The Hidden Cause of Burnout

Burnout—the state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion—is a hot topic these days (sorry for the fire-related puns). There’s even been a whole book written on how Millennials (my generation) has become the “burnout generation.” Writers often blame a wide-variety of things that cause burnout. Explanations have ranged from the pressures placed on kids from a young age to economic insecurity based off of the 2008 financial collapse, to unrealistic and unrelenting demands from work and many other phenomenons. All of those are certainly plausible to some degree. All of those things can definitely conspire together to wear someone out.

But I think there’s a hidden cause of burnout that is often excluded from the discussion: legalism. And by legalism, I mean the Bible’s definition of legalism: attempts by people to earn their salvation. Now, such a explanation may seem ludicrous to you because most people are not consciously thinking, “I need to be a good person so that God will save me.” Most people aren’t even Christians! But that’s precisely my point. As a Christian, I am assuming that God made the world and we’re living in it. And if we’re living in God’s world, we’re required to live according to and up to his standards, since he is the Creator. Unfortunately, all of us have sinned and fallen short of his standards and deserve his wrath, an eternity in Hell apart from his presence (Romans 3:23; 1 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

The pressing question of human existence, whether acknowledged consciously or not, is, “How can sinful people be reconnected with their holy Creator?” Since I believe the Bible gives us an accurate diagnosis of the human condition, then I believe that all people are attempting to answer that question on some level. It’s just that the answer that most people come up with is “Do better; try harder. Be a good person.” In other words: legalism. But legalism then leads to ceaseless striving. Striving to be “better.” Less racist, less sexist. The best version of oneself. The problem is not we can become, nor would ever know, if we have become the best version of ourselves. If we happened to know we’ve become our best selves, then we could be tempted to stop trying to improve for a moment, if we stopped trying to improve, we could slip into complacency, and if we’re complacent…then we’re not the best version of ourselves!

Now, some people attempt to short-circuit the crushing demand of explicit or implicit legalism by declaring, “I am enough!” The problem is that we really can’t make these kind of declarations about ourselves. We have to receive validation from others. Do you know what we call people who don’t care what other people think about them and live only for their own desires? Sociopaths. It makes no sense for an inspiring artist to create a piece and think, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks; I like it. That’s all the matters.” Actually, to make a living it definitely matters what other people think. All of us want the validation of others, especially our parents. That’s why people have so many mommy and daddy issues. They may have never received the proper validation from their parents.

So if we cannot render a verdict on ourselves, where must it come from? The Bible tells us: God. That’s what the doctrine of justification by faith—which lies at the heart of the gospel—is all about. To be “justified” in the Bible means that God declares us not sinful but righteous (Romans 3:24; 4:4-5). In other words, we stand as condemned criminals before God the Judge. But Jesus lived a perfect life for us and crashes through the court doors, pushes us out of the way, and says to God the Judge, “Punish me for his sins.” Through justification, God renders the verdict over us: “NOT GUILTY.” We go free. But not only do we go free, we go clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. All of Jesus’ goodness now rests on us. So when God sees us, he doesn’t see our sin, he sees Jesus’ perfection place upon us.

What does this have to do with burnout? Everything. Because justification means that at the very core of our being, at the soul level, we can stop striving and rest in Jesus’ work on our behalf. We don’t need to validate ourselves before God; we are validated in Christ alone. We do not get our worth, then, from how productive we are or how beautiful we are, or how good of a parent, friend, or co-coworker we are. We get our worth from Christ. We can say to ourselves, “I am enough because HE was enough.”

So yes, let’s work to create better working conditions. Let’s stop the crush of expectations and demands from our jobs. Let’s try to build an economy where people can feel more secure and bring home what they need to support themselves and others. But let’s not exclude matters of the soul from these discussions: “A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 2:16).

One thought on “The Hidden Cause of Burnout

  1. Jesus was remarkably resistant to burnout during his ministry. What did he do to maintain his wellness? Can we do the same thing?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.