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Zeal Without Burnout

It is good to be zealous—far better certainly than being complacent. I have often been dismayed at my own lack of zeal for the Lord and the lack of zeal of so many Western Christians. And yet even something as good as zeal can go wrong when it begins to get muddled up with the sinful nature and its many heart idolatries. What can happen, and what so often does happen, is that zeal leads to burnout. In Christopher Ash’s book on the subject he says, “Burnout is a terrible price to pay for Christian zeal. For some, their circumstances mean there is no other way to live sacrificially for Jesus. But sometimes it can. For many of us there is a different path. One that combines passionate zeal for Jesus with plodding faithfully on year after year.”

Can you have genuine zeal without having it lead to burnout? Is there such a thing as a sustainable, non-complacent zeal? Ash believes there is and he speaks with a voice of experience having twice allowed his zeal to drive him to the very brink of a breakdown. He writes for all zealous followers of Jesus. While the focus may be on pastoral ministry, his message is for all those who are involved in Christian service whether full-time, part-time, or simply through the normal kinds of service we render to our churches alongside our busy jobs, our parenting, and everything else that fills our days. “You know about zeal, energy, joy in ministry, loving the work of Christ, working all hours and revelling in it. You know about Christian ambition, seeking to achieve great things for Christ. But when someone talks about breakdowns, burnouts, hitting the wall, then—if you are honest—you find yourself thinking that these are things that people—middle-aged people!—talk about when they have lost their first love for Jesus.” He brings these words of reason and experience: “As someone who has spent the last decade training young men and women for Christian service, I have been keen to help them see that the best kinds of ministry are, more often than not, long term and low key. I have tried to prepare them for a marathon, not a short, energetic sprint. In other words, to help them have a lifetime of sustainable sacrifice, rather than an energetic but brief ministry that quickly fades in exhaustion.”

Ash lays out a number of keys to sustainable sacrifice. Each of them is an implication of our mortality and our utter dependency upon God: We need sleep, we need sabbaths, we need friends, and we need food—the inward renewal of spiritual food. God needs none of these; we need all of these. We need all of these in proper proportions to live lives that are zealous but sustainable. If we neglect any or all of these we drastically increase the likelihood of burnout or breakdown. It is far better to be able to say and believe this:

I am —and will never, this side of the resurrection, be more than —a creature of dust. I will rest content in my creaturely weakness; I will use the means God has given me to keep going in this life while I can; I will allow myself time to sleep; I will trust him enough to take a day off each week; I will invest in friendships and not be a proud loner; I will take with gladness the inward refreshment he offers me. I will serve the Lord Jesus with a glad and restful zeal, with all the energy that he works within me; but not with anxious toil, selfish ambition, the desire for the praise of people, and all the other ugly motivations that will destroy my soul. So help me God.

Ash says he writes this book to help the reader “discern the difference between sacrifice and foolish heroism, and so to guard against needless burnout. We are to be living sacrifices until God takes us home to be with Jesus, we are to offer ourselves as those who have a life to offer, rather than a burned-out wreck.” Those who read this book and follow its counsel will find themselves equipped to serve the Lord will zeal, but also in a way that can be sustained over the long-term. For that reason, this is a book for every Christian.

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