Burnout is a big problem. In far too many cases we hear of missionaries who go to the field and then, before long, we learn that they have lost their zeal and came home with deadened souls. Often we get reports about young men and women who graduate from seminaries and, after a few difficult years in parish churches have given up ministry and are disillusioned and emotionally drained. Most of us know social activists who set out with high hopes for making a difference on behalf of the poor and oppressed, only to find that the power brokers who control society’s political and economic structures frustrate their efforts, leaving them hurt and cynical.
Almost all of these good people are victims of burnout. The visions and dreams which once motivated them to attempt great things for God and expect great things for God have died—and, as the Bible says, “Without dreams and visions the people perish.”
When I hear of such cases I am deeply saddened, because I know what could have prevented these good people from becoming burnouts. It’s contemplative praying. If, each day, time had been set aside for the spiritual renewal that contemplative praying can provide, there probably would have been the kind of revitalization of mind and spirit that could have maintained their enthusiasm and commitment to ministry.
In the Bible we read:
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)
That verse pretty much sums up what happens to most people in Christian ministries. They start off flying like eagles. They can hardly wait to start each day and get into the work that God has called them to do. They radiate excitement, and their enthusiasm infects everyone around them. They go forth with the confidence that “if God be for them, who can be against them?” But as the weeks turn into months, and the frustrations they encounter slow them down, that original energy gradually dissipates. When the people they work with only lethargically respond to their efforts and hopes, they lose their joy, and their original dynamism fades. I know, because I have been there and felt that.
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Such good people do not just throw up their hands and quit all of a sudden. As the spirit within them begins to die they may not continue to fly like eagles, but they still are able to run with the work that they believe God has called them to do. They may not become weary with what waits for them to do each day, but they are still trying to be effective and maintain the hope that their labors are not in vain.
Then, however, there is the third stage as cited in the Bible verse. They walk through the motions, and in their weariness try not to faint. Their work becomes routinized and increasingly burdensome. Their ministry becomes a job that is emotionally draining, and they are wondering how long they can stay with it.
There’s good news, however! That verse found in Isaiah 40:31 reminds them that “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” “Waiting upon the Lord” is the medicine that revitalizes and gives back to them the lost excitement. Contemplative praying is the answer! That is what comes from “waiting upon the Lord.”
Let me explain what this means to me. I try to set aside a time each morning to be still with God. This is a time of quiet concentration when I say nothing to God on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is a time when I hear nothing from God. Instead it is simply a time of quietude where I surrender to an infilling of God’s spirit.
It takes me at least fifteen minutes to become inwardly still. I need to “drive back the animals”—the animals being the hundred and one things that come rushing into my consciousness the moment I wake up—all the things that are waiting to be done that day; and all the things that I remember are waiting to be done from the day before. I’m referring to that buzzing in my head that must be hushed in order to create that “still place”, as the ancient Celtic call it, wherein I am only aware of Jesus. I say His name over and over again—because there’s something about that name that pushes away the dark thoughts that too often creep into my mind. And then, just as the verse from Isaiah tells me to do, “I wait!” I wait for His spirit to penetrate my soul and saturate my being.
There’s an old gospel song that expresses what I am talking about. It goes:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow
Strangely dim, in the light
of His glory and grace.
In the morning when I, figuratively speaking, go into a closet and shut the door (i.e. shut out the noises of the world) I wait—silently and surrendered—and the Lord rewards me “openly” with renewal. This, I find to be the antidote to burnout.
I wish I could say that every morning I experience an infilling of the Holy Spirit. It does not happen most mornings. But it happens often enough! I keep doing this spiritual exercise, even if nothing happens for days. And then He surprises me. And then I can say, “Joy comes in the morning.”
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There is no one way to experience that infilling of the spirit that renews the soul. My Pentecostal friends often experience such an infilling when they pray in tongues, “with groaning which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). Other deeply spiritual Christians I know experience an infilling when they celebrate the Eucharist.
When considering the differing ways for becoming spirit–filled, we should remember that when Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit he said, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). I take that to mean that the infilling of the Holy Spirit, wherein renewal comes, cannot be reduced to a single methodology. What I have proposed here is the way that has blessed me and renewed my spirit. But it is by no means the only way.
This article originally appeared at the Contemplative Journal.