Burnout, the Gospel, and Laying Your Burden Down

I’ll never forget Easter weekend in 2009—the weekend I realized I was experiencing burnout. I was making a sandwich on Sunday after church, exhausted after weeks of working seemingly nonstop in my job with a Christian ministry. I slept poorly, worked long hours, and barely took any time off. But it was worth it; after all, it was all “for the mission,” y’know?1

But this was my first real weekend in a long time, so long that I didn’t know how long it had been. I didn’t serve anywhere at church. All my work was caught up for the moment. I didn’t have an extracurricular project to do… I was doing this strange thing called “relaxing.” It was great. And then, as I reached for a knife to cut my sandwich, I saw that my hand was shaking. It wouldn’t stop. So, sandwich uncut, I went outside into the backyard and talked to my wife about what was happening. Then I set about researching what could be the problem. Despite the fear that any web search about medical concerns brings, it didn’t appear to be a terminal illness. Instead, the answer seemed to be burnout.

It took me weeks to recover; to not be exhausted all the time. To get out of the habit of doing too much, or at least to not always feel like I had to be doing something at every moment. But you know something? This wasn’t a lesson I had to learn once. It’s one that I’ve had to keep revisiting again and again.

What drives us to burnout?

I’ve read dozens of books and articles on resting well. I am also issues with adrenaline withdrawal. I’ve listened to sermons, watched videos, and heard sermons reminding me of the importance of the work-and-rest rhythm that God created for us to live in, and to enjoy. The rhythm that is for our good and part of His commandments (Gen. 2:2; Ex. 20:8–11; 31:17; Deut. 15:12-14; Heb. 4:4). I remember the many examples of Jesus resting—even during a great storm—and how He is a model of rest for us.

And I make no mistake, I believe it.

But as so many of us involved in any kind of ministry know all too well, whether vocational or volunteer, my life and my beliefs weren’t in line. You’ve probably experienced this too, all too many times. Maybe you’re experiencing it now in this moment.

So what is at the heart of this denial of rest? Why do we keep pushing and pushing ourselves to the edge of burnout or beyond? Why do some of us ruin our entire lives with gross immorality? Well, there are at least a few different issues to consider. For example,

  • Some of us live under the crushing belief that our standing before God is dependent upon our performance and actions
  • Others are, consciously or unconsciously, trying to earn the respect and admiration of others (who, unfortunately for us, don’t really care all that much)
  • Some of us are being taken advantage of by people unwilling to bear their share of the burden of ministry or won’t equip you for the task you’ve been given

And I know this because I’ve experienced all of them (though, Lord willing, I hope I’ve never been guilty of the latter). Fundamentally, all of these are rooted in cultural issues, whether because of our culture has been shaped by bad theology or bad actors (and in many cases, it’s both). Whatever the case, these issues are directly opposed to the gospel, which means their solution can only truly be found in the gospel.

And that’s exactly what Jesus gives us.

Jesus saves us to rest

In Matthew 11, after dealing with doubts and lamenting the faithlessness and unresponsiveness of that present generation, Jesus said this:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30 (CSB)

In speaking of the burden that the religious leaders of His day placed upon weary sinners, Jesus gave us the key to how we can begin to rest. Jesus is the answer. Unlike any other so-called savior—whether another religious figure or ourselves—Jesus does not place a burden upon us that is too great to bear. He does not say to His people, “In order to be my people, you do the following.” That’s not how it works.

Instead, Jesus says, in effect, “I know you’re burdened. I know you’re overwhelmed. I know that your sins and your efforts to justify yourselves are crushing you. Give them to me. I will take them from you, and I will give you rest.”

Discovering—and removing—our burdens that prevents rest

And this is what we need to hear today in our burnout culture. Far too many of us are living with a weight we cannot carry, and were never meant to, especially in seasons of ministry where the needs are so great. So how do we discover and remove the burdens that prevent rest?

  • Pray for God’s help. We may not be able to identify what’s at the heart of our unrest, but God does. Pray and ask Him to help us to see what’s really going on. Why we’re so tired all the time and what needs to be done about it.
  • Tell someone. Many of us suffer in silence when we are overwhelmed. But to begin to face the issues at the heart of our lack of rest, we cannot be silent. We need people around us who can identify our blindspots, pray for us, and challenge us, and encourage us as we pursue rest.
  • Take action. Perhaps protecting yourself from burnout means setting appropriate boundaries, such as taking your email off your phone and having a forced technology fast. Maybe it means confronting a ministry partner (or even a boss) about a tendency to take advantage of others. Or perhaps it’s that we need to repent of the “acceptable” sin of busyness (which is really idolatry in the form of self-salvation or trying to earn the favor of others). And in really extreme cases, it may mean having to quit your ministry role altogether for a season.

Removing the burdens that prevent rest is not easy. Many of us are so conditioned to see it as natural that we don’t even try. But living under the weight of a lack of rest, of trying to meet expectations that can never be met or please those who can never be pleased, is too much for any of us to bear. It’s not what Jesus wants for any of us.

Lay the burden down.

He will give you rest.

Photo by howling red on Unsplash

  1. This article was originally published on gospelproject.com in April 2021.[]

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.