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How do we get going on empty tank?

I was reflecting upon Oswald Chambers famous quote; “It is impossible to get exhausted in work for God. We get exhausted because we try to do God's work in our own way.” I concluded that, however I framed it, I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Coaching and supporting a significant number of faithful and Godly leaders that are seeking to do God’s work God’s way: It is pretty evident that everyone is exhausted right now. Maybe if Chambers had tried to lead a church through a global pandemic in a largely secular society he would have come to a different conclusion.

Ironically, the sense that we shouldn’t be exhausted, doubles down on our sense of exhaustion. Imagine a marathon runner, crossing the line and being told; “Well done for getting here, you must be exhausted.” They feel encouraged and understood. Now imagine the same Marathon runner being told, “You got here at last, but why are you so exhausted?” They feel discouraged and despondent. It is immediately very hard to think of ever running a marathon again. It is essential that we separate out the religious narrative of the ‘inner critic’ from the genuine compassion of God. 

What does the Bible say?

Matthew 11: 28-30 (The Message version) gives us a much better representation of the way that God responds to our exhaustion: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

I am deeply concerned for people's extension as we begin this new Autumn season, especially when they are also living under the illusion that, because of their faith, they are somehow immune to the emotional ravages of the last 18 months. I was chatting with Patrick, my prayer partner yesterday. He said, “I feel like a marathon runner who has just crossed the line and then someone has slapped a new number on my back and said, ‘Off you go again!”. The fact is, there is a massive mismatch between where we would hope to be at the start of the new academic year and where we actually are. 

I have spoken to several people who have had pretty decent sounding holidays over the summer and yet have embarrassedly said that ‘they still feel exhausted’. They just cannot understand it. Yet, in reality, it is like going to a petrol station and putting in £5 of unleaded. It might get you just over red, but it’s just not enough to replenish the whole tank. A false estimation of our levels of exhaustion or a spiritual denial of our circumstances could leave us at risk of burnout in the winter months, yet with the holiday season over, what can we do about it?

Three things could change your trajectory

1. Stop looking for a ‘Holiday’ solution to exhaustion. We typically have a boom/bust approach to rest; storing up leave for that one big holiday in the sun. This leaves us at risk of moving into burn-out before the holiday arrives, or of it being cancelled because of Covid etc. Smaller and more frequent breaks are much more sustaining and helpful in seasons like this one. Try to regulate your rest along the lines of: a morning a week, a day a month and a week a term.

2. Get up to speed before adding new things in. This is the time of year when people typically add activity. They feel an innate ‘New School Year’ energy that makes September/October exciting and the perfect time to extend. This year decide to defer or delay adding in anything new until you have got to grips with your basic work/school/church/home load.

3. Find encouragement not judgement. This is definitely not the time to start beating yourself up for feeling exhausted (not that that is ever good). Instead, you need encouragement, empathy and understanding. Even if you feel embarrassed about feeling exhausted after a holiday, reach out to others to share your story. You will be surprised by how many people feel the same way. Lean into the God who calls the weary into rest. 

Will Van Der Hart, 21/09/2021
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