Waiting On the Lord to Renew Our Strength: Reflections on Pastoral Burnout
But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31
We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. 2 Corinthians 1:8–9
What we call “burnout” is the experience of such profound depletion that our usual capacities for resilience, for springing back, for staying steady and confident and perseverant are no longer enough. Burnout means something way down deep just collapses, and we can’t keep going. We pastors understand burnout, and not only in the lives of others, but in our own.
How does the Bible address burnout?
Isaiah 40:31 promises us the sustaining power of God. But Isaiah 40:31 was never intended to describe our lives down at the granular level of every moment. It was always intended to assure us of the overall trajectory of our lives. Verse 30, just before it, describes the exhaustion of the strong:
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted.
Obviously, that verse is not saying that young people experience nothing but weariness and exhaustion. It’s saying that, despite their boundless vigor, even they will, at times along the way, collapse from exhaustion. It’s a general point, and it’s unarguably true.
Verse 31 does the same, but from the other perspective. Those who wait on the Lord will become, despite their weakness, living proof of his amazing power to sustain and renew. But we’re given no guarantee that those who wait on him (verse 31) will not also experience burnout (verse 30).
We have every right to include in our paradigm of normative Christian experience both the sustaining power of the Lord as our overall narrative and the crippling experience of occasional burnout.
Another verse, 2 Corinthians 1:8–9, fits meaningfully within the larger framework of assurance in Isaiah 40:31. Indeed, Paul’s suffering makes that assurance all the more meaningful. Paul wasn’t running from the Lord or even neglecting the Lord. He was having his daily devotions, living by faith, and so forth. But even this faithful pastor hit the wall of limitation and defeat.
BURNOUT AND THE POWER OF GOD
And so it is today. Faithful pastors can be laid low by the intensities of ministry, such that they give up on life itself. And those downcast pastors are the very ones who, as they wait on the Lord, will be renewed by his grace.
Therefore, if a faithful pastor experiences burnout, it isn’t necessarily evidence against him. It’s God turning that pastor into living proof that “God raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). It’s what the pastor’s people need to see in him—not only the power of God sustaining him in the normal flow of ministry, but also the power of God resurrecting him from the extreme moments of defeat. Even this is pastoral ministry to people who themselves need hope when life is impossible.
A PERSONAL TESTIMONY
Some years ago, I went through a ministry catastrophe that shook me to my very foundations. During that episode, a new thought crept into my mind: All your life you’ve believed that God loves you. But look at the bombed-out rubble that your ministry now is. Maybe the truth of your existence is the opposite. Maybe God hates your guts .
Eventually I realized, by grace, that I had been right the first time. God really did love me. But before I got there, there were many nights when I woke up around 3:00 a.m., exhausted but unable to sleep. So I got up, made coffee, read the Bible, and cried out to God. It was all I had. And he got me through.
Indeed, I ended up in a better place than before, because now I had something to say about God’s power to raise the dead.
God’s purpose for us pastors is not that we never sink into the lowest of the low. God’s purpose for us pastors is that, when we sink into the lowest of the low, we will find God himself waiting for us down there with deeper grace “to revive the spirit of the lowly” (Isaiah 57:15).
Recently, I found an article on prayer that my dad wrote for HIS magazine fifty years ago. The title of his article sums up prayer so simply, so helpfully: “Go to God, and hang on!” If you’re burned out, utterly burdened beyond your strength so that you’re despairing of life itself, my counsel to you is just that: go to God, and hang on. He is surely hanging on to you. He will renew your strength. And your ministry will be more profound than ever before.