How a Biblical Eschatology Protects Against Pastoral Burnout

Article
07.17.2018

Pastoring sometimes feels like you’re riding an emotional roller coaster full of ups and downs, twists and turns. Day after day, you watch people you love make decisions that bring you joy and make you cry—sometimes in the same day. Anxiety increases as you hear the clack, clack, clack dragging you slowly up the peak of conflict only to be pushed over the top into the free-fall of relational chaos, knowing only that a sharp turn is just ahead. No one blames you if you feel overwhelmed and want to get off the ride. You’re not alone.

If we’re to endure faithfully in pastoral ministry, we need to remember that we’re leading the church in a time of tension—between the already and the not-yet. We’re called to shepherd the flock of God among us to the celestial city, laboring to point them to Christ and his glorious promises and warning them of the dangers of this present evil world, the temptations of our flesh, and the schemes of the Devil. If we’re to do this well, we must understand what Christ has gained for us already in these last days and what we have yet to gain on the Last Day. When we fail to recognize this tension, we’ll punch our ticket to the emotional roller coaster of pastoral ministry—a ride that often leads to disappointment, discouragement, and perhaps even pastoral burnout.

THE DANGERS OF AN UNDER-REALIZED ESCHATOLOGY

When we don’t appreciate what Christ has accomplished for us, when we don’t account for what’s already ours through our union with him, [1] we’ll be tempted toward pessimistic defeatism. Imagine doubting God’s forgiveness or questioning your standing before God. Such a perspective will eventually lead to despair as you’re left to your own devices to try and earn acceptance before God. It will be difficult—nearly impossible—to lead a church while dealing with such nagging doubts. Rather than run to Christ and rest in what he has accomplished, you may be tempted to leave the ministry altogether.

But I suspect the majority of us who continue in pastoral ministry have learned to preach the gospel to ourselves. We may not doubt our standing before God, but if we tend toward pessimistic defeatism, we may functionally doubt others’ standing before God. Just think about how this under-realized eschatology might affect your ministry:

  • Culture: Are you tempted to view this world as so irredeemable that you don’t associate with unbelievers? Are you tempted to believe that things are so bad “out there” that you should avoid it altogether and encourage your church to do likewise?
  • Evangelism: Do you view some unbelievers as beyond the grace of God? Are there unbelievers in your life that you’re convinced will never come to Christ, causing you to think, “Why even try?”
  • Discipleship: Are you so frustrated with church members who seem to struggle with the same sins again and again that you’re ready to give up on them?
  • Preaching: Have you come to the place where you feel it doesn’t matter how much you prepare or how faithfully you preach because it won’t hardly make a difference?
  • Leadership: Have you thrown in the towel in trying to raise up leaders in the church because you believe no one will rise to the biblical standards?

It’s no shock that such pessimistic defeatism will lead to burn out. When we don’t rest in the work that Christ has accomplished for us and for our people, we’ll be tempted to step into his sandals and rescue people ourselves. We’ll be tempted to think it’s finally up to us to change the culture; to convince unbelievers into the kingdom; to work out our people’s sanctification; to preach sermons that transform lives; to raise up biblical leaders.

But it’s not. We’re not the Savior of the world, and we’re not the Sanctifier of the Church. If an under-realized eschatology ever causes us to forget this, then burnout is inevitable.

THE DANGERS OF AN OVER-REALIZED ESCHATOLOGY

On the other hand, if we mistakenly believe that Christ’s finished work guarantees for us now promises that won’t be fulfilled until the consummation of all things,[2] then we’ll be tempted toward overly optimistic triumphalism. While we may not actually believe this world is fully restored and the saints are fully sanctified, we may functionally hold to a sort of prosperity theology in which we expect a substantial down payment on our future inheritance now. This inevitably leads to disappointment and doubt when Christ doesn’t deliver what we mistakenly expect of him.

Think also about how an over-realized eschatology affects our ministry:

  • Culture: Do you believe that because Jesus is King (Ephesians 1:19–23), we can go into our communities and redeem the culture so that we can cultivate a slice of heaven here on earth?
  • Evangelism: Are you under the impression that because in this new age sower and reaper are working together (John 4:35–38), that you should expect to experience a fruitful evangelistic ministry in your church?
  • Discipleship: Do you expect that because we all have the Spirit that all your church will equally love God’s Word, one another, and you? Do you think that because we’re all to be maturing in Christ, your church will never face conflict?
  • Preaching: Have you become convinced that because God promises that his Word will never return empty that every sermon you preach will have lasting impact on your congregation?
  • Leadership: Are you expecting every man who desires to be an elder to be qualified to serve such that you don’t need to put processes in place to raise up leaders?

Surprisingly, even optimistic triumphalism will also lead to burn out. Why? Because when we assume we have more of the future blessings now than we really do, we set ourselves up for disappointment and discouragement. And disappointment and discouragement lead toward doubt and eventual burnout.

So, where do we go from here?

KEEP THE TENSION

If we’re to keep the tension between the already and the not-yet, then we must renew our minds and root our thinking in the gospel. In his first letter, Peter reminds the defeated Christians in Asia Minor that, because of Christ’s work (1:2), they already possess a future inheritance that awaits them at the consummation (1:3–4). Already, he writes, these Christians are living in a privileged time, the age of salvation the prophets longed to see (1:10–12). But until the consummation, he assures them that they will face suffering that God will use to strengthen their faith (1:5–9).

So with a right perspective, the suffering Christians in Asia Minor can live amid suffering by looking forward to the blessings that await them in the final salvation.

As for the triumphalistic Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:8–13), Paul admonishes them as his beloved children (4:14), exposing their spiritual immaturity (3:1–4) and calling them to love one another (13:1–13). Like Peter, Paul also grounds the Corinthians’ identity and standing in Christ. Because of Christ’s work, they’re no longer what they used to be. So, by faith, they are to live as those who have been washed, sanctified, and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11).

CONCLUSION

It’s true that sometimes pastoral ministry feels like an emotional roller coaster ride and we’re just hanging on for dear life. But it’s also true that sometimes the reason for that feeling is confused expectations that lead to an inability to live by faith in the tension of the already and the not-yet.

Instead, we should consider the Christian life a journey. Jesus has already blazed the trail for us; he’s reached the final destination (Hebrews 12:2). We’ve not yet arrived, but Christ has given us everything we need. Let us, then, fix our eyes on Jesus and run the race that he set before us (Hebrews 12:1), knowing that as we follow in his steps, we’re not only following him into suffering, shame, and death, but also into victory, glory, and eternal life.


[1] D. A. Carson, “Partakers of the Age to Come,” 89-106, in These Last Days: A Christian View of History, edited by Richard D. Phillips and Gabriel N. E. Fluhrer (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 91.

[2] Ibid.