Avoiding burnout pt. 1 (or, how to give God glory through work and leisure)

We’ve just returned from a lovely week in the Republic of Ireland at a conference with brothers and sisters in the Lord. It was a  busy time, but refreshing and joyful. It was a little taste of Heaven, in fact. Not least because no-one was sick while I was providing medical cover on the Friday!
As part of the conference, I was asked to present a seminar on how to avoid burnout. I’ve reshaped this into a blog post. Perhaps it might be useful, if you can take time out from your hectic schedule to read it…
When I was asked to speak about avoiding burnout, I knew they had come to the right person, because I’ve been trying to avoid burnout for years! I’ve been circling that plughole for a long time, and I’ve done a lot of stupid things and made a lot of crazy decisions that have hindered my progress to stress free life! But in all seriousness, I’m well placed to comment on burnout, because I see people every day of the week who are suffering, or who have suffered from this thing called burnout.
We have a busy life, my family and I; but it’s been busier, and we’ve got a lot to be thankful for, God has been very good to us. But at times, we can feel that we are hitting the buffers – there’s too much to do, there’s no time, we’re tired out, we’re fed up, we can’t see beyond tomorrow because we’re so stressed. I bet everyone feels like that at sometime, don’t you? It’s called life! Normal, everyday struggles, everyday stresses and demands, punctuated by times of rest, times of pleasure and refreshment. This is human existence after the Fall. But what’s different about the people who come through my door looking for help?
They can’t go on. They are empty, they have nothing left. They are burnt out, or burning out.
But what is this burnout thing? It’s one of those fashionable terms which we hear about which explains our experience so well. It’s like a candle being burnt down to a stump – there’s no wick left, just a disordered mass of melted wax with a smouldering end flickering in the midst of it. There’s precious little light coming from it, and it’s not really of much use. As a person in the midst of burnout, that’s how you feel – weak, tired, dark, and at an end of yourself. Burnout isn’t a medical term, but it’s useful word to help us understand what happens whenever someone is emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted. It’s not a happy place to be in.
So, how do you avoid burnout?
But I want to reframe things a bit – I want to take a step back and try to give us a different perspective on our lives, on our existence, which hopefully some of you might find helpful. You see, if our aim is to avoid burnout, then we are already too late. I have an interest in Type 2 Diabetes in medical practice, and what’s topical at the moment is trying to identify people who are at risk of developing diabetes – and we give these people the term ‘pre-diabetes‘. The research evidence suggests that, if we make certain interventions to a person’s lifestyle at this stage, then they are less likely to develop diabetes. It’s a good idea – catch people before they develop diabetes, and we’re going to make people healthier. But the problem with this approach is that we are already too late. Having pre-diabetes is to already have some of the problems that are going to lead on to diabetes – being overweight, having a poor diet, leading a sedentary lifestyle, taking certain medications. Wouldn’t it be far better to re-orientate peoples’ lives many months and years before they even got to that stage? That’s a job for the policy makers and the public health experts!
So if you’re reading this today to try and understand how you might avoid burnout, then I’m sorry, you may already be too late! You may already be subject to the risks and patterns of behaviour which are making you much more likely to develop burnout! You have, if you like, pre-burnout. But all hope is not lost!
So let’s reframe things. Rather than how to avoid burnout, what I’d like to look at is how to achieve a properly ordered view of work and leisure.
I’ve found from my experience working with people in this situation, and from what I’ve read that burnout is often a problem with a disordered view of work and leisure.
We need to start by considering God’s original plan for humanity when it comes work and leisure, in order to see how this has changed after the Fall, to see how it may become disordered, and in order to see how we might restore a proper understanding of work and leisure for ourselves today.
Do you ever find yourself getting angry at Adam? He had one job to do, one job! And he messed up. But what was the reason that God created Adam and Eve and placed them in Eden? Let’s look at Genesis 1:26-28 to remind ourselves of that commission that God gave to mankind, what role he gave us back at the start.
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.””
There is so much in this passage about what it means to be a human, what it means to be made in God’s image, what our relationship to God and to the rest of Creation should be; but I want to focus on the charge given to man:
  • To have dominion over animals
  • To be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and again have dominion.
In this passage humanity is given the status as rulers over creation, tasked with filling the world with God’s image bearers, and subduing it; and that means to bring something into submission, to control it and tame it, the way you might train a wild horse. The workings out of this creation mandate would fill many books and lectures, but it’s enough to know today that God put Adam and Eve in Eden to work, and to be productive, and to bring order.
But God puts limits on this work as well – he doesn’t expect Adam and Eve to be mere automatons, constantly working, working, working. And He does this through two ways:
Firstly, he creates a day/night cycle. I don’t want to pretend to be an English scholar, but the best description of this that I find is in book IV of Milton’s poem Paradise Lost:
“When Adam thus to Eve: Fair Consort, th’ hour 
Of night, and all things now retir’d to rest
Mind us of like repose, since God hath set
Labour and rest, as day and night to men
Successive, and the timely dew of sleep
Now falling with soft slumbrous weight inclines 
Our eye-lids; other Creatures all day long
Rove idle unimploid, and less need rest;
Man hath his daily work of body or mind
Appointed, which declares his Dignitie”
Night-time comes as a welcome break for mankind from labour, as a natural reward for the work of the day ordained by God.
Secondly God limits human work through the creation of a rest day, a seventh day or a Sabbath.
“And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” Gen 2:2ff
So, as well as a day/night cycle, God instituted a cycle of 6 days work and 1 day rest. And the Sabbath day is different from the rest, because God blessed it and made it holy, and the reason given is that God rest from all of his work. The pattern that is emerging is that the 6 days of work are good, very good in fact, but that that seventh day is blessed and holy. That’s interesting – we’ll come back to that later.
Sadly, we all know what happens next – Adam and Eve sin, and all of creation is cursed by God, profoundly and permanently. And this curse also extends to the nature of work as Genesis 3:17-19 tells us:
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread”
The commission to work, and the day/night and 7 day cycles do not change, but now we have these complicating factors – work will no longer be delightful and automatically fruitful – it will be a chore – it will be painful, nature will conspire against us, and rather than going around picking delicious fruit from low hanging branches, we will now have to sweat and bleed and fight for our daily bread. And that is the world in which we live, more or less. The work may look a bit different, the stresses and the strains may be of a different nature, but the basic facts remain – we are called to work, but the work is difficult and tiring; we are made in God’s image, but we will return to dust; God has given us natural cycles of work and rest, but in our arrogance and because of the arrogance of others, we decline to use them.
Ok, so far so good; we’ve looked at what work and leisure looked like before the Fall, and then after the Fall. We need to consider briefly what they look like since Christ as risen – what do work and leisure look like for the Christian?
Not surprisingly, little has changed – we see Jesus himself referred to as a carpenter in Mark 6:3, and it’s likely that he would have had calloused, scarred hands from difficult work – he was doing what Adam had been told to do – subduing creation – taking wood from trees, shaping it into orderly domestic and farming items; painful work, heavy work – anyone who’s ever had a skelf will tell you that; anyone who’s ever had a saw catch a knot in a piece of wood will tell you that. And Jesus surrounded himself with men who were workers – ok, he called them out of those jobs, but that’s a discussion for another day about the nature of ministry!
We see Paul supporting himself in ministry through working as a tentmaker, and he has wise words to say to us when it comes to work; he speaks about the redemptive nature of work in Ephesians 4:28
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”,
and he brings us back to the creation mandate in Genesis when he tells us in Colossians 3:23 “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men”. And he gives us a noble aspiration when it comes to work in 1 Thess 4:11
“Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no-one”.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
And what about rest, then? I can’t find much in the New Testament speaking about rest and sleep in the here and now, so it’s safe to assume that the directions of the psalmist in Psalm 127:2 still stand –
“it is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to beloved sleep”.
What the NT does talk about, and look towards is a time of permanent Sabbath rest – and if we have time, we can look at that later.
So how does this help us prevent burnout? Check out part 2!

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