Written By Sarah Tso, Singapore
29 September, 2010. That was the day I realized I was burned out. As a young Christian undergraduate, I thought that I was immune to burnout. After all, wasn’t I doing everything “right” by serving in multiple church and campus ministries every week?
Though these were good things, I failed to realize that growing deep within me was a “Martha spirit” focused on “doing for God” that was choking out my rested “Mary spirit” of “being with God” (Luke 10:38-42). As a result, my ministries shifted from ones of gratitude-filled actions to joyless service—and my relationship with God suffered.
Like the elder son from the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, I gradually saw God less like a father and more like a tyrant who demanded more and more of me. My desire to “do for God” entered a spiritually-toxic level.
The Warning Signs
How did this happen? I realized the culprits were my pride in my God-given abilities, a myopic view for others’ approval, and a secret resentment toward God when plans did not turn out my way or when I was not acknowledged for my efforts. I wrapped my service up as “ministry unto others” when some of it actually became “ministry unto self.”
What made my slide into burnout more dangerous was the mask of cheerfulness I wore over my ailing spiritual condition. I didn’t share my struggles when asked how I was. Burnout was far from being an overnight process—because of these unchecked misguided perspectives, I had been headed for burnout for years.
Through Scripture and the guidance of mentors, I was humbled to learn the symptoms of spiritual burnout. First of these was a bitter heart that resented the Lord. I remember travelling between my university located in the West and my church located in the North multiple times a week—a journey that took almost one and a half hours. It was particularly stressful for me to complete my homework, pack up all my materials needed for assignments and rush back just in time for church meetings or to lead cell group usually without time for dinner.
I was reprimanded on occasion for not being able to attend some evening church meetings. I felt very much alone and misunderstood. This caused resentment toward my church and God, whom I felt was making serving “near impossible” for me.
A second symptom of burnout that surfaced was that I secretly expected repayment for my service toward God in terms of recognition for my efforts. This was perhaps similar to how the elder son in Luke 15 wanted something from his father to celebrate with his friends. When my times of appreciation were few and far between, my heart became even more bitter toward God.
A third symptom of burnout was reliance on human ability and strength. This symptom is evident in Elijah’s cry to God, “I have been very zealous for the LORD . . . I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:10). These words showed how prone Elijah was to forget that God was the source of help—the driving force behind all of the work he was doing (1 Kings 19:18). Similarly, I started to feel that if I stopped serving, things would fall apart. But just as it was in Elijah’s day, all of God’s work is sustained by Him, not us.
The Path to Recovery
The months following my burnout helped correct my perception of God. I relearned that God did not need me to “do,” but to just “be” His beloved child (1 John 3:1). After consulting with mentors in church and on campus, I chose to step down from serving in church ministries. That allowed me more time and focus to love and serve God on campus for my season of university life.
I also took the advice of my mentors and set aside time to meet with the Lord, where He patiently reminded me of His grace and mercy. Why was I trying so hard to gain the fleeting approval of man? I have inherent worth. Once on a podcast sermon, I heard a pastor say, “The worth of something is what is paid for it.” I am made in God’s image paid for by the blood of Christ, a massive cost that determines my massive worth in God’s eyes. I am full and complete in Him, so I need not chase after man’s approval!
I am also encouraged by God’s patience with Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, and Jonah in the Bible—all of who faced discouragement and burnout from serving God. Indeed, God loves His children and does not give us tasks to burden us, but to grow our relationship with Him and make us more like Christ. We are not called to be self-sufficient, but to remember that God is sufficient for our every need (2 Corinthians 12:9). God, our Good Shepherd, knows our human frailty and invites us to rest in Him and rely on Him.
Today I have made it a priority to regularly check my heart before God and share my spiritual condition with trusted mentors. This is especially important when I consider a new commitment or reflect on my involvement in church and parachurch ministries. I ask myself: Am I doing this for the Lord or myself? Am I relying on God’s strength or my own? Is this out of a heart of gratitude?
I have learned that joyful, vibrant service comes from a joyful, vibrant relationship with God that has been guarded from weeds of self-sufficiency and well-watered with time spent with God to enjoy Him and His Word. Such service is a choice that comes from loving God in relationship and serving Him simply to say “Thank You!” With what the Lord has given us, let us be thankful, rely on Him, and use it for His glory—so that on that final day we can hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . come and share your master’s happiness (Matthew 25:23)!”