Can stress that’s caused by work overload and schedule imbalance turn out for our good?
How does God redeem burnout? What can we learn from mental, emotional and physical exhaustion? In what sense is a stressful situation a means of God’s grace?
Those questions frame a personal story involving my first year of teaching as a college faculty member, when I learned that God designs a “divine curriculum” to ensure that His children lean more tenaciously on Him, and serve Him more effectively.
Perhaps the most time-consuming, pressure-packed, energy-draining year for a college professor is his or her first one. That was certainly true for me, now that I look back on 40 years of teaching at Columbia International University (formerly Columbia Bible College).
When I launched my teaching career in 1981, a niggling doubt siphoned off my confidence. Could I connect relationally with a younger generation of students? Would the classroom approaches I had used effectively with church adults resonate with students still in their teens?
My dean required a formal student evaluation of every course during an instructor’s first year. Renewal of my contract required solid ratings. How would students evaluate my classes?
Even more stressful, every course and every day’s lesson plan were first-time originals, demanding hours of fresh study and brainstorming.
Near the end of the spring trimester, fatigue of mind, body and spirit overwhelmed me. My body protested, demanding more sleep. My mind desperately needed a pause in the process of producing. I had pressed down so hard on the accelerator for nine months that my internal engine broke down. I was completely out of fuel and numerous inner parts needed to be replaced or rebuilt. Emotional exhaustion and spiritual dryness set in. I was feeling the harsh effects of a nine-month adrenalin rush. I had been on the cusp of a total breakdown.
Students had rated me favorably, yet the year took a toll on my soul. Due to the load, my intimacy with the Lord suffered. Prayer and devotional Bible reading were perfunctory, rather than unhurried times of cultivating a relationship. Exercise, as well as relationships with family members, took a back seat to my work. Depression reared its ugly head.
After the school year ended, I took a few weeks off and reflected on that first year. I loved teaching. The role fit my spiritual gifts, but I knew I needed to make adjustments. I couldn’t endure another year like the first one.
Exegeting My Experience
When a Bible teacher or student exegetes a text in God’s Word, he or she employs the original language, the context and other hermeneutical principles to hoist from it the truths God intended for readers. “Exegeting one’s experience” is an intentional effort to identify what we can learn from an event or experience. It is taking out of that event or experience all that God wants to say to us through it.
When I spent hours reflecting on my first year as a college prof, what timeless insights did God’s Spirit reveal to me? I’ll mention three lessons.
1. The human body will always collect its debts. At the time, I thought I was having a spiritual crisis. By the end of the school year, I had lost the awareness of Christ’s precious presence. I felt emotionally numb and spiritually dry. The depression that enveloped me sapped motivation to live.
Four decades later, I understand that hard-working servants who experience an intense expenditure of energy over a period of time naturally notice a depletion of physical, mental and emotional reserves. (A short-term missions trip overseas that involved lots of teaching…planning and implementing a retreat for a target group in the church…completing an advanced degree while still working or serving full time.) I realize now that I had misinterpreted what had happened during the first year of teaching. I was not having a spiritual crisis. God had not abandoned me. My faith had not faltered. No, I merely needed to give my body and my spirit time to be replenished. Ever since, I’ve given myself permission not to feel much for a while after a time of intense output in ministry. To sleep in. To play more.
2. My output in ministry requires continual input from the Lord. The energy and creativity needed for full-time teaching stems from the input I receive from unhurried times with the Lord, in His Word and in prayer. I accomplish less when I neglect Him, because I’m relying on human resources and reserves separated from His work within me. That first year on the faculty, I mistakenly put what I did for the Lord ahead of Him. My service eclipsed my seeking Him through means of grace, rather than my seeking of the Lord fueling my service.
I’ve appreciated the practicality of what Ron Dunn called “Paul’s definition of ministry.” In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul wrote, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (emphasis mine). Under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, Paul employed a strong Greek word, translated striving. It refers to tenacious, difficult labor tantamount to wrestling. He implied that his evangelism and discipling ministries consisted of hard work and long hours. How did Paul keep going and avoid burnout? He emphasized that divine input fueled his capacity for significant output! Here’s Ron Dunn’s definition of ministry based on this verse: “Ministry is my putting out whatever the Lord is putting into me.”
3. Even when the work for Christ is hard, the Lord wants joy to permeate my service for Him. According to Psalm 100:1-2, “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful singing” (emphasis mine). Over the years, when ministry became a drudgery and joyless, like it did near the end of my first year of teaching, I’d get with the Lord and ask Him questions of this sort: “What is stealing the joy of serving You? Is it imbalance in my life? Have I accepted too many ministry opportunities outside of my teaching at the university? Are my priorities skewed? Am I accepting duties that don’t mesh with the gifts You’ve given me? Am I tolerating sin in some area of my life for which I need to repent?”
During the weeks of rest back in the late spring of 1981, I wrote the following poem. In retrospect, I realized that God was teaching me things and He was in the process of redeeming my pain. Though some of the negative effects of that first year were due to my own inverted priorities, I discovered that the Lord can take any form of adversity, even ones prompted by my own unwise choices, and employ it to deepen my character, to prompt ever-increasing dependency on Him, and to enhance the fruitfulness of my ministry.
Before you read the poem, allow me to explain its title, “Divine Curriculum.”
The term “curriculum” refers to a racecourse. Figuratively speaking, applied to schools such as the Christian university where I serve, curriculum refers to the racecourse students are required to run in order to reach the finish line (graduation). Though we tend to equate curriculum with only the courses students take, this broader definition incorporates other things required by our administration. The racecourse mapped out for students includes chapels, field experience in evangelism and teaching, relationships with faculty and deans, sports opportunities, counseling services, and faith-strengthening fellowship through participation in small groups.
Divine curriculum refers to the racecourse God sovereignly designs for each of His children: the events, experiences and people He brings into our lives in order to develop our character and to increase our usefulness to Him. All Christians must take some of the same challenging courses in life, but God also designs specific kinds of experiences for each of us in light of our particular needs, as well as the specific plans He has for us. The route He designs may include energy-sapping hills, unexpected turns, and, only occasionally, a downhill slope that allows us to coast for a while. None of God’s children can waive certain prerequisites, including trials, in their pursuit of Christlikeness and fruitfulness.
I often don’t see rhyme or reason
for the things that come my way.
Sometimes the pressure intensifies,
and I’m too confused to pray.
Sometimes God nurtures with darkness,
and my soul aches for more light.
Or I arrive at my rope’s end;
extreme weakness is my plight.
Sometimes God answers with silence,
or waiting on Him is His will.
Sometimes I can’t see the finish line;
the race seems too long, and uphill.
But would living require any faith
if I understood all of God’s ways?
Tuition seems steep for God’s teaching,
yet in the long run, each lesson pays.
I learned to rely not on self, but on God.
I need His Spirit’s filling every day.
To hold Him close, to feed on His Word;
only then I have something to say.
Why is it a struggle for some of us to make wiser choices and achieve more balance, or margin, in our schedules?
Can you identify a stressful “course” that God has mapped out for your life or ministry? In retrospect, can you see a positive outcome for your life or ministry? Did the difficult course He designed for you magnify God’s glory in some manner, either in your eyes or in the eyes of persons who know you? Have you thanked Him for assigning that course to you?
“God sees our lowest moments as our spiritual highs because that is when He is doing the deepest work in us. And it is out of those valleys that God gives us our platform for ministry.” Vaneetha Risner, in The Scars That Have Shaped Me.