Burnout Begins with Bad Theology

Article by

Professor, Puritan Reformed Seminary

Innumerable books and articles have been published over the last several years on the subject of burnout. But for all the millions of words that have been spent, the statistics continue to rise at an alarming pace. And behind the cold statistics is a conflagration of relationships, families, careers, lives, and souls.

The reason the vast majority of cures and solutions for burnout don’t work is that they merely focus on various techniques to manage stress or reduce anxiety. Some of these practical remedies can be helpful, but they don’t address the heart of the issue. They may put out the fire around the edges, but, because they don’t extinguish the central blaze, the fire within keeps erupting and charred remains keep piling up.

Can’t Sleep?

So, what leads us to burnout? Ultimately, it’s false theology. Behind every exhausted person are bogus beliefs that must be identified and doused by replacing them with true theology. Let’s start by pointing our fire extinguisher at our (false) theology of sleep.

“Behind every exhausted person are bogus beliefs that must be identified and doused with truth.”

Perhaps the greatest contributor to burnout today is sleep deprivation (usually defined as sleeping less than 6–7 hours a night). Sleep researchers have published numerous studies highlighting the horrendous physical, emotional, mental, relational, and even moral damage that results from sleeping too little. Hence the multibillion-dollar industry in computerized mattresses, hi-tech pillows, and various exotic scents. In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I list a number of practical steps that scientists have found to be effective in promoting better sleep.

But often the core problem behind our sleeplessness are wrong views of God and of ourselves.

For example, ask yourself what’s behind your sleep deprivation. What beliefs are driving your decisions about bed-times and rise-times? How about some of these:

I am indispensable. Sure, I believe God is sovereign, but he needs all the help I can give him. If I don’t do the work, who will? Although Christ has promised to build his church, who’s doing the night shift?

I am indestructible. I am strong enough to cope without God’s gift of sufficient daily sleep. I refuse to accept my creaturely limitations and bodily needs. I see myself more as a machine than a human being.

I am infinite. I can neglect my body, and my soul will not suffer. I can weaken my body and not weaken my mind, conscience, or will.

I am an idolater. What I do instead of sleep shines a spotlight on my idols, whether it be late-night football, cultivating my online persona, surfing the Internet, ministry success, or promotion. Why sleep when it does nothing to burnish my reputation or advance my glory?

Lullaby Gospel Truths

The only way to suffocate these destructive flames is with health-giving truths such as:

God is my heavenly Father. As God cares for me more than the sparrows, I can trust him to provide for me in every way and so I cast all my cares, including my career and my children, upon him (Matthew 6:25–27).

God is good. His command to sleep is not optional advice for the weak, but a loving gift that I must gratefully receive (Psalm 3:5).

God is truthful. Therefore, when he says that it is vain, it is utterly pointless, for me to rise too early or stay up too late (Psalm 127:1–2), he’s telling me the truth. I will believe this even when I’m convinced that sleeping less and working longer will benefit me or the church.

“Often the core problem behind our sleeplessness are wrong views of God and of ourselves.”

God is my protector. “Father, I’m sometimes afraid for my job, my church, or my country, but I believe Psalm 4:8, which says, ‘In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.’”

God is strong. I am not. I will therefore respect rather than stretch the limitations of my weak humanity and trust far more his almighty divinity.

Do you see that when and how long we sleep makes a huge statement about what we believe about ourselves and God?

What About the Puritans?

One burned-out pastor confessed to me that he had been depriving himself of sleep for years because “that’s what the Puritans did.” If they could do it, why couldn’t he? After eventually accepting that his frail humanity needed rest, he said,

As long as we are working hard while we work and getting the sleep our body needs, we are honoring the Lord. In fact, I was quite dishonoring God by saying, “I realize you tell me in Psalm 127 that sleep is a gift. But really, why don’t you give it to somebody else? Somebody more needy. Somebody less superhuman. Some mere mortal, on whom the world is not depending so much?”

I was also abusing coffee, trying to compensate. I was a paper Calvinist, but a closet Pelagian, working more by law than by love. Work is good. But it’s only good if it’s anchored and totally conditioned by grace. Now I’m receiving grace and receiving the grace of sleep. Because my Father is good and I am needy.

Many godly Christians who have tried to follow the reported sleeping practices of the Reformers and Puritans died as young as many of them did.

Firefighter with Faith

“When and how long we sleep makes a huge statement about what we believe about ourselves and God.”

Hopefully this step-by-step guide to replacing false theology with true theology in the area of sleep will encourage you to tackle other fires that may be burning you up from within. After lack of sleep, the three biggest and most common fires I’ve seen in the lives of charred counselees have been neglect of a weekly Sabbath, digital intoxication, and false identity.

Regarding the latter, the most common false identities I encounter are “I am my children” (mainly women), and “I am my career” (mainly men). Not surprisingly, anticipating this future problem, God put a specific gender-related curse on each of these areas to ensure they would never satisfy or fulfill us (Genesis 3:16–19).

Ask yourself what false beliefs stoke these and other fires, and what biblical truths will put them out in your heart.