Lessons from the Ashes: What I Learned from Burnout

 
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I burned out. I was juggling the demands of school and the responsibilities of multiple ministries while averaging 15+ hours of drive-time every week. My school professors would urge me to change my schedule after hearing of my unhealthy pace, but I brushed it off; I was convinced they just didn’t understand my hard-working culture. In my mind, this was what it took to prove to God that I loved Him. But after sprinting for so long, my body finally shut down on me. I thought I could cheat the system and function without sleeping, without eating regularly, without resting.. boy was I wrong. After four years of this crazy pace, I burned out hard.

At the lowest point of my burnout, I could barely talk, using hand gestures because speaking drained too much energy. I couldn’t sing for half a year. Every day felt like a bottomless pit of chronic anxiety attacks and bouts of depression. I thought I was permanently done for. I feared I would never preach again, never fully regain my laughter or confidence, and I wondered if God would ever use me again. By the grace of God though, He led me to recovery through the patient counsel of godly mentors and a year-long sabbatical. In hindsight, burnout was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it taught me invaluable lessons I’d rather learn now than later.

Here’s what I learned:

Know your limitations

When I came to the end of my rope, I finally came to terms with my humanity. I thought faith meant pushing myself to unhealthy degrees, defying the warning signs of body and soul. Though the Spirit of an infinite God lives inside me, I am a mere human vessel. I need a healthy amount of sleep every night to function properly. I’m not immune to pain or hardship, God alone is omniscient and omnipotent.. God used burnout as the most humbling but beautiful reminder of that truth. He allowed me to finally let God be God and accept the grace to be human. I stopped punishing myself for not measuring up to a “perfect” standard Jesus never called me to in the first place. I finally surrendered my weaknesses to Him and gave Him my shortcomings, knowing His grace is enough. I found freedom when I acknowledged that He is the one on the throne, that it’s okay to be in need of Him!

Find your identity in God alone

When I was so drained that I could no longer lead, and had no more leadership titles or serving positions, I got stripped down to my core. I had nothing left to offer God except myself. It was there in my barrenness I learned that was more than enough. My ability to produce completely flatlined. But my worth in God’s eyes had not changed. Though people sometimes defined my worth by how well I preached, how many guest speaking engagements I was invited to, how big of a platform I stood on, I learned God only looks at the simple fact that I am His. Unknowingly over the years, I had tried to clothe my low sense of worth with my many titles and positions, but it only intensified my insecurity. I realized the danger of deriving my worth from what I did or what I produced. Finding my value in my performance meant I was applauded by people when I performed well, but rejected when my performance dipped. The solution? To place my identity solely in being a child of my Heavenly Father, who paid a great price to make me His. His love for me never changes or wanes, He alone is my solid foundation.

Honor your boundaries

For the first time in my life, I learned how to say “no.” Prior to burnout, I had a problem of agreeing to everyone’s requests. The core of the issue was a desire to be approved by people, and the fear of disapproval if I didn’t do what people wanted. But what I didn’t realize is that by saying “yes” to everything, I was unintentionally saying “no” to the primary things God called me to. I had limited time and energy to fulfill my calling, but the fear of man kept causing me to say “yes” to convictions that weren’t mine. The result was I tried to do too many things at once, and overworked to compensate for the many demands that never seemed to subside. I let others tell me how I should feel, while ignoring how I truly felt inside. The issue wasn’t with them as much as it was with me: I didn’t know how to honor myself. But when I realized my full acceptance in Christ, it freed me to work FROM a place of approval, and not FOR approval. I finally had the courage to say “no” to the peripheral things so I could say a louder “yes” to the primary things I knew God had called me to. If we want to be emotionally healthy and guard ourselves from burnout, we must honor our boundaries and live to please God, not man.

Rest for His Glory

Perhaps my favorite revelation was learning about God as the Creator of Rest. It’s funny because I used to feel guilty for resting and taking breaks. To me, it wasn’t what “passionate” people did. Rest felt like compromise until I understood it was God’s idea to have a rhythm of rest. An all powerful God rested on the seventh day to model for humanity what a regular rhythm of rest and work looked like. He even commanded rest in the fourth commandment, which is the longest commandment of the ten. Why? Just as a car needs regular oil changes and brake checks, the human body needs regular breaks of rest! If you want to go far and have longevity, you must rest. Our bodies were not designed to sprint the whole marathon. How revolutionary that discovery was for me. Now, once per week, I take a day off to just relax with the people I love and intentionally avoid work. Rest allows me to recharge in the Lord so I can continue to be even more fruitful! Rest allows me to actually enjoy the work I do because I am no longer a slave to my schedule. Rest is a gift from God! He calls us today to rest in Him.

If you’re currently burning out, or are in the deep pit already, be encouraged by this truth: no burnout is too far gone for the grace of God. Even great prophets in the Bible like Elijah experienced burnout but God was faithful to restore. In fact, in many ways, burnout serves to strengthen us and turn us more towards Christ. Today, take intentional steps toward emotional health by accepting your limitations, finding your worth in Christ alone, taking weekly Sabbaths, and living in the freedom of God’s sovereignty.

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Joshua Chun (@joshwchun) is the English Ministry Pastor at San Diego Calvary Korean Church. He received a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Life Pacific College and currently lives in Fullerton, CA. Special thanks to Professor Angie Richey for all the lessons on emotional health.

 
esther chungComment