Zeal without Burnout by Christopher Ash
If you’re attracted to the title of this book, there’s every chance you’re a Christian who knows what it’s like to be zealous for God. Zeal is after all a word for people who like it intense. Or maybe it’s that second word, “burnout” that has caught your eye. Perhaps you know all too well what it’s like when the energy and motivation you once had for Christian ministry, or saw in others, evaporates like morning dew, leaving in its wake fatigue, depression and nervous exhaustion. Christopher Ash writes this book from painful personal experience, grounding it on a fundamental but neglected truth from the Bible about who we are as human beings. Drawn from this truth are seven wise Biblical keys that provide practical ways to avoid burnout or to get on the road to recovery from it.
My Story - Non-Paid Christian Ministry
When I first attended my local church the first thing I noticed and missed was a daytime women’s bible study group with other mothers and children. I had a six-month-old baby at the time as well as a three-and-a-half-year-old and an older child at school. I felt I was not the person to start a group like this. But in the end God drove me to it. And I’m so glad he did! But I remember well the huge amount of energy it took. Starting something for the first time brings with it a peculiar and obliterating type of exhaustion. When we began we were a small group of women from very diverse backgrounds - some had university education, some struggled to read and to write. We all had small children underfoot. One of them, a terrible screecher, was mine! There was no creche. Seated on the floor by the toy boxes as I ran it - I did feel a sense of elation as we learnt from John’s gospel together, and marvelled at God’s great kindness that we were able to follow the study despite the distractions. But afterwards I’d go into something resembling a coma. I’d turn my phone off. Plonk the kids in front of the TV. Peel off my jeans and just collapse on top of the bed. I’d stay there without moving until the last possible moment when I had to go and pick my older child up from school. The next day I still felt shattered.
I followed this pattern every week until one term we got a creche worker and I got a little better at leading, and I got better at praying and it all didn’t feel like it was resting entirely on my shoulders. I didn’t burnout but I felt myself spend hard on those mornings and in the preparation during the week leading up to them. I can only imagine the cumulative effect of doing something like that day after day with no friends, not enough sleep and no time for inward renewal. Eventually something will have to give. And for many people that will be the point at which they experience something like burnout.
Looking back I can see how lots of the things Ash talks about in this book protected me during that time and help me still. Here are some of those:
A Neglected Truth - We Are Dust
At the heart of this book is a reminder of who we really are:
Ash writes, “God made us out of dust:
...the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground… Genesis 2:7
And one day he will turn us back into dust:
You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” Psalm 90:3
We are creatures of dust. The Lord God animates us and fills us with energy and purpose for his glory. Strength and health - though they seem normal while they course through our veins - are given to us by God, and can be taken away at a moment’s noticeAsh continues:
“A living human being can walk, run, build, think, speak, act, love. But dust is disconnected particles on the ground, with no life, no action, no agency, no power; it is lifeless, inorganic matter. You and I came from dust and our bodies will return to dust. At no point of our lives in this age are we far away from reverting to dust. We are very fragile.” (p.37)
The Cost Of Following Jesus
Ash points out that sacrifice is not the same as burnout. At the same time he is also clear that some Christians are called to give it all. Some saints are called to pay with their lives for their allegiance to Jesus. If God should call upon us to do that then give it we must. However the more likely scenario in our context is that Christians in paid ministry become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. “There’s always more we can do in a ministry, but God is not asking “Can you do more?”. He is asking “Do you love me?” Some of those extras are not always as vital as we think them to be.” (p.32 Roy’s Story)
One of the key phrases in this book is ‘sustainable sacrifice’, which is not my favourite, but it’s hard to come up with something that expresses sacrifice in a marathon-like way - for that is the way I hope we read it. Not as something that makes our lives easy or pushes church and loving God to a small and quiet corner, but rather puts the spotlight on having a planned-out way of loving God. Ash provides some helpful guidance on learning to recognise our personal strengths and weaknesses and to put in place checks and balances so that we don’t unnecessarily burnout. His writing on these points made me think of 2 Peter:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1:5-8)
Many of the stories in the book talk of people who loved their job and threw themselves in at all hours of the day and night for years and years and years! Until their system simply couldn’t take this inhuman kind of treatment anymore and they suffered a malfunction of nervous exhaustion bringing with it depression, fatigue and in many cases a need to step away entirely from the ministry work they so loved and felt called to do. In light of those serious consequences it makes sense to seek to apply the Bible’s teaching on perseverance and what a lifetime of sacrifice looks like “to keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Not treating ourselves as human beings and attending to the God-given limitations God has given us for self-care and renewal will be ruinous in the long-run.
The Seven Keys
Ash describes the first four keys to marathon-like sacrifice as: sleep, sabbaths, friends and food (meaning also food for the soul or inward renewal) as “the medicines which God has laid on the table for us to take.” These are things we humans need and God does not. This is important self-knowledge. There are times when we are tempted to think we can get by on little sleep or on neglecting relationships, or not having a day off, because the work we are doing for God is so important, but they cost us in negative ways in the end. They are given to us for our good and we ought to take note of these God-given provisions for our human needs.
The last three keys include a warning: We work for God’s glory not our own! Ash writes soberly of the sinfulness of chasing after celebrity in Christian ministry. He then gives an encouragement: It is worth it! And finally an important reminder: to rejoice in grace which comes from the Lord, not in our gifts.
Oswald Chambers writes: “The natural heart will do any amount of serving, but it takes the heart broken of the conviction of sin, and baptized by the Holy Ghost, and crumpled into the purpose of God before the life becomes the sacrament of its message.” (March 10)
Chambers continues, “We are not saved to be “channels only,” but sons and daughters of God.” Don’t ever forget that your status before God is unchanged by how much work you do for him. The most beautiful line in the book stays with me still: “God could not love you any less because he could not love you more!” (Carrie’s Story) My status before God is not defined by the amount of Bible Studies I lead or one-to-one conversations I have or Christian book reviews I write. When God looks at me, he sees Jesus. The work is finished. Jesus did it all!! All to him I owe. That fills my heart with joy and security and purpose. It puts wind in my sails. I want to live for and serve him. How wonderful his love is so full already - I don’t do anything to fill it up more or decrease my portion. His grace is sufficient for me.
Writer | Katie Stringer Katie loves writing and has had snippets published in Womankind Magazine and the Guardian Weekly. She leads a Bible Study at her local Anglican church, All Souls Leichhardt and loves being part of the Leichhardt community. She is married to Andrew and they have two school-age daughters and a young son.