Psychiatrist Robert Coles once noticed a pattern in those who burn out while serving others. The first warning sign is weariness. Next comes cynicism about things ever improving, then bitterness, despair, depression, and finally burnout.
After writing a book about recovering from broken dreams, I once entered a busy season of conference speaking. Helping people find hope after disappointment was richly rewarding, but came at a cost. One day, about to step on stage, I thought I was going to faint. I hadn’t slept well, a vacation hadn’t fixed my weariness, and the thought of hearing another person’s problems afterward filled me with dread. I was following Coles’ pattern.
Scripture gives two strategies for beating burnout. In Isaiah 40, the weary soul is renewed when it hopes in the Lord (vv. 29–31). I needed to rest in God, trusting Him to work, rather than pushing on in my own dwindling strength. And Psalm 103 says God renews us by satisfying our desires with good things (v. 5). While this includes forgiveness and redemption (vv. 3–4), provisions of joy and play come from Him too. When I reworked my schedule to include more prayer, rest, and hobbies like photography, I began to feel healthy again.
Burnout begins with weariness. Let’s stop it going further. We will serve others best when our lives include both worship and rest.
In 2012, Phillips, Craig and Dean released their song “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again.” It was inspired by the true story of a heart surgeon. After removing a patient’s heart to repair it, the surgeon returned it into the chest and began gently massaging it back to life. But the heart wouldn’t restart. More intense measures followed, but the heart still wouldn’t beat. Finally, the surgeon knelt next to the unconscious patient and spoke to her: “Miss Johnson,” he said, “this is your surgeon. The operation went perfectly. Your heart has been repaired. Now tell your heart to beat again.” Her heart began to beat.
The idea that we could tell our physical heart to do something might seem strange, but it has spiritual parallels. “Why, my soul, are you downcast?” the psalmist says to himself. “Put your hope in God” (Psalm 42:5). “Return to your rest, my soul,” says another, “for the
Our capable Surgeon has mended our heart (Psalm 103:3). So, when fear, depression, or condemnation come, perhaps we too should address our souls and say: March on! Be strong! Feeble heart, beat again.
In a recent film, a self-proclaimed “genius” rants to the camera about the world’s “horror, corruption, ignorance, and poverty,” declaring life to be godless and absurd. While such thinking isn’t unusual in many modern film scripts, what’s interesting is where it leads. In the end, the lead character turns to the audience and implores us to do whatever it takes to find a little happiness. For him, this includes leaving traditional morality behind.
But will “do whatever” work? Facing his own despair at life’s horrors, the Old Testament writer of Ecclesiastes gave it a try long ago, searching for happiness through pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10), grand work projects (vv. 4–6), riches (vv. 7–9), and philosophical inquiry (vv. 12–16). And his assessment? “All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (v. 17). None of these things is immune to death, disaster, or injustice (5:13–17).
Only one thing brings the writer of Ecclesiastes back from despair. Despite life’s trials, we can find fulfillment when God is part of our living and working: “for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (2:24–25). Life will at times feel meaningless, but “remember your Creator” (12:1). Don’t exhaust yourself trying to figure life out, but “fear God and obey his commandments” (v. 13).
Without God as our center, life’s pleasures and sorrows lead only to disillusionment.
When knife crime rose across the United Kingdom, the British Ironwork Centre came up with an idea. Working with local police forces, the Centre built and placed 200 deposit boxes around the country and ran an amnesty campaign. One hundred thousand knives were anonymously surrendered, some still with blood on their blades. These were then shipped to artist Alfie Bradley, who blunted them, inscribed some with the names of young knife-crime victims, plus messages of regret from ex-offenders. All 100,000 weapons were then welded together to create the Knife Angel—a 27-foot-high angelic sculpture with shimmering steel wings.
When I stood before the Knife Angel I wondered how many thousands of wounds had been prevented by its existence. I thought too of Isaiah’s vision of the new heavens and earth (Isaiah 65:17), a place where children won’t die young (v. 20) or grow up in crime-breeding poverty (vv. 22–23), a place where knife crime is no more because all swords have been reshaped and given more creative purposes (2:4).
That new world isn’t yet here, but we are to pray and serve until its arrival (Matthew 6:10). In its own way, the Knife Angel gives us a glimpse of God’s promised future. Swords become plow shares. Weapons become artworks. What other redemptive projects can we conjure up to glimpse that future a little more?
Each day at a post office in Jerusalem, workers sort through piles of undeliverable letters in an attempt to guide each to its recipient. Many end up in a specially marked box titled “Letters to God.”
About a thousand such letters reach Jerusalem each year, addressed simply to God or Jesus. Puzzled by what to do with them, one worker began taking the letters to Jerusalem’s Western Wall to have them placed between its stone blocks with other written prayers. Most of the letters ask for a job, a spouse, or good health. Some request forgiveness, others just offer thanks. One man asked God if his deceased wife could appear in his dreams because he longed to see her again. Each sender believed God would listen, if only He could be reached.
The Israelites learned much as they journeyed through the wilderness. One lesson was that their God wasn’t like the other gods known at the time—distant, deaf, geographically bound, reached only by lengthy pilgrimage or international mail. No, “the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him” (Deuteronomy 4:7). What other people could claim that? This was revolutionary news!
God doesn’t live in Jerusalem. He’s close by us, wherever we are. Some still need to discover this radical truth. If only each of those letters could be sent the reply: God is right beside you. Just talk to Him.
A mother and her young daughter are sitting in church one day. During the service, opportunity is given for people to publicly receive God’s forgiveness. Every time someone walks forward to do so, the little girl begins to clap. “I’m so sorry,” the mother later tells the church leader. “I explained to my daughter that repentance makes us friends with God again, and she just wanted to cheer for everyone.”
Simplified for a child’s mind, the mother’s words were a good explanation of the gospel. Once God’s enemies, we have been reconciled to God through Jesus’s death and resurrection (Romans 5:9–10). Now we’re indeed God’s friends. Since we were the ones to break the friendship (v. 8), repentance is our part in completing the restoration process. And the little girl’s response couldn’t have been more appropriate. Since all heaven claps when just one person repents (Luke 15:10), she was unknowingly echoing its applause.
Jesus described His reconciling work in similar terms. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). As a result of this sacrificial act of friendship toward us, we can now be friends with him. “I no longer call you servants . . . . Instead, I have called you friends” (15:15).
Once God’s enemies, we are now God’s friends. It’s an overwhelming thought.
And one worth clapping about.
In 1985 Anthony Ray Hinton was charged with the murders of two restaurant managers. It was a set up—he’d been miles away when the crimes happened—but he was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the trial, Ray forgave those who lied about him, adding that he still had joy despite this injustice. “After my death, I’m going to heaven,” he said. “Where are you going?”
Life on death row was hard for Ray. Prison lights flickered whenever the electric chair was used for others, a grim reminder of what lay ahead. Ray passed a lie detector test but the results were ignored, one of many injustices he faced getting his case reheard.
Finally, on Good Friday 2015, Ray’s conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court. He’d been on death row for nearly thirty years.
Ray Hinton’s life is a testament to the reality of God. Because of his faith in Jesus, Ray had a heavenly hope beyond his trials (1 Peter 1:3–5) and experienced supernatural joy in the face of horrendous injustice (v. 8). “This joy that I have,” Ray said after his release, “they couldn’t ever take that away in prison.” Such joy proved his faith to be genuine (vv. 7–8).
Death row joy? That’s hard to fabricate. It points us to a God who exists even though He’s unseen and who is ready to sustain us in our own ordeals.
I once visited an impoverished neighborhood of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Homes were made of corrugated iron, with electricity wires dangling live above them. There I had the privilege of interviewing families and hearing how churches were helping to combat unemployment, drug use, and crime.
In one alleyway I climbed a rickety ladder to a small room to interview a mother and her son. But just a moment later someone rushed up, saying, “We must leave now.” A machete-wielding gang leader was apparently gathering a mob to ambush us. We left quickly!
We visited a second neighborhood, but there we had no problem. Later I discovered why. As I visited each home, a gang leader stood outside guarding us. It turned out his daughter was being fed and educated by the church, and because Christians were standing by her, he wanted to stand by us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a standard of love that’s beyond comparison. This kind of love embraces not just the “worthy” but the undeserving (Matthew 5:43–45), reaching beyond family and friends to touch those who can’t or won’t love us back (vv. 46–47). This is God-sized love (v. 48)—the kind that blesses everyone.
As Christians in Santo Domingo live out this love, neighborhoods are starting to change. Tough hearts are even warming to their cause. That’s what happens when God-sized love comes to town.
Louise suffers from muscular dystrophy. While trying to exit a train station one day, she found herself facing a large flight of stairs without an elevator or escalator. On the verge of tears, Louise saw a man suddenly appear, pick up her bag, and gently help her up the stairs. When she turned to thank him, he was gone.
Michael was late for a meeting. Already stressed from a relationship breakdown, he started battling London’s traffic only to get a flat tire. As he stood helplessly in the rain, a man stepped out of the crowd, opened the boot (trunk), jacked up the car, and changed the wheel. When Michael turned to thank him, he was gone.
Who were these mysterious helpers? Kind strangers, or something more?
The popular image we have of angels as radiant winged creatures is only half true. While some appear this way (Isaiah 6:2; Matthew 28:3), others come with dusty feet, ready for a meal (Genesis 18:1–5) and easily mistaken for everyday people (Judges 13:16). The writer of Hebrews says that by showing hospitality to strangers, we can entertain angels without realizing it (Hebrews 13:2).
We don’t know if Louise and Michael’s helpers were angels. But according to Scripture, they could have been. Angels are at work right now, helping God’s people (Hebrews 1:14). And they can appear as ordinary as a person on the street.