Antidote Against Burnout

Joonas Laajanen

Originally published in Banner of Truth Magazine, June 2023

Every year thousands upon thousands of ministers give up on the ministry due to burnout. This article seeks to offer an experiential and biblical assessment of the main cause of burnout and the primary remedies to avoid it.

All who have spent any meaningful amount of time reading missionary biographies will know that mission work is hard from beginning to end in some form or another. The same can be said of pastoral ministry. The reason for this is on the one hand that the world, the flesh, and the Devil don’t want the Gospel to advance, and on the other hand, Christ does not want his representatives to be alien to the sufferings he faced.

Ministers are a specific target of the Devil: kill them and you kill much of the work of the Gospel. These attacks come in many forms but perhaps the most relatable are slander, defamation, gossip, and prejudice. Paul faced this as he wrote Second Corinthians. Many had attacked his character and their assault was effective: “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us.” (2 Cor. 6:12). This letter was inspired by God for the edification, knowledge, and comfort of all ministers, and we should take careful heed of it.

Understanding the Suffering

Paul knew that his sufferings (2 Cor. 4:7-12; 6:4-10) were from the world, the flesh, and the Devil but his hope was in the perfect providence of God. Paul saw his trials as the very sufferings of Christ: “For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.” (2 Cor. 1:5). The Lord Jesus Christ was sought to be destroyed from the womb to his death on the cross. He faced vile accusations, resistance, unbelief, betrayal, loneliness, physical violence, and ultimately, death. Paul had made peace with the fact that in the wisdom of God, he would face the same. He had commanded that he should not be troubled, but in vain (Gal. 6:17). His last moments were an ample sign to his enemies that he was a fraud. Why would God let him be deserted at his greatest need (2 Tim. 4:10)? Why would someone do him “great harm”? (4:14). Why would no one be willing to stand up for him and take his side? (4:16). We have the answer in the Scripture already quoted: Ministers receive the sufferings of Christ in abundance and there is no promise that these will ever cease in this life.

I must admit that I was very naive about this reality at the beginning of our mission work. Maybe you are feeling shocked about the hardships that seem to have no end. As I look at the Scriptures, I’m learning to come to terms with the reality that this may very well be the essence of pastoral ministry: to receive the sufferings of Christ to the very end. It is scary but at the same time, there is sufficient grace and comfort available.

The Real Reason for Burnout

We often say and sing that Christ is worthy. But what does this look like in pastoral ministry? I am convinced that it means perseverance. Demas deserted Paul and left the faith because he never really grasped this. I believe that the primary cause of burnout is a problem of the heart. Yes, anyone who does ministry in the way Christ appointed will have the perfect excuse to quit. Everyone has their limit and you can only take so much, right? Maybe you are thinking, “The slander, unreasonableness, and ingratitude were too much.” I am no stranger to these thoughts. I am not better than anyone else in the ministry. But behind these words, what are we really saying? We say that Christ was not worthy of our pain. This is how someone who never should have entered the ministry will persist in thinking. The Bible promises that the work of the Gospel will be painful. What grounds do we have to expect something else? Seminaries and local churches should prepare men and their wives to embrace this reality making sure they do not expect glory, success, applause, or appreciation.

The Remedies

We know that life built on the sufficiency of Christ is a necessary qualification for pastoral ministry. Paul endured real pain because Christ was worth it. In his weakness he was strong. The Lord stood by him when no one else would. We must look to him and go to him. But Paul didn’t hide his pain. He didn’t just cry in the prayer closet. He wasn’t super-human. He didn’t act like a stoic, pretending that everything was all right and that he could make it without others. Paul asked for prayers in so many instances that it is good to pause and reflect on whether our ministry is patterned after him (Col. 4:2; Rom. 15:30; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1; Eph. 6:19). Do we ask for prayers? Do we have a fellowship of intercession? Charles Spurgeon said that the reason for his success was the prayers of his people.

Prayer should not however be seen as a solution to remove suffering. The Bible does not give us the right to pray against the providence of God. As John Flavel wrote, “Complain to God you may but complain about God you may not.” We can’t pray against receiving the sufferings of Christ. These sufferings are God’s means of sanctification in making us like Christ (Rom. 5:3-5). What kind of prayer should we then utter against burnout? The answer is hard to apply but biblically quite simple, “Help me to see Christ as worthy, to see my sufferings as his sufferings, a blessed gift from Heaven to have a small taste of the pain he endured for me because he loved me. Let me not look at the pain of the Son of God on the cross and then say to my soul that he is not worthy of mine.”

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