Words Matter series

Burn out is not failure.

The amount of comments, blogs, posts, books, videos, and opinions about burn out that have been shared this past year is overwhelming. I likely have burn out from those more than the real aspects of my life…

But nonetheless it feels necessary to address the topic as a part of this Words Matter series.

First, to talk about burn out we have to attempt to define burn out – or at least discuss what the experience is that people are trying to talk about when they use the words burn out.

In listening to how people talk about it, I would say burn out is the feeling of exhaustion experienced because of an unhealthy striving. This phenomenon seems to be what most people are referencing when they say they have burned out. It’s emotional, mental, & physical, and almost always related deeply to their spiritual lives.

[The World Health Organization defines it this way: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”]

When people talk about it, they almost always do thru negative language. And it’s pretty much always discussed as a failure.

Which leads to needing to understand what people define as success and failure – whether consciously or unconsciously. Which has deep implications for their lives and how they talk about life thru those lenses.

Since burn out is mostly talked about as failure from what I’ve seen, I find myself asking the question “Why?”

Why is burn out almost exclusively talked about thru negative language as an experience of failure?

Does this have to do with a correct understanding of life or our definitions of success and failure?

Must we classify burn out in such binary terms, or is it possible to see burn out through a less binary lens?

I would suggest that it’s always pertinent to look to the Scriptures in our attempts to understand life, and describe our experiences. There are likely many places we could go to look for examples of what we might call burn out today, but I will reference one: 1 Kings 19.

[I suggest clicking on that link and reading the entire chapter before continuing.]

Here is a portion:

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life…He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”…He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

1 Kings 19:3-9

If you read the whole chapter, then you also know what comes next is the famous “the Lord is in the whisper” story. It’s quite powerful. But even more so when we know the part of the story that precedes it.

Elijah had likely experienced burn out. Ready for his life to be over, he was emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. It took sleep and food, as well as the intervention of an angel for him to continue on.

And yet the angels response, and even God showing up in the whisper later, gives us insight into how to understand this moment in Elijah’s life. The angel is not surprised by Elijah’s limitedness, and neither is God. He is human after all. God does not seem upset, nor taken back by Elijah’s needs – emotionally, mentally, and physically. And all of that ultimately leads to a deeply formative spiritual reality for Elijah.

Without the burn out would Elijah have been able to know God in the same way?

I think it’s a valid question. And my opinion would be no.

The burn out – or the reaching of the necessary end of his limits – provided the context for Elijah to know God truly in the way He desired to be known.




God provides for Elijah’s most basic needs in the moment of his greatest exhaustion: food, rest, and relationship.

Where is God in Elijah’s burn out? Right there with him.

Not waiting on the other side.

Not in the miraculous moment the burn out was preparing him for.

Not in the successful moments before the burn out.

This was not an issue of Elijah failing. This was simply an issue of Elijah being human. And God treated it as such.

Most of us today struggle to hold our experiences of life open-handedly. We rush to classify them in temporal ways. Maybe in order to make sense of them.

What if whatever version of success that leads you to strive to the point of burn out is not success at all, and thus burn out actually becomes the most successful thing you do in the process?

Because success for God is defined by closeness in your relationship with Him. And if your “goals” are getting in the way of that, He has built in an amazing thing to us as humans that help us reorient ourselves: limits.

And those limits mean you will burn out. It’s not really if you will burn out. It’s just when.

And when you do, God will not come to you like a boss to talk to you about being a failure.

He will come to you as a Father to talk to you about being His child.

And experiencing God like this is powerful. Because He has your full attention. You (and your actions) are no longer the center of your life. Your striving has stopped. And thus God can show you how much your life is actually worth, how much He cares about you, and how loved you truly are. And all of that requires a willingness to receive, which almost always only comes after we feel we have nothing else to give.

Viewing burn out as failure mostly comes from the modern business culture of our day – which views productiveness as the highest goal of life. God is concerned with your being before He is concerned with your doing. He wants you to be productive in your doing, but only insofar as you are connected to Him in your being.

Burn out is an opportunity for us to evaluate our priorities. To evaluate our definitions of success and failure. To learn to live within our limits. And to learn to give ourselves grace when we reach them.

We’re only human after all…

May we recover healthier language and more complete understandings of what it is God is at work doing in our lives.

May we reframe how we talk about burn out and our own experiences of being human.

It’s these kinds of experiences that become crucial places God can most clearly teach you about who He really is and who you really are.

You are not what you do.

And burn out is not failure.

About the author

Drew Anderson

Son. Brother. Husband. Father. Friend. Mentor. Spiritual Director. Consultant. Coach. Student. Communicator. Organizer.

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