In July and August I wrote about burnout and the relational issues that contributed to my own journey. This month I am sharing my third and final installment of this series. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.
When burnout hits, you come to a fork in the road where one direction leads to living in a state of numbness and addiction, and the other direction says, “Stop lying about the state of your life.” I know that it would be satisfying to read “Six Easy Steps for Recovering Your Life.” The truth of the matter is that walking out of burnout is long, slow and different for every person, however there are some themes that surface.
Thinking back through those first few months of depression, each day seemed like a week and my mood mirrored the gloomy, cold, grey of the season. It was January and I remember how the sun only shone one day out of that entire month. I would talk to my counselor and wonder aloud, “How can I live like this? I don’t want to live if this is how it’s going to be.” I thought the bleakness and numbness would never end. People encouraged me to read the Psalms, but even the Psalms didn’t help me. My view of God was so wrapped up in my ministry works and external living, that reading the Bible was complicated for awhile. The slow walk through this was coming face to face with how I gained significance, how I had neglected my own physical body, and learning about what compelled me in ways that were not God.
During my darkest days, I found a friend in Henri Nouwen’s writings. He shared how we drift away from living in our identity as God’s beloved son or daughter when we fall for the lie that:
- I am what I do.
- I am what I have.
- I am what other people say about me.
It is easy to become disconnected from our identity and to begin living in response to external demands and expectations. Some of these expectations were obvious, but the harder ones seemed to be the expectations in my own head that I just could not meet. When the Great Commission is your job description, the work is never done. We have done a horrible disservice to Believers by expecting everyone to operate like Paul. Paul was Paul. I am not Paul. We have to get over the shame of not being Paul. I love Paul, but not all of us are asked to work out our faith like he did. Some of us are like Barnabas and Anna. How much do we encourage people in their specific God-given wiring to be who they really are? I have too many regrets to name here over how I contributed to former students working out their faith to look and be a certain way. I’m still going back and apologizing.
You may be asking, “But where is there a place to serve and give and make relational sacrifices?” “What about the truth of laying your life down?” “Can you remain in your job and recover?” Ruth Haley Barton talks about how there are seasons of stress, but stress is not burnout. We can work our job and be under stress, but what is the energy or motivation behind what we do? This is a key question to ask God. We can lay down our life, serve, remain in our job if the motivation and energy driving us is one of trust. Trust that He will accomplish the things in our lives that are for our good. Trust that if we step down that it won’t fall apart. Trust that the truest thing about who we are isn’t what we do, but that we are sons and daughters. How many of us wake up and the first thing that comes to our minds is, “I am a son who is loved.” “I am a daughter before anything else.” I have to tell ya, that is not the first thing on my mind when I wake up. There’s a lot of dread I have to work through. My questions, longings, struggles are often at the forefront of my mind. It takes awhile to get to the loved daughter part, but when I begin to understand that, it changes how I live.
During that season I also radically changed my diet, took walks when I could, tried to have human connection that was meaningful and went to counseling. It was hard and it took about 10 months before I began to feel an inkling of anything, but slowly, feeling started coming back. I never went back to my old job; that was done for me and a necessary ending, but it was disorienting for awhile. Those were the choices I made during that season, but as Oswald Chambers once wrote,“Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.”
Here are a few reflection questions for you to consider:
- What motivates you to get out of bed?
- Which of Henri Nouwen’s points do you identify with the most? Why?
- If you are in a setting where you are a leader, do you encourage people in their gifting or do you try and get them to operate out of a homogenous list of expectations? Why or why not?
- Do you see signs of burnout that you want to talk with God about?
- How could knowing that you are a loved son or a loved daughter change how you live? How you operate in your job? How you relate with others?