Battling with stress and exhaustion
I was in my first year in Singapore Polytechnic, and this was the third time in the week where I had hidden in the school’s toilet cubicle. Stinging tears trickled down my cheeks — this was my only defence against the overwhelming stress and tiredness that threatened to pin me down. School was a dreadful cycle of failures and loneliness; ministry felt burdensome and fruitless; my friendships seemed to be breaking at its seams.
After months of strife, it began to hit me that I was on the edge of complete burnout. My heart was so weary that it couldn’t handle any more negative remarks; I had grown so weak from battling insecurity and inadequacy. I was utterly exhausted in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I reckon that many Singaporeans would be familiar with burnout — a season where chronic stress causes prolonged exhaustion and a sharp decrease in motivation and effectiveness in a person. We confront the high wall of exhaustion, whereby no amount of sleep seems ample in replenishing strength. Self-esteem is at an all-time low, contributing to a lack of motivation to go on, even for the things that we were passionate about. We let out a desperate cry, longing for a way out.
Burnout is most common among people who are constantly serving and helping others. When placed in positions where we regularly give of ourselves, we are able to run on the adrenaline of passion for the things we love. However, adrenaline does not last forever, and we are bound to reach a point where we feel spent and emptied.
I believe that burnout is not a happenstance. It is, instead, a subtle gnawing at our core, one that we remain oblivious to or one that we simply ignore. We troop on — fighting the stress, restlessness, and apathy — only to give in when we buckle from severe exhaustion.
As I crashed to my knees, it felt like the ground beneath me had given way. I collapsed under the weight of fatigue before my God, pouring out my frustrations, emptiness, and everything that I had bottled up in my heart. I had finally come to a place of surrender; I had nothing else to hold on to but the promises of God. In my brokenness, God immediately began to rekindle the fire that had been snuffed out.
I have come to realise that while burnouts tend to lead to breakdowns, it is also a time where we can relent, allowing God to build us back up. Through this trying season, God sowed three beautiful truths in my heart:
When God is placed first, everything else will fall into place
C.S Lewis says, “When first things are put first, second things will not be suppressed, but increased.” In seasons of burnout, God is often not placed as the top priority. In our fast-paced and demanding society, deadlines and other appointments can easily replace our time with God. We bargain with God when it comes to giving Him our lives, offering excuses like “God, this deal is super important, I just need more time to work on this proposal. I’ll spend time with you tomorrow.” We forget that our God is fighting our battles for us, and all we need to do is to be still (Exodus 14:14).
Other times, we allow our serving of God to swallow time spent in intimacy with Him. Our time with God is spent planning for our ministries or serving the body of Christ, to an extent that we do not take the time to take delight in Him. As we learn to take time to delight ourselves in the Lord, He will give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4).
God cares more about who I am than what I can do
In seasons of burnout, we concentrate on what we are doing. God, instead, is more interested in who we are becoming. Burnouts happen when we are overly focused on the result instead of the process. It tends to cause us to compromise on our character in order to get the task on hand done. We allow the heat of the moment to dictate how we react to pressurising situations, rather than aligning our thoughts with God’s, and responding in a right spirit. But God is more concerned about the growth of our character and the journey that we are taking with Him, than the number of success stories our lives can accumulate.
The pressure to excel can get to us, to the point that we hurtle into burnout. We need to let go of human expectations and the desire for man’s approval, whether from our bosses, friends, parents, or even ourselves. The radical revivalist Todd White said, “Once you realise that you are accepted in the beloved, you’ll never fear the rejection of people. Why? Because nobody on this planet can ever take away what they didn’t give you.”
He makes all things beautiful in His time
One night when I was crying and sharing with my brother about the emptiness I felt within me, he turned to me and said, “Amanda, I know it is very painful right now, but whatever God is doing in your life is so beautiful. It may not seem like it to you, but this is what I see.”
I just could not reconcile his observation with what I was feeling. I felt alone and abandoned by God, and could not see His hand in my life. He had forsaken me, leaving me to fend for myself in the lion’s den. There was no conceivable way out.
However, in retrospect, I have come to know how true and accurate that statement was. God was indeed stretching and shaping me, and making all things beautiful in His perfect timing (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We will all face disjuncture between reality and God’s word, however we can choose to give way to our feelings or hold fast onto His promises through the brokenness.
If you find yourself in a season of burnout (or somewhere close), I want to encourage you to “wait upon the Lord” (Isaiah 40:31). “Wait” — which is “qavah” when translated to the Hebrew — means “to wait, to hope, to expect.” It conveys a sense of anticipation and longing. As you wait with an active faith, knowing that God is working things out for your good, may you find the strength to persevere on in the journey God has called you to. As you rest in His promised presence, may you mount on wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not be faint.