Experiencing God's Love: The Cure for Spiritual Burnout (1)
I dare say that all of us, at some time or other in the course of our Christian lives, reach the point at which we feel we can’t go on any farther, any longer. The obligations and responsibilities and duties that lay ahead of us are simply overwhelming. The demands placed on us by work and family and church feel insurmountable and suffocating. The expectations that well-meaning friends put upon us are unrealistic and the burden is simply too much to bear. We feel physically drained, relationally exploited, emotionally exhausted, and spiritually beat up. And the most appealing thought of all is quitting! They call this burnout. And most people face it and feel it at some point in their lives; while a few battle it almost daily.
So what keeps the Christian going? When you feel yourself drowning in what feels like failure, whether it really is or not, or you are frustrated beyond words with people and life and, dare I say it, even God, what keeps your head above water?
Instead of telling you what people often do to cope under such circumstances, let me point you to what the Apostle Paul prays for in 2 Thessalonians 3:5 – “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”
In the preceding verses he has spoken of the inevitable attack of Satan against God’s people as well as the importance of faithfully obeying all that God has commanded. It strikes me that Paul’s prayer here in v. 5 is, at least to some extent, his answer to the question: “How am I going to withstand Satan’s assault? How am I going to find strength to persevere in obedience to what God has called me to do?”
So what is it that Paul prays for? What does he recommend as the cure for potential spiritual burnout? Two things in particular are mentioned and form the heart of his prayer.
(1) He prays that God would enable you and me to experience the reality of his deep and abiding and passionate affection for us as his children. For me personally, nothing recharges my spiritual batteries quite like the profoundly personal and experiential assurance that God really does love me. In the final analysis it doesn’t matter that others may fail me or reject me so long as I can live and breathe in the reality of God’s love.
(2) Paul also prays that we might experience within our hearts the very power that energized and sustained Jesus himself during the course of his earthly ministry. If anyone had a good excuse to quit, it was Jesus. But he didn’t. He remained steadfast and wholly committed to walking out the mission on which his heavenly Father had sent him. There was a power, an energy, a resource of some sort that enabled Jesus to endure and persevere in the worst imaginable circumstances, and Paul is saying in no uncertain terms that it is also available to you and me!
A lot could be said about how to cope with spiritual exhaustion and the pressure of temptation and the demands that people place on us and the sense of overwhelming responsibility that we so often feel. And I’m certainly not suggesting that 2 Thess. 3:5 provides us with a comprehensive approach to the problem. But I can say with absolute confidence that few things, if any, will more readily sustain and strengthen you for all God has called you to do than will the experiential reality of his love for you and the presence in you of the very power that kept Jesus faithful to the calling of God on his life.
So I want to approach this matter by making several observations, some of which are in the form of a question, some are principles, some are exhortations.
But before we go any farther we need to decide what the “love of God” means. That may sound silly to you, but it isn’t. After all, the words “love of God” can mean either our love for God or God’s love for us. So which one is it?
Some argue that Paul is praying that God would direct or lead us into loving God more. And, of course, that would be a perfectly legitimate prayer request! Yes, we need to love God more and we need God’s help to make it happen. But I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here. Here’s why.
First, the phrase Paul uses here is found often in his writings and always, without exception, refers to God’s love for us (see Romans 5:5,8; 8:39; 2 Cor. 13:13). Second, our love for God is often weak and fitful and inconsistent. How could the responsibility of loving God more be the encouragement and strengthening I need when in fact it is one of those very things that I feel discouraged for having failed to achieve? In other words, one reason I get spiritually exhausted and frustrated is that I don’t love God the way I know I should. Third, we should probably interpret the love of God in the same way we do the steadfastness of Christ. Since this phrase obviously refers to the steadfastness or endurance or faithfulness that characterized Christ or that comes from him, the love of God likewise would refer to the love or affection that characterizes God and comes from him as well.
Therefore, I’m convinced that what Paul is praying for is that God would act in such a way that we are able to feel and experience and be refreshed by the love he has for us and to be energized by the spiritual energy and commitment that Jesus himself experienced during his earthly life.
To be continued . . .