Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rest for your souls: why do Christians "burn out?"

In Matthew 11, Jesus promised that those who come to him would find "rest for your souls." That is a wondrous promise that should neither be dismissed (as though it is not possible for my given situation) nor misconstrued (made out to be something other than what is actually promised).  Jesus is not telling people that they will be freed from external resistance, as elsewhere he warns that in the world they would have tribulation, and many of those disciples before him at that time would eventually suffer martyrdom. He also tells us that we continue to be subject to and afflicted by sinful impulses (see Rom. 7)

Yet, he does offer rest, and elsewhere, we find similar promises. Love, joy, and peace are listed as fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5).  Contentment with either riches or poverty are gifts from Christ who strengthens us (the true meaning of Phil. 4:13).  Behind those assurances lies the promise that we have peace with God (Rom. 5), no fear of condemnation, and no separation from the love of God (Rom. 8).

Question:  if those are Christ's promises for believers, why is it so common to hear about Christians who burn out?  While it would be a mistake to suppose that one answer fits all circumstances, I fear that one common reason is that we have been taught not to rest.  Let me explain.

While there are many differences between the traditional fundamentalist churches that I grew up in and the contemporary churches that are popular today, I see at least one common strand between them:  an effort, conscious or unconscious, to drive commitment to the church and to Christ by constantly churning people's emotions.  As one example that many of us can identify with, this can be found in an invitation system that urges people continuously to make emotionally wrenching public renewals of their commitments to Christ.  While this happens with adults in regular services, perhaps the poster event for what I am talking about is the youth retreat.  Year after year, kids experience emotional highs and make commitments that typically last for a few weeks, at most, once they return to the real world.  Given that kids are prone to emotional roller coasters anyway, this is probably not the best way to create assurance of the everlasting verities of the gospel.

Modern churches, which brag that they have shed many of the legalistic tendencies of earlier generations, nonetheless also churn the emotions:  through music that is mostly designed to work up the crowd, through personal experience laden pep talks masquerading as sermons, and from continuous calls to deeper commitment to live in extraordinary, radical, missional ways.

With this constant churning, it is no wonder that even people who crave the excitement eventually experience burnout or begin to doubt whether it "works."  Sadly, many people associate the emotional highs associated with these kinds of events and teachings with the work of the Spirit.  In fact many of us -- even if we know better -- are prone to deny that the Spirit is present if we don't feel certain emotions or even physical sensations -- heart pumping, skin tingling, a feeling of adrenaline or anticipation.  Never mind that none of these are given as proofs of the Spirit's work in the New Testament, where proof of the Spirit's work are described in terms of Jesus being proclaimed as Lord, faith in Christ and the Gospel being created and confirmed, and practical relationships being set on a proper course.

To find rest, faith needs not to look inward, but outward. When Jesus taught His disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain, he was teaching them that the critical matter was not the size of their faith, but the size of their God.  Instead of pursuing emotions or constantly doubting the extent of our inward commitment, we would do better to think more about the Gospel and the mighty redeeming works of Christ.  Looking to him and viewing the greatness of His power and love produces faith that will never be found looking inward and churning our emotions.

Turn to Him, and you will find rest.  And, shepherds, point to Him, that your weary sheep may find rest for their souls.