Have you ever been seriously burnt out or worried that you might be? This blog contains a simple spiritual key to help protect you.
Burnout can apply at different levels. It can be work or people related. It may emerge in an environment of a rough relationship or a tough job. My main focus in this blog is the kind of burnout that makes you feel that life has been smoked out of you, you have very little or no juice left, and you feel like you can’t pull yourself out from this state.
I’m an 8 on the enneagram so I like hard work, but in my many years of working, the closest I came to burnout was 2019. Upon re-entering the US from 8 months in SE Asia, I was faced with 3 months of heavy grant work for our organization. The following burnout that I almost fell into really caught me by surprise, and I saw how easy it can be to get right up to the slippery edge and not even know it.
In some ways burnout can be defined as a mental/emotional health issue. The lens I would like us to look through, though, is a spiritual one. If you are a follower of Jesus, this perspective can be very helpful. John offers an introduction to it: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God seeks us out first. God loves us first. We are first of all receivers; by faith we receive of all of God’s goodness and love.
Following receiving God’s love, we can also give God’s love as John notes. This love can flow two directions from us. Back to God and out towards others. These two directions of love represent the two sides of the cross: the vertical (God) and horizontal (people).
We often get trapped and burnt out on loving others when we flow our love (help, efforts, etc.) to people instead of through people back to God. If you picture Mother Teressa bandaging a dying child, who is she ministering to? She would say Christ. This is key. When we love people, we alway need to simultaneously see this as an encounter with Christ. In this practice, the flow of love becomes circular and reciprocal.
We are not necessarily receiving love from others but from God and back to God. Receiving love from others is safest in the context of receiving and giving back to God. It is a safeguard that keeps our expectations from constantly getting shorted, or our hearts from chasing solace in human relationship which fail to fill our deep spiritual reservoirs. Both of these relational patterns can cycle us into burnout.
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
It is helpful to apply this idea not just to people but to work we do. Are we doing work as an act of worship? Any love we give to others, any energy we give to things, needs to be an act of worshiping Jesus. As long as it is worshiping love, we can push through the hardships that come. When love in action stops pointing back to Christ (to him be the glory forever) then the circular flow ceases for us, and we become energy channels that begin to run dry.
One thought to clarify for those of you who feel that loving others in order to love God will shortchange those we share love with. I can extend more focused and attentive love to someone else when I experience (by faith or feeling) more of God’s love for me and when I worship God in the act of relationship. Loving people looks like the cross: laying down our agenda’s and hearing God’s agenda of love. This often means hearing others well as a first step.
One other gem on a closing note. This picture of circular love begins to give us a glimpse into the mystery of how God maintains a healthy and beautiful Trinity love within himself. This is worth reflecting on too.
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