Christian Burnout
Enlarged June 20, 2011 (first published February 2, 2005)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
Eugene Peterson (1932- ) was for many years James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. He also served for 35 years as founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. Today he is retired and lives in Montana.

The New Testament portion of
The Message was published in 1993 and the complete Bible in 2002. It is called a “translational-paraphrase” and is said to “unfold like a gripping novel.”

In fact, it IS a novel!

It was translated by Peterson and reviewed by 21 “consultants” from the following schools: Denver Seminary (Robert Alden), Dallas Theological Seminary (Darrell Bock and Donald Glenn), Fuller Theological Seminary (Donald Hagner), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Trinity Episcopal School, North Park Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Richard Averbeck). Columbia Bible College, Criswell College (Lamar Cooper), Westminster Theological Seminary (Peter Enns), Bethel Seminary (Duane Garrett), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Paul R. House), Covenant Theological Seminary, Westmont College, Wesley Biblical Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute (John H. Walton), Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Gordon College (Marvin Wilson).
(Of course, many cases of “ministerial burnout” are men and women who have no testimony of the new birth. Many are liberal or emerging in their theology, and it is no surprise that there is such a high rate of “burnout” among these. They are trying to do God’s work in man’s way; they have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof, and this can only result in disaster.)


“Come unto me, all
ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat. 11:28-30).

Jesus didn’t offer burnout to those who labor and are heavy laden. He offered rest! Christ has a yoke. He has a work for every believer to do in this world. There is a yoke to put on and a plow to pull, and it can be a hard work, but is a restful work all the same. Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. I don’t pull the plow alone. I am yoked with the Almighty!

Thus, if I am finding the Christian life and service too hard and heavy, something is wrong with me and how I am living and how I am serving. It means that I am somehow trying to pull the plow myself rather than resting in Christ. I am laboring apart from that intimate fellowship with the Lord that makes the labor a blessing rather than a curse. I am somehow neglecting my main work, which is to learn of Him.

Jesus put this another way by describing the fruitful Christian life as a matter of branches abiding on the vine.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye
are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. ... If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:4-5, 7).

The branch of a healthy vine will naturally bear fruit if it simply abides on the vine and does its “branch work.” A branch has work to do, and its work is a necessary part of the vine’s fruit bearing, but without the vine the branch can do nothing. A branch doesn’t have to try to do “vine work,” and if did, it would find such work to be impossible, because a branch is not a vine. Christ is the vine; His people are the branches. He does the really hard work, the impossible work, the divine work. We simply do the light branch work as we abide in Him, and even our branch work is accomplished by His life and power flowing into us.

Paul taught the same thing. He said the Christian life is a life I live in Christ. It is a life that I live out, but it is not only that. More importantly, it is a live that Christ lives in me:

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

When the child of God forgets this and tries to live the Christian life on his own, when he tries to bring forth fruit by his own labor, when he tries to be the vine rather than the branch, when he tries to plow in his own strength, some sort of “burnout” is inevitable.

The true Christian life is not 20% me and 80% Christ. It is 100% Christ in me, and to forget that is a recipe for burnout.


“Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

Martha was well on her way to burnout in her Christian life. She was serving the Lord, but it was in her own energy and probably for her own glory. She was so burned out that she got upset both at her sister and at the Lord!

Martha’s error was that she was serving in the wrong way and at the wrong time. It is important for a woman to care for her family and to be hospitable to visitors, and that requires hard work. But in the situation described in Luke 10, it wasn’t time to be distracted by a lot of business. It wasn’t time to cook a fancy meal and clean the house. It was time to sit at Jesus’ feet while the fleeting opportunity existed.

That is why the Lord commended Mary. She was walking in wisdom. She wasn’t a lazy person, or the Lord would not have commended her, since His own Word reproves laziness. Mary wasn’t lazy, but she knew when to serve and when to sit and listen. She knew when to cook and when to read her Bible and pray. She knew when to work and when to stop working and go to church. A married person who walks in Mary’s footsteps knows when to put aside other things and spend time with his or her mate and children.

I talked with a man recently who has started a new business. It is prospering, but it is creating a lot of stress in his life. He is borrowing money and is under pressure to repay the loans. He has been neglecting his private devotions to some extent and isn’t as faithful to church as he once was. He has been neglecting his family, as well. This is a recipe for spiritual backsliding and “burnout.” I exhorted him, among other things, to forget his business on the Lord’s day. I urged him not to even talk business on his cell phone on that day, but rather to concentrate on the house of God and his spiritual life and his family. I exhorted him to honor the Lord by putting Him first every day with a good devotional time.

Jesus warned that the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches will choke the Word (Mat. 13:22). And this is a recipe for spiritual burnout.


“And be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23).

The “old man” is a heavy drag on the spiritual life. It is called “the body of this death” (Rom. 7:24).

must have continual spiritual renewal and refreshment, and it is available.

Renewal is available through the process of putting off the old man and putting on the new, which is the context of Ephesians 4:22.

“That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24).

The old man is always present in this life. To walk in the way of the “old man” is to be carnal like the Corinthians and to walk in a backslidden condition. To renounce and put off the way of the old man and to put on the way of the new man is to walk in the Spirit, and by this manner the believer is renewed day by day.

The mercy and grace for renewal is obtained directly from the risen Lord.

“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast
our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16).

The throne of grace is available and the One who sits on that throne is our great high priest who died for us and ever lives to make intercession for us. We can come to him and obtain mercy for
every sin and find grace to help in any and every situation

Those who walk in these spiritual resources do no experience “burnout.”


“And said unto me, What seest thou? And I said, I have looked, and behold a candlestick all
of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which are upon the top thereof: And two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof” (Zechariah 4:2-3).

Zechariah saw an oil-powered lamp that was apparently connected directly to two olive trees by pipes. Thus the supply of oil was constant and perpetual.

The candlestick signifies Israel and God’s power. The interpretation is given in verse 6:

“Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This
is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts” (Zec 4:6).

The prophecy has an application to the individual Christian life. The believer’s work is to shine as a light in this dark world (Phil. 2:15), but we don’t have to fear running out of oil. The indwelling Spirit of God provides the perpetual, inexhaustible supply of fuel for the believer’s lamp.

The dictionary defines burnout as burning “until the fuel is exhausted, and the fire ceases.”

Since the fuel supply for the Christian life and ministry is inexhaustible, burnout happens only if the believer fails to tap into the divine supply and operates, rather, on his own meager human resources.


“According as his divine power HATH GIVEN UNTO US ALL THINGS THAT PERTAIN UNTO LIFE AND GODLINESS, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make
you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Peter 1:3-10).

Peter said that we live the Christian life by God’s divine power, not our own petty resources.

Peter didn’t talk about burnout; he talked about the sufficient resources that every believer has in Christ. He said the Lord has given us ALL THINGS that pertain unto life and godliness.

There is no place for burnout in the 2 Peter 1 program for Christian living.

Peter said that victory comes by the knowledge of the Lord. The very essence of the Christian life is to know the Lord and to walk with the Lord and to learn of the Lord and to delight in the Lord. This is man’s created purpose, which was lost in Adam’s rebellion, but is renewed in Christ’s salvation.

Peter said that victory comes by pursuing spiritual growth with diligence. His teaching bears out the fact that if I am not going forward spiritually, I am going backward. Spiritual stagnation is backsliding, and backsliding is a recipe for burnout, but when the child of God is pursuing Christ and pursuing holiness, there is no place for burnout.

We are to pursue spiritual growth until we die. There is no retirement from this process. I thank the Lord for the many saints I have known who have pursued spiritual growth to their deathbeds. They didn’t burnout; they went forward from blessing to blessing to the end.

As the late evangelist Lester Roloff said, “It’s not time to retire; it’s time to re-fire.” Old age brings a very real loss in the physical realm, but it does not need to result in spiritual burnout.

Paul exemplified this. In his old age, he was still preaching, still studying, still excited about his calling, still passionate about his Lord.

There is no burnout when we follow Peter’s recipe for Christian living.


“For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward
man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Paul suffered more than most Christians, yet he kept the right perspective through it all. He kept his eyes on eternity. He always looked beyond this present life and its troubles.

He acknowledged that the outward man is perishing, but his focus was on the inward man and its daily renewal.

There is no burnout when we keep this godly perspective. The child of God ought to be encouraged and confident and positive-minded in this sense. We have too many promises of God to be “down in the dumps” and to have a discouraged outlook or to “burnout.” It is a bad testimony.


“Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Salvation is an amazing thing. It’s not just about having eternal life and going to heaven some day. It’s about an intimate relationship with the amazing God in the here and now.

And one of the blessings of this is that I don’t have to carry my own cares. There is One who cares for me, One who is better able to carry my cares, and I am invited to cast my cares upon His Almighty shoulders.

This is an open invitation from the Lord. I can cast any care whatsoever upon Him at any time and all the time.

What an amazing thing! Any care, any time. If I have care about money or family or friends or church or health or emotional issues or whatever, I can cast that care upon the Lord at His generous and compassionate invitation. T

his is not some vain exercise in psychology; it is not blind mysticism. It is dependance upon the God of the universe on the basis of His own promises.

If I forget the Lord and don’t cast my cares upon Him and I persist in laboring under the cares of this life and trying to handle them by myself, this is a perfect recipe for burnout.


“Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake, and for the love of the Spirit, THAT YE STRIVE TOGETHER WITH ME IN YOUR PRAYERS TO GOD FOR ME; That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which
I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; That I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed: (Romans 15:30-32).

“For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver
us; YE ALSO HELPING TOGETHER BY PRAYER FOR US, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).

“PRAYING ALWAYS ... FOR ALL SAINTS; AND FOR ME, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:18-19).

“Withal PRAYING ALSO FOR US, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds” (Colossians 4:3).

“Brethren, PRAY FOR US” (1 Thessalonians 5:25).

“Finally, brethren, PRAY FOR US, that the word of the Lord may have
free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).

“PRAY FOR US: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly. But I beseech
you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (Hebrews 13:18-19).

Paul continually asked the brethren to pray for him. He beseeched and begged them to do this. He reminded them of his need for prayer. He told them exactly why they needed to pray for him and instructed them as to what they should pray for.

Paul knew God’s omniscience. He knew that God knows all about our situation and needs, but he knew, too, that God has ordained prayer as the means for obtaining divine help in this present life.

We don’t have to understand prayer; we simply have to do it.

I have followed this pattern since I was a baby Christian in the Lord at age 23 and began to read how that Paul beseeched the brethren to pray for him. I thought to myself, “If the apostle Paul needed prayer, how much more do I?”

My godly maternal grandmother, who was a prayer warrior, reinforced this by telling me about the power of agreeing together with other saints in prayer, about the importance of seeking out prayer partners, about the necessity of sharing your needs with others and asking them to pray with you about these things. This is one of the “secrets” of answered prayer. I share prayer needs with my wife, with my church, with my pastor, with my preacher friends, with those who support our ministry. I need prayer; I want prayer!

I have always known that I am a weak man and that I cannot live the Christian life or do the ministry God has given me in my ability and strength and wisdom. I must have God’s help! I must! And I believe in prayer, and I have sought prayer help from the saints.

There is no burnout when you access prayer support like Paul did, but if you keep everything to yourself and don’t seek help, that is a recipe for spiritual burnout.


I believe that many “burnout” cases are caused by expecting something God hasn’t promised and seeking something that cannot be attained in this present life.

This is true for many false promises associated with the Pentecostal movement.

They say you can always expect physical healing if you only believe, and when someone accepts this as truth and seeks it and it doesn’t happen, he “burns out.” He becomes confused, distressed. He loses faith.

This is true for various twists on perfect sanctification, whether it is a Pentecostal “baptism of the Spirit,” or a Methodist-Holiness type of second blessing, or the search for a special experience of Spirit filling, or a perfect level of “Calvary Road-type abiding.”

Many have been burned out by these things because they aren’t promised in Scripture and therefore when they seek them, they are frustrated when they don’t experience what they expect.

The believer is not told to seek to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. This is spoken of in the past tense. It has happened, and we are to walk in its reality. We receive the Spirit of God at salvation. The baptism of the Spirit was an historic event and every believe participates in this event at conversion.

The same is true for the filling of the Spirit. Nowhere are we told to seek the Spirit or to seek to be Spirit filled. To be filled with the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit is a commandment to be lived out every day, not something to seek. The Bible says that if a man does not have the Spirit of God, he does not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9). Those who have Christ have the Spirit, and we don’t seek the Spirit; we live in the Spirit and walk in the Spirit and yield to the Spirit. These are not things to seek; they are things to do.

The late Bible teacher Harry Ironside, when he was a young Christian, was associated with the Salvation Army, and in that capacity was taught that he could achieve a a “second blessing” experience of sinless perfectionism. He sought this experience as earnestly as he knew how. He prayed, fasted, obeyed, sacrificed, surrendered, pursued. He tried to empty himself of all self-will. He renounced every known sin. He tried to remove any barrier to the experience, anything that would cause the Lord to refuse to give him the desired gift.

Finally, while out in the woods praying and fasting and crying out to God for the “blessing,” he had a powerful emotional experience and was convinced that he finally had “it.” He even stood up in church afterwards and asked the brethren to rejoice with him because he had found “it.”

But it wasn’t long before the emotional high was gone and he understood anew that the experience of his Christian life was anything but sinlessly perfect. He became so discouraged that he had a break down, a burnout, and ended up in a rest home. He decided that the Christian life didn’t work, so he was going to go back to what he was doing before. It wasn’t until some doctrinally-sound Christians taught him the truth of biblical sanctification that he got straightened out and went on to have a very fruitful (but not sinlessly perfect) Christian life and ministry. (Harry Ironside’s experience can be found in his book “Holiness: The False and the True.”)

It isn’t only those who believe in Pentecostal- or Methodist-style sinless perfectionism who fall into this trap. There are many varieties of this error. Anything that promises a perfect or near-perfect experience of Spirit filling or a perfect or near-perfect experience of abiding in Christ is kin to sinless perfectionism and can produce the same “burnout” results.

Chuck Swindoll doesn’t believe in a second experience of sinless perfectionism, but he claims that he can live “a week or more” without sinning. This is found in his heretical and very dangerous book
The Grace Awakening (2003 edition, p. 124, Kindle location 2140).

Yet the Bible says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Sin is not only wrong actions, but wrong thoughts and wrong motives. Every covetous thought, every lustful thought, every hateful thought, every jealous thought is sin.

Sin is not only what we do that is wrong, but what we fail to do that is right. There are sins of commission and sins of omission. Sin is to fail to love God with all of my heart, soul, and strength at any time in any way.

Anyone who claims to live even for a day without sinning isn’t defining sin biblically.

And when believers pursue a perfect experience of Spirit filling or abiding, etc., and are discouraged when they do not experience this, they are in danger of “burnout.”

This is true for those who lack proper understanding about the necessity of faith in the Christian life.

God tells us why he leaves the “old man” in the Christian life and why we experience so many difficulties. It is so that we will walk by faith and not by sight.

“But without faith
it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

“For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected
the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Romans 8:20-25).

In the next life, we will not live by faith. Then, hope will be changed into reality, travailing and corruption into glorious liberty.

But that is the future. The reality in this present Christian life is that of corruption, groaning, travailing, pain, waiting, none of which are pleasant. We yearn for the glorious liberty that has been promised as our heritage as children of God, but we don’t yet have it.

That is reality. That is true Christian living.

Those who don’t understand this and think they can achieve the reality of the future in the present are destined for discouragement and confusion and burnout.


I will start where I began: I am convinced that Christian “burnout” isn’t caused by laboring too much for the Lord; it isn’t caused by pressure. It is caused by laboring in one’s own strength and by walking in the flesh rather than the Spirit and by a lack of wisdom in living one’s life.

The apostle Paul didn’t burnout in God’s service the first century, and we don’t have to burnout in the twenty-first century.

“... and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush
was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2).
About Way of Life - The name “Way of Life” is from Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” The biblical instruction that molds men to God’s will requires reproof. It is not strictly positive. It does not focus on man’s “self-esteem.” It does not avoid controversial or unpopular subjects. It warns as well as comforts. It deals with sin and false teaching in a plain manner. It is reproves, rebukes, exhorts with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Tim. 4:2). This is what we seek to do through Way of Life Literature. The Way of Life preaching and publishing ministry based in Bethel Baptist Church, London, Ontario, of which Wilbert Unger is the founding Pastor. A mail stop is maintained in Port Huron, Michigan.

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