Creditors (such as the IRS) ruthlessly try to collect what we owe them. Threatening letters. Edgy phone calls. Garnishment of wages. Their tireless efforts to get what we owe them can leave us thinking we’re hardened criminals. The oppressive debt leaves us feeling lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.
But a worse kind of debt can plague us.
Its negative impact on the body, mind, and spirit may far exceed that of financial woes. Some pundits call it the prolonged effect of an extended adrenalin rush: the outcome of working longer hours for weeks in order to complete a major project by deadline; of speaking day after day on an overseas mission trip, or at several consecutive weekend conferences; of the cumulative effect of inadequate sleep over a period of weeks; of trying to spin too many plates in the air at once, flitting from one responsibility to another at a frantic pace. (It’s not necessarily the total number of hours we’re busy that takes a toll, but the sheer scope of the number of tasks to fulfill.)
Trust me….you don’t want to run up this kind of tab. The body always collects its debts. There’s no toll free number on your TV screen to call for relief of this kind of debt.
What are possible symptoms of pushing down too hard on the accelerator and revving our inner motor on high for too long?
Evidences of Excessive Energy Expenditure
It’s been dogging you for days. Your gait is slower. The thought of completing a normal day’s responsibilities make you want to cower under the covers. You yearn for more sleep, even after eight hours of it. The thought of one additional thing to do, even if it is something you typically enjoy, could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. I recall a time when it took a gargantuan effort just to take a deep breath.
How did you go from boundless energy one day to abject weariness the next?
Dry, Lifeless Emotions
You wish you could feel something–anything–even if it were unpleasant. Instead, you can’t weep or laugh. You seem to be going through the motions of living, as if you were a robot instead of a human with a robust affective domain.
Where did the feelings go?
Increased Vulnerability to Temptation
When you can’t feel much, Satan sees the vulnerability and ramps up his attacks. He intensifies temptations of the flesh. Even if it is the false intimacy of pornography, or the lure of a lady at work who’s given you vibes that she’s interested, you’re more prone to the kind of sin that instills excitement or exhilaration.
Know this in advance of a big push and recruit prayer warriors for your soul.
Doubting God’s Presence or Your Own Faith
You perceive prayer and Bible reading, previously engaging, life-infusing means of grace, as chores or items to check off a spiritual obligation checklist. What you read seems bland. When you pray, you doubt anyone is listening.
As you proceed throughout the day, even when you’re serving the Lord, you don’t sense His presence. You wonder if you’ve done something to evoke God’s displeasure, or if you’re less consecrated than before. To use the words of James I. Packer, you keep checking your spiritual pulse in an effort to find out if you’re still alive, or to determine what’s wrong.
Your heart for God is as dry as the parched, cracked floor of the Sahara desert.
Paying Off the Debt
I’m aware that the symptoms I’ve described may stem from other causes: a steep fall into a bout of depression; thyroid problems; the onset of diabetes, to name a few possibilities. The last thing I want to do is to oversimplify what could be a complex dilemma, or to suggest that I am sure of the diagnosis. If you haven’t had a medical checkup in a while, that’s your first step: a full physical, including a blood panel.
But as I’ve suggested, it could be the draining effect of an overload to your system. Perhaps what you most need is rest of body, mind, and spirit that allows your body to replenish the chemicals you burned over a period of intense work or stress. Be patient, for it may take weeks to return to normalcy.
If you’re past middle age and experiencing what I’ve described, perhaps you’re like me: finding it difficult to admit that your capacity for output isn’t the same as it was 15-20 years ago. If I have less capacity, I must accept less responsibility–or pay a steep price.
When it comes to extreme fatigue, emotional numbness, escalation of temptations of the flesh, and doubts about faith, I’ve been there, done that. Too many times. And some of the time, I precipitated these symptoms by not understanding the debts that were mounting up in my body, or refusing to make the hard choices to prevent the burnout.
Here’s advice I now tell myself in an attempt to stay out of such debt.
*When I can’t say “No!” because an intensive energy output is integral to my job responsibilities, I try to schedule shorter work days as well as days off after the deadline has passed.
*When I’m already overwhelmed, I say “No!” more often to discretionary ministry opportunities. In my case, I ask for my wife’s input. After 47+ years with me, she knows when I’m already at wit’s end. She sees, much more objectively, the symptoms of stress I’m already displaying. Every time I’ve said “Yes!” to an opportunity after she warned me against it, I’ve regretted the decision.
*I identify persons to whom I can delegate some tasks. Delegation will not only give me more balance, but it is a way for others to serve and to use their gifts.
*Even if it isn’t Sunday (due to my ministry vocation), I can choose to take a Sabbath day each week when I rest, worship, and play–a day when I am not productive in relation to work. If I refuse to take a day off in my ministry, I exhibit a theological problem. I am saying that God can’t get along without me. (How did Christianity ever survive before my birth?)
I also recall the words of Charles Hummel in a booklet written decades ago, The Tyranny of the Urgent: “Every need is not a mandate from God for me to fulfill.” And I remember a remark made by a formerly burned-out pastor after he got his proverbial priorities straight: “The happiest day of my life was when I resigned as ‘Manager of the Universe’.”
Do you need to write a resignation letter?
*I ponder the potential negative effects of my overwork and energy depletion on my loved ones.
*I evaluate the motivation for the workaholism that depletes me. Do I push myself in a subtle attempt to prove my worthiness to God and to others? Am I basing my significance and identity on my accomplishments, rather than on what Jesus accomplished for me on the cross?
*I keep telling myself a truth so obvious that it goes without saying….yet I still need to preach it to myself daily: God will exist after I die. (Or if I take a day off, or shift some of my duties to someone else, or say “No!” more often.)
I’ll close with my primary concern for Christians, particularly for vocational leaders or serious volunteers who doubt God or their faith during a time of spiritual dryness.
When you don’t sense God’s presence, or you’re less motivated for your ministry duties and spiritual disciplines–and these symptoms come on the heels of a very intense time of putting out–please don’t jump to conclusions about what’s happening. This experience is par for the course for hard working servants. It’s similar to what Elijah encountered after the emotionally-draining confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
Don’t misinterpret what’s occurring. It isn’t a spiritual crisis. Your faith hasn’t faltered. God hasn’t abandoned you.
Your body is merely collecting its debts.
What can you do to avoid such debt accumulation in the future?
Which piece of advice that I give myself resonates most with you? Why?