How to Reverse Burnout

May 08, 2017 |Chris Crane
Smoldering campfire

Many young Christians have too much on their plates. But weariness doesn't have to be a way of life.

About a year ago, I hit a wall. I was in seminary full time, working part time, and attempting to maintain a social life. I also wasn't sleeping or eating well.

One day it all caught up with me. I started experiencing depression, and I became more sensitive to my chronic fatigue (which is the result of a blood disorder). It felt like every bit of energy had been sapped away.

I was burned out. I had exceeded my limitations and failed to take care of myself. In my attempt to mature spiritually, I had functionally denied the gift of my body by the way I treated it.

Maybe you have experienced something similar. You feel overcommitted or way too busy. Perhaps your breakneck pace even comes from trying to be a "super Christian," and you find yourself denying your own needs as you constantly try to meet the needs of others.

Burnout is not fun, and you might wonder if it will always be this way. Let me encourage you by saying it doesn't have to be. You don't have to — nor should you — keep living in constant burnout. But how can you break the cycle? Here are a few things I've found helpful:

1. Don't forget that your physical body matters.

God created our bodies to alert us to the fact that we may be pushing too hard. When we get tired or sick, this may be that very clue to indicate we need to pump the brakes. Constant low energy is a major symptom of burnout, as is feeling apathetic about things that used to excite us.

When we're feeling lethargic, our body is highlighting an opportunity for us to assess our personal eating habits, sleeping habits, mental health, and whether we're staying hydrated or getting enough physical activity. Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p. 78. Healthy habits matter, and we shouldn't neglect them. The fact that Jesus took on human flesh and the Holy Spirit lives within believers makes a strong statement about how God views our bodies.

This was something I had to learn the hard way. I had to recognize my physical limitations and not act as if I was somehow being "more spiritual" by ignoring them. In fact, by elevating the "spiritual" above the "physical" instead of recognizing I'm a holistic being, I was doing real damage to my life.

As one of my seminary professors once said, "What you do to your body [or with your body] matters to your soul." What he meant was that we cannot live the Christian life apart from our bodies. As a result, our relationship with God might seem distant simply because we're tired and need to get more sleep.

Pastor Pete Scazzero writes:

"Why don't we take appropriate care of ourselves? Why are so many Christians, along with the rest of our culture, frantic, exhausted, overloaded, and hurried? Few Christians make the connection between love of self and love of others. Sadly, many believe that taking care of themselves is a sin, a 'psychologizing' of the gospel taken from our self-centered culture."

While we need to not neglect our bodies, we don't want to fall into the opposite extreme of overly obsessing about the "perfect body" either. Instead, as one writer says, "The spiritual discipline of honoring the body helps us find our way between the excesses of a culture that glorifies and objectifies the body and the excesses of the Christian tradition that have often denigrated and ignored the body."Ibid., p. 85. We have a "need for learning how to receive the goodness of the body as part of our life in God that he pronounces good."Ibid., p. 81. So, make time to take walks, play volleyball with friends, or get the eight hours of rest you need.

2. Pay attention to the rhythms of your life.

Western cultures typically view time as something meant to be used and consumed. However, time is not a mere commodity. It is something which is meant to be stewarded. In the biblical story — from God's activity in creation to the very way of life of ancient Israel — daily rhythms were part of life in this world.

These rhythms are often missing in the lives of Christians. As James K.A. Smith argues, this rhythm of life and worship "makes us certain kinds of people" and "aims our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies."James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), p. 25. In other words, the way we use our time has a deep correlation to the kind of person we become.

Just like ancient Israel (and the early church) structured their whole lives according to certain weekly and yearly rhythms, we too should see the importance, both corporately and individually, of the habits of prayer and vocation, community and hospitality, and of generosity and rest. As easy as it is to get caught up in what is "new," "spontaneous," or "innovative," we do a disservice to ourselves if we don't allow good habits to help us slow down and avoid burnout.

Maybe you're wondering what these rhythms look like in everyday life. Here are a couple examples. Maybe you're in school, but you take one day off each week from doing homework and spend time relaxing with friends and family. If you have roommates, you might try to form a regular habit of eating meals together and inviting others into your home to join you.

Rhythms don't have to be difficult, intricate or burdensome. (If they are, it sort of defeats the purpose.) Rhythms can be avenues of healing and freedom from running yourself ragged. They allow you to foster the joy of learning you don't have to do everything.

3. Don't ignore your emotions.

It seems that many Christians have a complicated relationship with their emotions. On one hand, we can treat them as a sort of infallible guide for life. On the other hand, we can ignore them and act as if, at best, they do not matter or, at worst, that acknowledging them is "unspiritual." Both approaches fall short.

 Feelings are a gift from God. We are created in His image with our emotions, and our lives demand we have a good understanding of them because they are a constant in our lives. While it's OK to not trust every "feeling," emotions can often be a barometer for our psychological and spiritual health.

For example, you've had a long week and you're especially irritable. Ask yourself why. Have you been living without boundaries in your life? Have you failed to care for your body? Have you overfilled your calendar? If so, make adjustments to be healthier the following week.

If I had taken care of my body, practiced some rhythms to help me slow down and paid better attention to my emotions, I might have not burned out the way I did. God created us as finite beings with real limitations. He doesn't expect us to "do it all," and we shouldn't expect that from ourselves either.

To the contrary, I love what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

We can rest each night, trusting the Lord will honor the faithfulness we have given that day and give us grace for areas of our lives that still require much growth. As I learned from my own experiences of burnout, allowing rest, rhythms, and concern for our physical bodies does more in the long run than we might realize. Let's steward our bodies well.

Copyright 2017 Chris Crane. All rights reserved. 

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