I recently read a booklet that said spiritual giants of the past lived an average of only 35 years because they burned out for God. The book promoted burnout as a virtue and contrasted it with today’s lack of spiritual zeal. I’m confused over this matter, and also whether laypeople in church are ever justified in taking a break from duties they’ve performed for years.
We also hear about “pastoral burnout.” Is burnout or a break from ministry necessary and Scriptural? Don’t pastors today have or know about adequate spiritual resources to draw from?
The supposition that spiritual giants of the past lived, on average, only to a relatively short age could be challenged, depending on who is included on the roster. But even if data is accurate, variables existed then even as they do today. Some people, perhaps because of their genetics or other factors, live much longer than others, even those who “burn the candle on both ends.” Some people have more rugged constitutions and higher breaking points than others. The unexpected mishaps of life also take their toll. Those who lived before present-day medicine often succumbed at early ages to disease and lack of nourishment.
Even when they burned out simply from sheer exhaustion out of love and zeal for God, variables existed. God must be the judge as to whether any of those saints overdid it in their efforts for the gospel and whether their endeavors were “of God.” No doubt, in many cases, those godly efforts truly should put other believers to shame. But other spiritual giants may be examples for believers to be careful in how they treat the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body. Does a certain word—”balance”— come to your mind at this point? Another important factor is that the Lord “knows our frame” (Psalm 103:14); He doesn’t give us more than we can handle. We often burden ourselves.
Should church people feel free to take breaks from their positions? Certainly, if that is what they know the Lord would have them do. In some cases, a break might be good for both the worker and those he or she ministers to. Even Jesus took periodic rests during His public ministry on earth. Often, however, many people do too little for God. They’re soft and are more willing to cater to their comforts than to expend themselves. They’re willing to let other people do the dirty work.
Regarding pastoral burnout, this problem does exist. Again, we can let only the Lord judge who are being burned out because of their own folly and who are burned out through no particular fault of their own. Both reasons are possible. And, of course, burnout can creep upon any of us without our realizing it. Pastors, missionaries, and others in ministry are flesh and blood just like anyone else. Many factors take their toll: physical problems and needs, lack of dependence upon the Holy Spirit, self-effort, sin in general, lack of preparation, laziness, worrying about what people think, busywork, or mental attitude sins, like bitterness and envy.
Finally, yes, we have adequate resources today because God and His Word never change. But we may be tempted to rely solely upon the resources available in our fast-paced society rather than relying upon the Lord, or to ignore the attributes that make believers strong. If our conditions become worse or if we believe the Lord is tarrying, we may tend to rely even more upon the things of the world, even though we need the Lord all the more. The Bible is filled with instruction concerning peace of mind, encouragement, comfort, health, hope, and waiting upon God for strength. Some people have testified that by simply reading and digesting the Bible, even if the portion doesn’t directly relate to the benefits just mentioned, a person will gain the stability he or she needs.
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