Burnout vs. Belief

Life in 2013 was going great. I was finishing my last semester of seminary and preparing to transition my family to a new way of life in East Asia. I was excited. This was what my wife and I had been moving towards for years, and it was finally happening. We were busy, sure. Our apartment ministry, part-time job, writing papers, selling and packing possessions were all keeping me busy, but I was doing everything I could to finish strong. Until I got into some heavy traffic one morning.

Something happened.

One moment I felt fine, the next my heart was racing. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and tighter feeling sick and trapped in the seat of my truck. The more I tried to figure out what was going on, the more anxious I got. Was I sick? Is this a heart problem? Should I go to the hospital? I soon came to realize that this was a panic attack.

The first time that someone suggested stress related burnout, I brushed it off. I wasn’t stressed. Everything was going great. What I came to learn was that I had crossed some invisible barrier in my head. I had moved from an area of “Optimum Stress” when high pressure equals high performance into an area of “High Stress” producing anxiety and low performance. I had been coping with all of these added responsibilities for months, but they had driven me to the edge. I got to the point where I lacked the mental capacity for additional tasks or stimuli. Driving, standing in a crowd, or even sitting in a movie theater became overwhelming. Every time that I would start to feel my skin crawl, I would have to mentally brace myself until it passed. Every time I would think, “What is going on? Why is this happening?”

What I Knew

I knew Matthew 6:25-34. Jesus had taught me not to be concerned about materials things. I knew that God cared for me and that he would always meet my basic physical needs. My family had experienced this type of faithfulness for years. But no amount of looking at the birds or considering the lilies preserved me from times of crippling anxiety.

I can’t tell you how many times Philippians 4:6–7 came to mind. I wanted to simply not be anxious, pray about it, and have peace. But prayer after prayer during these episodes did not bring me the peace that I needed.

Was it possible that I wasn’t trusting God with the little things in my life? I trusted God with the big things. I knew that He was the one leading my family overseas, and I knew that he would be the one sustaining us there. Why did the Bible’s teachings on anxiety not help my anxiety?

What I Learned 

1. Rest

I came to realize that I wasn’t suffering from a spiritual weakness but a physical one. I had forgotten that I am only human. A little dust made alive by my Creator (Ps. 90:3). When we neglect rest, we neglect a wonderful gift from God.

Psalm 127:2 (HCSB) In vain you get up early and stay up late, working hard to have enough food — yes, He gives sleep to the one He loves.

You have to guard a day for rest. Find a day each week that you can just spend enjoying family and friends.

You have to guard your sleep. Don’t check emails and messages before bed. There is usually nothing you can do before morning except worry anyway.

2. Routine

I found great satisfaction in routine and finishing a task. Taking a few minutes every morning for Bible reading, prayer, and coffee starts the day grounded in the word. Do something that you love to get reenergized. Workout, go for a walk, read a book, or visit a friend. Everyday tasks provide focus and clarity.

Find small things throughout the day that give you a sense of completion. Wash the dishes, cook a meal, or clean out your car. These small tasks have a sense of finality, and they remove a little bit of chaos from your life.

3. Reflection

Talking with my parents and my wife was a great comfort to me. Find someone that you can talk to openly about your anxiety and what’s going on in your life and ministry. Hopefully someone who can relate with your struggle, tell you that you’re not crazy, and can speak gospel truth into your situation.

Spend time each day reflecting on what’s been going on. Keep a journal of your thoughts. Share concerns or thoughts with your spouse or a close friend. Pray over everything together and leave it in God’s hands.

4. Rich Theology

It took me months to get back to a sense of normalcy. But those moments of overwhelming anxiety eventually went away. The biggest thing that helped be get back on track was good theology. The more I awe in God’s grand plan for the world and his control over that plan, the lighter my burden.

Remind yourself that there is one savior of the world, and it’s not you.

Making much of God and little of myself allowed me to properly place myself in the comfort of God’s sovereignty. I had to remind myself every day that God requires faithfulness to the tasks at hand, and he will provide the results for his glory.

If you are struggling with similar burdens, I would encourage you to read Psalm 90 and ask God to teach you to “number your days” (Ps. 90:12). Be satisfied by God’s steadfast love every morning (90:14). Remind yourself that there is one savior of the world, and it’s not you. Yes, you have responsibilities to your family, the church, and the lost, but God is sovereign over all these things. This world of brokenness, sickness, sin, and death will one day be made new. Though he returns man to dust (90:3), he is from everlasting to everlasting (90:2). He will bring everything to completion for his glory. The only thing to be anxious for is Christ’s return.

Psalm 90:12 (HCSB) 12 Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.

Further study: