On tiredness, rest, and burnout

By Ajith Fernando

Anyone serving in this needy world, will have to fight the battle between rest and hard work. What I advocate for people in ministry is to make sure that the basics of life are in place. Foremost is an unhurried time with God each day. Then we must religiously keep a Sabbath day once a week, in keeping with God’s law. The Old Testament also advocates occasional longer sabbaths which I take to being equivalent to vacations. So rest is important. So is watching our life and ensuring that we are acting and thinking the right way. As Paul said, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Let’s unpack his.

Some people use the fact that there is so much burnout in ministry to argue that hard work and tiredness are wrong. That I don’t agree with. The problem is more one of insecurity than of hard work. When one doesn’t have the peace of God ruling his life (Col. 3:15) and he strives to achieve like a messiah who doesn’t delegate but feels he must respond to every need, then he is heading for burnout. This is drivenness coming out of insecurity and we can drive ourselves to the ground.

Considering all the need we encounter in the world, we must work hard. Talking about the ministry of discipling, Paul used two strong words for hard work in Colossians 1:29: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” We toil to the point of tiredness (the Greek implies that) and struggle, but God supplies the energy to do that. We must ensure that God has total reign in our life so that the channels are open for him to energise us. Who we are in Christ is more important than what we do for Christ.

But we do not work for earthly applause, or for human success, or to be the biggest and the best. We can’t let the false values of our celebrity culture ruin our joy. That’s a recipe for burnout. Only a few will be leaders in the church, and only a few will be celebrities on earth. But we can all do the will of God, which is what is most important, because “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). That’s security, unruffled by the false values of this world. We work hard because we love Jesus. We strive for excellence, not because we want to be famous or better than anyone, but because we have seen and been enraptured by the glory of God and want to reflect it in all we do (1 Cor. 10:31).

Then, not being recognised and appreciated does not devastate us. We want to please Jesus. If he sees, that’s enough. If he’s not pleased, we plead for mercy and receive his forgiveness. But failure also does not devastate us because there is abundant pardon with God (Isa. 55:7). We are humiliated by our failure, but the most important thing in life is intact—we are loved with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3).

Then we must ensure that there are no serious unsettled issues that weigh us down.
We serve our families like servants and make sure they know that, though our ministry takes us away from home often, they are deeply loved, enjoyed and cherished by us. We “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Few things debilitate us as much as uncleared issues with people and unhealed anger. That can drag us down and exhaust our minds. So like Paul we “always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16).

Trying to be faithful in all these areas—personal life, family life and ministry life—will be tiring. But that is not a huge problem. After all, our hero Paul said, “…we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). The main thing is to minister out of a heart set free by God, so that we can be “renewed day by day.” Then we can minister without unnecessary burdens that drag us down.

This is why unhurried time with God is so important. It helps us recalibrate our life daily rather than waiting for an emergency to do mid-course corrections. When we meet with him daily, we affirm God’s lordship over our life. Daily we confess sin. Daily we cast our burden upon the Lord. Daily we go to the Word like a hungry baby desiring to be fed. When we relax in the presence of God daily, we imbibe security by unconsciously letting the reality of Deuteronomy 33:27 hit us: “the Eternal God is my dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms.” That’s security! Don’t do ministry without it.

Perhaps this lockdown is a good time for us to reorder our priorities.

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