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Fatigue in Ministry: Good and Bad Emptiness

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A photo of a man sitting in a chair looking tired, fatigued and stressed.
There is a good emptiness and a bad emptiness in the Christian life. Good emptiness means realizing that without the power of Christ, we can do nothing of lasting value.
As finite creatures our energies are always limited, even if our desires are not. It is no virtue to deny this in the name of Christian service.

Let us consider fatigue in ministry, that we might keep our integrity before God and people.

Not a few Christian leaders have allowed sin to dominate their lives because of undue fatigue in ministry activities, such as speaking, preaching, counseling, and writing. We are finite creatures and lack endless physical or moral resources. Being physically fatigued can make one more susceptible to sin’s allures. The cheap and perilous pleasures of sin — whether from alcohol or sex or illicit drugs—can temporarily relieve fatigue, but they ultimately bring emotional pain, guilt, shame, and even ruin. Most importantly, they are sins against our Lord. We should resist the idea that we are so important to God that we cannot afford to rest and let others do the work of ministry as well.

Poured Out in Ministry and Working Hard for the Lord

But what of working hard for the Lord, being poured out in ministry (Philippians 2:17)? Doesn’t that involve fatigue? Here is where balance is essential. We are called to deny ourselves in following Jesus (Luke 9:23-24), and that may bring fatigue for a season. It always means avoiding selfishness. For the Apostle Paul, it brought tremendous hardships, as we read in Acts. Ministry fatigue was an issue for one of my heroes, theologian and apologist, Francis Schaeffer (1912-84). But fatigue as a way of life is really a way of death. Schaeffer worked hard throughout his ministry, even lecturing and evangelizing while sick with cancer just before his death. But he never got very far out of balance, and no scandals followed him after his death. God does not want us to deny that we are finite and fallen beings. We should bring our weakness to Christ and ask him to fill us with his power and moral goodness for ministry.

Good and Bad Emptiness

There is a good emptiness and a bad emptiness in the Christian life. Good emptiness means realizing that without the power of Christ, we can do nothing of lasting value (John 15:5). So, as Schaeffer taught, we should depend on God every moment, never resting in our own strength or pride. On this, see his classic book, True Spirituality. Paul wrote that when he was weak (not depending on himself), then he was strong (depending on God). See 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. Bad emptiness means we are running on fumes, stressed out, and starting to feel desperate. In this state, we may still desire to serve God and others, but we stop bearing the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, and so on (Galatians 5:22-23). Our gifts may still be working—say, in teaching or preaching—but the fruit is lacking. That is bad emptiness, because the outcome is of the flesh, not the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-21). Bad emptiness may look like effective ministry from the outside, but God sees the heart and the heart eventually catches up with us. Its condition can bring us to ruin.

You may have heard the expression that in the Christian life it is “better to burn out than to rust out.” This is a false dichotomy, since both options are dead wrong. Burning out is no virtue, since it usually means poor stewardship of one’s resources and can lead to much mischief. Rusting out is not an option either, since we are called to a long, well-paced life of service and good works.

We can avoid bad emptiness and its resulting sins in several ways. I offer three. First, we should realize that the pattern of work and rest on the Sabbath is not just for the Jews, but a principle of creation. The Sabbath was made for man, said Jesus, who is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). Yes, we may need to work hard on some days normally allotted for rest, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

Seek the Advice of a Spouse or Trusted Friend

Second, we need trusted friends and/or a spouse to tell us how to avoid burnout or to warn us when we are veering toward it. In 2004, I took a preaching pastor position at a church that had recently lost its beloved pastor to a car accident. My first wife Becky (who is in heaven) and I decided it would be wise for me to fill in until another pastor could be found. But Becky also told me—not asked me—that I needed to take Mondays as my Sabbath, since I was preaching twice on Sundays in addition to my full-time job as a seminary professor. She was right. It was a challenging and rewarding season of ministry, and it did not lead to burnout. On this, see Zeal Without Burnout by Christopher Ash.

Strive for Good Emptiness

Third, we should strive for the good emptiness that invites the Lord to do his work in you. As Pastor Charles McHatton (1924-2008) said, “God’s work in you is more important than God’s work through you.” God’s work through us in ministry should be adequately supported by his work in us, our sanctification. We never outgrow our need for the study of Scripture, Christian fellowship, church worship, and prayer, so that we might know the greatness of our God, his love for us, and how his power can be manifested through us. As finite creatures our energies are always limited, even if our desires are not. It is no virtue to deny this in the name of Christian service. As sinners, we can rely on our own power to do God’s work. But that, too, is displeasing to God. The way of godly wisdom is to strive to do God’s work in God’s way in order to avoid the sins so easily associated with ministry fatigue and burnout.

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