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Burn but Never Burn out

During my time studying in the seminary, I once composed a class song called Burning for the Lord. In many activities, my fellow students learned to sing it along. We were young and wholeheartedly devoted ourselves to Christ, eagerly responding to his call. We equipped ourselves with knowledge in the seminary, passionate and willing to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice for the Lord. As the years of service accumulated, however, I have gained more perspective on the burnout that can occur in a life dedicated to serving the Lord. In reality, for those in ministry, reaching a state of exhaustion can be an alarming experience. Sadly, the majority of believers are unaware of the threat it can pose on those who serve, nor do they understand the impact of weariness on pastors and their families.

Photo by Gleb Lukomets on Unsplash

Imagine the daily life of a weary pastor: after experiencing years of serving and pressure, a tired servant gazed out the window with a vacant look. He thought that with limited energy he had to handle countless things: visits, fellowships, Bible study, personal devotions, pray meetings, sermon preparations, church affairs, etc. Each ministry seems to whisper: there are so many things to do. The continuously busy state of serving drained his strength, energy and creativity. It turned out that his zeal for serving became the reason why he felt depleted so quickly.

The wearisome challenges of serving are not exclusive to the pastors today. Even Martin Luther, who lived centuries ago, knew unbearable burdens. Maybe he might not be fully aware of his tiredness, but his propensity for melancholy seemed quite match this state of mind. In the Bible, Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal, but he prayed to God to take his life when he felt extremely exhausted.

If Elijahs experience serves as a reminder, then the work of Nehemiah can offer encouragement. Nehemiah knew that the lack of self-centeredness in a team allowed their wall-building project to be completed with unprecedented speed. In a way, this manifested his organizational capabilities. Without a well-thought-out and effective plan for labor division, he might have burnt himself out faster than an exploding firework.

My prayer is that Nehemiahs approach can help pastors ward off the danger of serving fatigue. Also, pastors shall listen to Pauls exhortations: Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. (Romans 12:11)Paul encouraged us to serve the Lord with fervency and burn for Him, but not to burn ourselves out. As Rev. Eugene Peterson put it, Never burn yourself out; fuel yourself and let yourself burn again.” The phrase “to fuel yourselfreminds me: burning for the Lord should not be like autumn wind that dries wood -- burning down all at once. So how can we burn without not burning ourselves out in order to serve sustainably?

I would like to share a few perceptions of serving from my personal experience.

First and foremost, we need rest. To describe God protecting His people, the poet who wrote Psalms said: He will never let your foot slip -- he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.(Psalms 121:3-4) He will always stay awake. This is a perfect promise. When we act as if we do not need sleep, the poet blamed us: In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat; for he grants sleep to those he loves. (Psalms 127:3)Even if we finish our work and go back home for resting and relaxation, the world still goes on; even if we rest at night, God is still at work. So from this angle, sleep is our trust in God.

Our energy can be depleted, and our bodies fatigued; therefore, sleep is required to recover our vigor and strength. A good sleep is a God-given gift. Sometimes rising up early in the morning is also necessary, but we should avoid following the work pattern of staying up very late and then getting up very early the next morning. Because this way of life reflects an implicit sense of arrogance, our refusal to trust God. Resting is more of a practice of trust, like only living on manna to survive in the wilderness.

Professor Paul Stevens, the author of Seven Days of Faith, once visited South Korea. He noticed a serious common problem among the pastors in that country: fatigue. They got up almost every morning at five or six, or even earlier, to lead a prayer meeting, and then spent the whole day with church activities, meetings and counselling. Stevens saw many of these South Korean pastors snoozing during his lectures, which looked rather embarrassing. Later, he made a great effort to keep the audience awake, especially telling them about the duty of sleep and encouraging them to enjoy it and bless their own sleep.

Gods servants usually have to minister to believers during non-working hours (at nights or on weekends). It is never easy to completely control our rest time, so we cannot ignore the importance of sleep. Like runners who need to rest after a race, we also need a break after a whole days ministry. Give the people and things on our minds to the sleepless God, and then have a good rest.

Next, we need friends. The most encouraging example of friendship in the Bible is between Jonathan and David. When David was in trouble, Jonathan went to help him. ... helped him find strength in God.(1 Samuel 23:16) Such a friendship is very precious, and the value and importance of friendship in serving is never negligible. A young fellow worker once told me that one of the reasons he broke down was the lack of a lasting friendship in ministry. Pastors need spiritual partners or friends keep them company. For those who serve the Lord, sharing weakness with friends can help them pray for and strengthen each other. We are not supposed to go it alone. We need friendship because loners are less likely to serve in a sustainable way.

Last but not least, we need spiritual renewal. It can affect our feelings and lifestyles, bring joy and security and even can be good for restoring our physical health. Things like a quiet moment, a beautiful scenery, moderate exercise, a piece of wonderful music, a good book and a chat, are all good for us. Jesus told the disciples: Come with me by yourself to a quiet place and get some rest.(Luke 6:31) That does not mean that a quiet place will ensure a closer relationship with God, but rather, it will allow us to be spiritually replenished and revitalized. Think about what may drag us down and what can energize us.

Introverts may find spiritual renewal through quiet reading, learning, reflecting, or engaging in meaningful conversations. For others, participating in sports activities revitalizes their energy. Some enjoy leisurely wandering in tranquil art galleries, while some prefer to take slow and serene walks in the woods. It is very essential to know what activities can benefit us.

However, these activities alone are unable to bring us true spiritual renewal. Each one of us needs time communicating with God: to read the Bible and pray, to enjoy solitary worship in Christ, to meditate in His presence, and so forth. Safeguarding these moments is not selfish, just as a firefighter resting for a moment before returning to work is not selfish.

All in all, the emphasis on sleep, friendships, and spiritual renewal does not equal hedonism or selfishness; it is a path that must take to sustainably serve God and others. In the long run, exhausting our God-given bodies too early is no good for ourselves and the church alike.

Author: Guo Wei

Translator: Bei Feng