Renewal for the Wounded Warrior
A Burnout Survival Guide for Believers
R. Loren Sandford
Chosen, 2010, 190 pp. ISBN 978-0-8007-9480-4
Sandford is the founding pastor of New Song Fellowship in Denver and the author of several books. This book addresses burnout and the dark night of the soul based largely on the author’s own experience.
“Burnout can actually serve a helpful function in breaking through denial systems and structures of performance built over a lifetime to protect roots of wounding, fears and strongholds acquired so early in life that we rarely consciously recognize their presence.” (11)
The “word of faith” teaching is cruel medicine for burnout victims who already feel like failures. ”They must be lifted and carried in a tender way that gives much and asks little.” (14) Any theologizing must be compassionate, making sense of redemptive suffering.
Part I: Burnout
1. Three Kinds of Damage
“Burnout develops when the physical and emotional resources that enable the giver to keep giving have been depleted. This leads to despair, depression, irrational anger and a host of physical problems.” Failure to replenish spiritual, emotional and physical resources may result from seasons of high demand or from a performance orientation. A period of rest may provide the cure. Not so for depression and wounding.
“Depression is an emotional manifestation of the depletion of one’s physical and emotional resources for dealing with stress.” (20)
“Wounding is an emotional condition, a form of stress, caused by the hurtful acts of others.” (21)
“Normally, life serves up its hurts, losses, betrayals and abandonments at a pace that allows time for recovery and restoration between episodes. Occasionally, however, these wounds come in such rapid succession or touch us too deeply to allow for effective recovery between onslaughts.” (22)
2. Stage One Burnout—Onset
Warning signs include chronic fatigue, lack of creativity, judgment errors, inappropriate responses, a critical spirit, persistent vague anxiety. At this point personal confidence and prayer life may be intact. The Lord sustains the person in spite of fatigue or they run on adrenaline.
Conventional wisdom focuses on prevention but sometimes God allows burnout to provide a tool for crucifying the flesh prior to resurrection to new life. One can often remain successful while suffering burnout. The stage one burnout may continue running hard in his own strength.
3. Stage Two Burnout—Breakdown Begins
People who work better under pressure and rely on adrenaline for performance are candidates for burnout. In stage two, stress addiction begins to fail as a motivator and energizer. Digestive disturbances, sleep difficulties, frequent physical illnesses, emotional symptoms, and anxieties multiply. Confidence wanes; the person loses perspective and more frequently withdraws into isolation. The person begins to feel abandoned and betrayed by God. Eventually the stored-up unresolved hurts bring an emotional overflow and breakdown of control.
At this stage hold the advice and counsel. The person needs a safe place to offload the pain. Take him out for fun and don’t talk business. Pray at a distance and, as needed, advocate his cause.
4. Stage Three Burnout—Incapacity
The person can no longer initiate or sustain recovery and lives in a prison of despair. At some level they feel ill every day. Headaches or digestive disturbances are daily. Some cannot escape from the sense that God has betrayed them. Prayer life comes to a standstill. No resiliency remains. Sometimes they feel active hatred. Fear and distorted perceptions permeate every aspect of life. There are breakdowns in ministry and work. Weak resistance to addictive behavior makes one morally vulnerable.
Some can only be carried. They must be loved, not instructed or exhorted and certainly not confronted. This is not the time to preach deliverance or God’s love or point out how God is purifying them. Respect their fences and withdrawal. Do not add to their burden by telling them to praise God in all things, something they are incapable of doing. Pray. Love without expecting a response. Listen. Be available. Believe in the person and let them know it. Affirm their gifts. Send encouraging notes of love and appreciation.
5. Personal Survival—What the Wounded One Can Do
“I refused to let go of my faith. I chose to stand and I forced myself to do it. No matter what, I decided to believe.” (67) “The first principle of survival is therefore to know what you know for the sake of others who depend on you.” (68) “Feelings do not necessarily have substance, nor do they necessarily reflect reality. As such they cannot be relied upon to shape decisions in the real world.” (68) Insofar as your capacity will allow, do what you know. (69) Frequently, find a safe place to dump your feelings, even if it’s not easy. Do not share with people who are not safe. Nourish your weakened spirit by listening to great music, reading uplifting fiction with themes of recovery (like The Lord of the Rings), poetry, heroic stories and films or whatever reignites your dying flame. Get someone to protect your space and keep people away who drain you. Pour out your pain to God. Do Not Quit!
6. Breaking Destructive Life Patterns
Burnout victims often feel obligated to everyone in their care. You don’t have to do everything. Some motivations for self-sacrifice must be identified, confronted and rooted out. A conscience that says that I’m not working hard enough if I’m not exhausted is not healthy. Find some healthy self-indulgence. “A good laugh serves at least as well as twenty minutes in prayer for release of tension and refreshment to the soul.” Take time for things you enjoy, and reject the guilt. (88) Exercise plays a crucial role in recovery. Get at it. Clean up your diet. Break out of your isolation and seek some fellowship. Share the burden with your team. Break destructive patterns of diet and rest. Take a Sabbath. Leave the phone off the hook. Delegate the management of your schedule. Try some creativity and change in your prayer patterns. Let God destroy and rebuild your pattern for prayer and Scripture study.
7. Living with a Third Stage Burnout Victim
Don’t attack. Believe in him when he can’t believe in himself. Maintain faith on his behalf. Keep the household running smoothly. Give simple hugs and avoid demanding a response. Cover him with a blanket of ongoing prayer. Protect him from unsafe people. Cover for him to preserve the public image. Set your own needs aside for awhile. Do not take responsibility for his recovery.
8. Lingering questions
You may fully recover your intensity, strength and resilience or you may not. You will have gained wisdom and be more valuable and life giving. You will probably experience relapses.
Part II The Dark Night of the Soul
9. The Dark Night of the Soul
“At times, burnout feels as if you are hanging on to the edge of a cliff by your fingernails, afraid that you will fall and that God will not be there to catch you. … Your fingernails snap and you do fall off the cliff, only to find out it is bottomless and that God really will not catch you. Although at some level you know that cannot be true, you feel that way, and no one can convince you otherwise.” (119-20)
Promise is found only on the far side of the desert.
“What purpose does it serve? The answer is preparation. For many years God has been preparing for a new move of His Spirit. I believe it will take forms we have never seen before…(including) an even more important revival of the character of Jesus shining through His people. … I believe a great many of us have been and are being prepared by means of what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul.” (125)
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom 8:18)
“There can be no more important lesson today than learning to abide in Jesus. The dark night teaches this most deeply and indelibly, revealing His nature to us and in us. It takes us out of ourselves and plants us in Him.” (129)
10. The New Leadership
“…a broken spirit and a contrite heart are most often brought about through a wilderness of redemptive suffering, a dark night of the soul. … Unfortunately, the modern church has largely lost the concept of redemptive suffering.” “Some forms of suffering come from the hand of God to bring about brokenness. … This kind of suffering must be embraced, cherished and accepted in the faith that it leads to a great glory.” (138) Such crushing is necessary because our own strength cannot sustain us where God is leading us. Our present level of holiness cannot sustain the glory to come. In brokenness God makes us face ourselves and our lack of holiness. He perfects His power in our weakness. “In this new generation of compassionate shepherds and leaders, God must remove ambition, hunger for power, religion, legalism, control mechanisms, unbelief and judgment, most of which are deeply hidden in subtle ways and places.” (147) “God will…forge our character in the crucible of the cross, which is death leading to life, the broken heart and spirit He does not despise (see Psalm 51:17).” (150)
11. The Wilderness
“We live in a culture that conditions us to avoid suffering at all costs. We therefore have no paradigm for dealing with it, no framework by which to process it. Suffering frightens us.” (153)
“We have come into a period in history when nothing will suffice for the character of those who lead but the true heart and nature of Jesus for His people.” (154) “The wilderness strips away every ambition, every accomplishment, every ability of the flesh to achieve, every sinful habit of the heart, until nothing remains but a desperate craving hunger for the presence of Jesus.” (155)
“The wilderness burned rejection out of me, revealed my God to me and set my hunger in order.” “I carry a bit of that wilderness…all the time…. It reminds me who I am and teaches me wisdom. … (It) remains a place of peace in the midst of the pressures of the ministry where I remember both my own weakness and God’s strength.” (161)
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