Running on Empty: Four Ways Christians can Avoid Burnout

Last week, the gas light came on in my car. It was time to fill up. That morning, I had left a bit late and had a meeting, so I was slightly annoyed when the gas was pumping slower than normal. I got about four gallons in and thought to myself, "That will get me far enough." So I took off. I had a couple of places to drive that day and had confirmation class that night as well. As I was driving home from confirmation, ding: the gas-light came on again. Running on empty, after having stopped for gas up that morning.

With the many commitments in our lives, it is easy to find ourselves running on empty, caught in a seemingly constant state of stopping at the gas station, feeling like we don't even have enough time to fill our tanks to the brim. God has many places for each of us to go and many things for us to do. God created us to work in this world; not having enough to do is a problem all of its own. (When there is not enough for us to do in our lives, depression, despair, and meaninglessness can quickly settle in—something worth addressing in another post.) Ecclesiastes 3:13 says, "That everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil—this is God's gift to man." But when we start running on empty, it gets very difficult to take pleasure in what God has given us to do.

Sticking with the metaphor, I have outlined a few ways to combat running on empty in our lives.

1) Refuel: Stop and rest 

It may seem obvious, but sometimes the hardest thing can be to shut off our engines and rest. Stop being productive in any earthly sense. This is the heart of God's Sabbath—the seventh day. We need to cease for the sake of our sanity. We need to be reminded that God is in control, that God runs our lives, that God moves the mountains, that "The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent." I realized the importance of this firsthand recently, struggling to come up with content for various commitments I had before me. I went to the sanctuary of our church, and I told God, "I'm running on empty." I didn't hear God say, "I know," but almost immediately words, thoughts, and ideas came rushing back in. I laughed, because I knew I should have done this two weeks ago: confess my brokenness and wait on the Lord. We need to refuel, and God will fill us up to accomplish His work.

2) Get a bigger tank: Increase your capacity to handle life's difficulties

What God is putting in our paths today is preparing us for bigger things tomorrow. Look at the apostles, for instance. John and James went to Jesus and said they wanted to be his right-hand men. Jesus asked them, "Can you drink the cup I drink?" They impulsively answered, "Yeah!" Jesus tells them they will drink the cup he drinks (i.e., suffering and dying), but it would be later. They weren't crucified side-by-side with Jesus. They both eventually suffered greatly for Jesus and gave their lives for the mission; at the time of their question, though, Jesus was preparing them through his ministry for the time when they would drink from that cup of suffering. Our current situation is preparing us for what is coming further down the road. God is trying to increase our capacity to prepare us for both good and challenging things coming our way next month and next year, all the way until eternity. "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord," an oft-quoted verse goes—a verse that was written to people who lost everything, whom God was preparing for an eternal Promised Land.

3) Get more fuel-efficient: Let go of things outside your control

Worrying sucks up a lot of energy. It takes a lot of our mental space away. Fretting, anxiety, despair all lead to a sense of fatigue and inaction. The only thing worse than worry is senseless worry—worrying about things over which we have no control. If we worry about things we can control, we can at least take charge and change the situation (and that worry/situation might be preparing us for something coming later in our lives!) But when we worry about things outside our control, the worry will never go away. There is nothing we can do to change the situation. We will burn ourselves out, worrying over things outside of our control. And there are so many things outside of our control every day. It isn't a bad thing to acknowledge them, but we should give those things over to God—who is in control of all things. Psalm 37:8 serves as a great reminder for us: "Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil."

4) Carpool: Share life and work with others

God created us for community. It was not good for Adam to be alone (and, no, a pet wasn't enough). God created life to be shared, and if we can allow ourselves to be a passenger sometimes, we'll see that the toll life takes on us decreases dramatically. We need to allow others to help us in our journeys. Are you allowing your spouse to help you with things? Are you inviting your family into your life? Are you teaming up with co-workers to accomplish tasks? Are you partnering with other Christians to serve Jesus and reach the lost with the Gospel? Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, and I bet he was being intentional.

Bruce Hartung, in his book, Building Up the Body of Christ, writes that, in order to burn out, a person must first be on fire. Likewise, in order to be running on empty, a person must first be running. If you're feeling stranded on the side of the road, exhausted, burned out, remember that God has got you moving. God has not abandoned you. God still has important places for you to go. Refuel, get a bigger tank, get more fuel-efficient, carpool, whatever it takes. Ephesians 2 makes it clear: you are God's masterpiece, created in Christ for good works, prepared beforehand, for us to get going on the way. And we'll remember to pay attention for when we are running on empty.

Build Up the Body of Christ

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Ethan Luhman

Ethan Luhman is a pastor in New York, husband of Sherry, and father of three crazy and wonderful boys.

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