thousands of interconnecting stitches, each giving to and gaining support from the other.
The New Testament instructs the Church to not forsake assembling together, to prefer one another’s company, to exhort each other and bear one another’s burdens. It may sound simplistic, but one of the best defenses we have against burning out is the close friendships we can build with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Bible prophecies show that some of us will continue to burn out, quietly, unexpectedly, giving up to become as useless and disappointing as a burned out light bulb. And unfortunately, it is happening even as God is using His Church to prepare the way for the return of Christ.
And with the end time closing in, with the world teetering on the brink of the great tribulation and with Jesus Christ even now preparing for His return, you can almost hear God say, “Why did that have to happen just now.”