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Spiritual Burnout


“Burnout” is a big topic these days, and according to most sources it is on the rise. Physical exhaustion and a growing epidemic of depression are blamed as the main culprits. And yes, of course, our fast-paced 24/7 culture, plus the information overload and digital over-stimulation are only making matters worse.

But are those the true reasons for burnout, or is there maybe something that is zapping us of strength and energy to the point of collapse? An interesting study by the BBC looked into that and the results are not what we would expect (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160721-the-reasons-why-exhaustion-and-burnout-are-so-common).

The article points out that given that depression also tends to involve lethargy and detachment, some have argued that burnout is just a stigma-free label for the same condition. One German newspaper article claimed burnout is just a “luxury version” of depression for high-flying professionals. “Only losers become depressive,” the article continued. “Burnout is a diagnosis for winners, or, more specifically, for former winners.”

Almost all the studies on the subject totally exclude the spiritual dimension, and the connection between our body, soul, and spirit. Though we (at least in the Western World) are becoming more and more aware of our physical needs, and many are investing time and energy in exercising and going to the gym, we totally ignore the needs of our spiritual man. We have made the connection between body and mind (soul), but have totally lost touch with our spiritual needs. Spiritual Formation is like taking your spirit man for a workout and train him to become stronger.

Paul - the Spiritual Director

Paul in the New Testament had a lot to say about life in the Spirit, but most people do not recognise his examples from the world of sports. We know that he was both Jew and Roman citizen, but he was also well acquainted with ancient Greek culture and spent much time there.

Paul probably has the Isthmian Games in mind when he penned the words. Paul encourages the believers in Corinth to exercise self-discipline in their Christian life so they will not be disqualified from the race. To talk to the Greeks about athletic games was like talking to the Swedes about ice hockey, or to Americans about football or basketball.

Unlike the modern Olympic Games where gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to the first three places respectively, in the ancient games, only the winner received the crown. There was no second place award – winning was everything! Paul encouraged the believers in Corinth to run the race of the Christian life to obtain the prize. According to Paul, believers are to “compete” by being temperate or exercising self-control, in their personal behaviour.

In the Isthmian Games, those who won the competition were awarded a celery crown for the prize (wow). Paul describes it as a “perishable crown”, yet focuses the believers attention on the goal of the “heavenly race”, an “imperishable crown”. (1 Cor. 9:24-27) The two word pictures that Paul uses in verse 26 are that of a runner who runs focused on the finish line and the boxer who doesn’t shy away from his opponent like a shadow boxer, but rather engages him to the finish.

In 1 Timothy 4, Paul admonishes Timothy to “exercise yourself to godliness”. He had in mind the gymnasium, which is common in every Greek City, where the athlete would spend time exercising his body in preparation for the upcoming games. The priority for the Christian should be on exercising the “spiritual life” before the “physical life.” Paul is not against exercising ones body because he points out there is some temporal benefits for it. However, exercising the spiritual life should be a priority because it has both temporal and eternal consequences.

One of the archaeologists that excavated at Isthmia described Paul’s words here in this way. “The words in Greek have a more distinctly athletic flavor. To bring this out the passage might be rendered: ‘I have competed in the good athletic games; I have finished the foot race, I have kept the pledge (i.e. to compete honestly, with reference to the athletic oath). What remains to me is to receive the crown of righteousness, which has been put aside for me; it will be awarded to me by the Lord, the just umpire, on that day’ (an allusion to the last day of the games when, presumably, the prizes were handed out to the winners)” (Broneer 1962:31, footnote 23).

Do you know of any serious athlete that has never had a coach or trainer help him to exercise properly, and helped him to learn how to pace himself so that he would not run out of steam before crossing the finish line? And yet, so many of us stumble through this race called “life” without much practical advice. If you are leading others in their walk with Christ you need to make sure that you have a spiritual coach.

#burnout #exhaustion #depression #spiritualformation

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