“Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away…” there was once an enthusiastic college student. As one of the top students in my class, one of the few female Economics majors, and one with an ambition to either attend law school or acquire a PhD, I worked hard and I played hard. I absolutely loved college! I achieved academically, played two varsity sports, held down a part time job, was inducted into numerous honor societies, and by my senior year was president of four organizations. One day, when I was at home, my Dad quietly said to me, “Steph, you know you can’t live your life like this.” Aptly fulfilling my role as the strong-willed child in the family, I looked at him and said, “Watch me!”
Thirty-five years later, I am finally willing to wholeheartedly admit that my Dad was right. (He is now ninety years old and has thankfully lived to see this day!) Without giving it a name, my wise father was trying to spare me from the anguish of burnout. While you can access Google and immediately find countless helpful articles describing the nature of burnout, the psychology of burnout, the causes of burnout, and how to recover from burnout, I prefer to start the discussion with Webster’s Dictionary definition: “The cessation of operation usually of a jet or rocket engine.” That kind of sums it up for me, personally.
About two years ago, I began to realize that my jet engine was starting to sputter. I began to lose emotional, physical, and spiritual altitude. It was insidious at first. Then it became harder to hide. Soon, I began to hide. Eventually—emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted—I was unable to produce a cogent thought or to tolerate a simple request from any human being. I realized that I was in deep trouble. I was experiencing “rock-bottom-shovel-hitting-on-concrete-of-the-soul-ain’t-got-nothing-left” burnout. It was time to land the careening jet plane and spend some time in the hangar before I completely lost control. In God’s kindness to me, it wasn’t a crash landing, but it was a hard landing nonetheless.
As my Dad did, I could try to warn you of the dangers of burnout. If you’re akin to me, however, you probably won’t listen anyway. Instead, I’d like to offer some suggestions to those of you who suspect that you are already losing altitude, or who are attempting the excruciatingly difficult process of recovering from a hard landing, or who love someone who is in one of these places. Here are some self-reflective questions I found essential in my recovery.
- How has God uniquely created me at the core of my temperament?
Psalm 139 tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Do you believe that? Do you believe that God has designed you specifically and uniquely to live for his glory? Or do you have a more “mass manufacturing” view of humanity? How well do you really know yourself? How—at the core of your personality and temperament—are you designed? Upon reflecting on these questions, I realized that in recent years I had increasingly been required—in my work life and my home life—to operate in areas outside of my God-given strengths. This caused me to reevaluate whether my work and my home life needed to be re-ordered and re-balanced.
- How am I experiencing my weaknesses?
All of us would love to work in the areas of our giftedness and avoid the areas of our weaknesses. Even if that were possible, however, our weaknesses are often the “flip sides” of our God-given strengths. We cannot escape them! The very places in our lives where we soar possess the seeds for our destruction as well. For example, passion can be a gift until passion morphs into pushiness because that passion is impatient. Once you’ve owned the ways in which God has uniquely gifted you, take a long hard look at all the ways in which those same gifts predispose you to specific sin patterns in your life. I’m realizing that my giftedness is the gateway to recognizing my deepest flaws as well—and the places in my life where I am most likely to need to engage in confession and repentance and to seek the transforming grace of God through his sanctifying work in me.
- Have I embraced my finiteness?
Even jet engines and rockets can’t fly forever. They weren’t designed to operate indefinitely. Their powers and purposes are limited. The same is true of human beings—our powers and our purposes are limited. In a digital world where we can know about more than we can act on, it can distort our sense of finiteness. Countless causes call our names on social media. Seemingly endless great ideas for life-changing opportunities are only a key stroke away. The effect can be like that of a mind-altering drug that convinces us “Anything is possible!” But is it? In his excellent book, Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch warns of “god-like power without God-like character.” When we—as individuals or a community—fail to embrace our finiteness, we are in a very dangerous place. We will be prone to pursue god-like power without God-like character. I’m realizing I need to regularly own my finiteness before my Creator, so that I might order my life under his saving reign and submit to his transforming work of conforming me to his image.
- Where am I experiencing frustration in my life?
Frustration can have complex roots. Sometimes we experience frustration from fighting our finiteness. Sometimes frustration can come from our unwillingness to be redirected by our loving and sovereign God whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Sometimes we experience frustration from living with the realities of a fallen world. These realties are not just within us but around us. Disability. Aging. Dementia. Cancer. Poverty. Natural disasters. Financial crises. And the list goes on and on and on. There are times in life when experiences with frustration can be relentless—even when we have done our best to operate within the framework of our finiteness and to tune our hearts to the good purposes of our Heavenly Father. But sometimes frustration can also occur from unmet expectations. Expectations are sneaky things. We put them on ourselves. And we, regrettably, often put them on others. If you’re experiencing a lot of frustration in your life, you might want to consider conducting an “expectations inventory.” Where are you feeling the weight of self-expectations or the (often unspoken) expectations of others? As a friend of mine once told me, “You serve an Audience of One.” The freeing beauty of the gospel is that, on my own, I cannot possibly meet the righteous expectations of my Audience of One—and yet ALL those expectations have been perfectly met in Christ. I’m learning to see frustration as an opportunity for me to closely examine and evaluate its sources, while turning to Jesus who has fulfilled every expectation that matters.
- What is my fuel source?
Jet engines cannot fly without adequate fuel. For human beings, self-care is an important source of fuel that helps us to avoid burnout. But the type of fuel we use is also equally important. My fuel source was one of my earliest warning signs and—one of the most dangerous elements of my burnout. My “love language” according to Gary Smalley’s The Five Love Languages is “words of affirmation.” I have the spiritual gift of encouragement and I am easily encouraged by others when an uplifting comment or an affirming word is personally directed to me. Somewhere along the line though, I found myself not only valuing affirmation but seeking it. It was beginning to have an addictive power over me. With enough positive feedback at my last speaking event or enough “likes” on my Facebook posts I could find the emotional boost to tackle the next task. The problem was, I had a job that was very public which meant I felt like an “affirmation-aholic” with an “affirmation bar” located at every corner of my work. I knew I needed to get off the grid and take time off from my job to emotionally and spiritually “detox.” In doing so I have found my true fuel source once again—the unconditional, lavish love of God in my life. It is utterly freeing and incredibly more productive than any self-centered fuel source could ever be.
Whether you are in burnout, on the verge of burnout, or love someone who is careening towards burnout, there is hope. Our Creator God uniquely designed us for his glory. He knows not only our strengths but our weaknesses as well. He is not surprised by our finiteness, even when we are. The only expectations that ultimately matter are the expectations of the Triune God—and, for the believer, they have all been met in Christ. And we find amazing freedom and new energy when we find our fuel source in the endless supply of his love for us. I can’t live a life like this on my own. But I can in Christ, through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
Steph served as Director of Mission to North America’s (MNA) Special Needs Ministries from 2007 to 2016. She continues to work for MNA Special Needs Ministries as a Consultant and also serves on the Lancaster Christian Council on Disability (LCCD). Steph is the author of Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability and All Things Possible: Calling Your Church Leadership to Disability Ministry. She has been published in ByFaith magazine, Focus on the Family magazine, and Breakpoint online magazine and has produced a Christian Education DVD series based on Same Lake, Different Boat. Steph and her husband, Fred, have been married for 33 years. They have two deeply loved adult sons: Fred and Tim, the younger of whom has Down syndrome.