Stressed? Worn out? Running out of energy? Do YOU need to refuel?...
-- Read reviews about Kate's new book called REFUEL - including links to buy the book and her accompanying blog.
Stress is everywhere. At least it certainly seems to be if you read the papers. A quick scan of the headlines will usually reveal a myriad of articles about stress, containing tips to cope with stress, or often blaming stress for a bewildering list of things. But it isn’t just in the papers. Ask a few people you know how they are feeling today and I guarantee that amongst the answers you will get will be either ‘stressed’ or ‘tired’. But how concerned should we be by this? Many would say it is part of the ‘buzz’ of 21st century life. But stress has been linked to several serious health conditions, and has been estimated to be associated with an increased risk of premature death. Might it deserve more of our attention?
What about the church?
In the midst of this stress epidemic, you might expect a message to be coming from within the church offering some kind of answer or alternative to the burnout lifestyle. But the truth is - inside the church we are just as stressed as outside. Or are we? Could it be that some people inside the church are actually more rather than less at risk of stress?
As part of my job I get to travel around and speak at various conferences, training days, events etc. Very often these are Christian events, and it is fantastic fun and a great privilege to get to meet so many people as I visit all these places. Every time after I speak people come to chat to me - fantastic people, inspiring people, people passionate about their faith, about God and about what they feel called to do. They are also very often people who are cracking under the weight of the stress they carry. Of course they don’t always put it that way. Often they come to tell me about their struggle with their emotions - with anxiety or depression or anger. Or they might want to talk about their experiences of a particular condition - an eating disorder, or self harm. Sometimes they come to talk about the challenges of being a leader in the church. But in all of these cases what we end up discussing is the same: how they deal (or struggle to deal) with the impact of the stress that their life exposes them to.
Stress can be a particular problem to passionate and inspired Christians. This might seem like a controversial thing to say, but in reality it is just about maths. How often have you heard people talk about the challenges of juggling work, family, and the rest of their life? Many Christians face an additional challenge. Not only do they need to find time for their work, their family and their life, but also they need to fit in a couple of other things: their faith, which needs time to grow, and also makes certain demands on their time, and their church. Because on the whole, going to church is not just about going to church. Church is not a spectator sport. It is all about getting involved. I’m a leader in church and just like countless leaders across this and many other countries I have several times stood up and put all my energy and enthusiasm into hopefully igniting in the people sat in front of me a vision and a passion for something that requires them to give me and the church some of their time. Sometimes quite a lot of their time. For many of those people, sitting in churches across the country this and each Sunday, balancing their life is about juggling not just life and work but also their faith and the things they long to do for God and their church.
Is any of this sounding familiar to you? Have you ever had one of those moments where you try to do the maths of how you are going to fit everything you need to do in the next few days in (and preferably get some sleep at some point, not to mention hopefully manage to see some of your family within waking hours) and realised it just isn’t possible?! Have you ever got home exhausted from a bad day at work, collapsed into a chair - and then remembered you have a church meeting to go to that evening? Have you ever said yes to something at church because you know that it is something God has given you a huge passion for - something you really long to do - but then had to drop out of it not long after because you simply can’t manage it on top of everything else you have to do? Have you ever fallen ill or felt dreadful and known that part of what you are feeling lies in the pace of your life in the days/weeks leading up to that point?
The problem with stress is that it takes its toll. Time and again I meet people who have been severely limited in what they can do with their life because of the impact stress has had on them, on their families and on their mental and emotional health. So how do we manage the many demands on our time when the maths simply doesn’t add up? Should we simply be aiming to do less?
The twin challenges
If you want to meet a guy who was all about pushing himself to the limits, Paul is a great person to start with. Reading between the lines of what he wrote, we can see a man who was incredibly passionate about what he did. Whether it was persecuting Christians or preaching to them, he threw himself 110% into what he was doing. Paul was not a man who wanted to live an ‘ordinary’ life - he wanted to do something extra-ordinary with his life. He used the analogy of a race: ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.’ (NIV) Paul was wholehearted, focused and determined. He wanted to get the prize. In Philippians 3 he uses this analogy again: ‘one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me’ (Phil 3:13-14 NIV).
Paul never wanted to give any half measures - he gave everything everything that he had. Here’s an example from Acts 20 which shows how he had treated his time on mission in one area: “You know that from day one of my arrival in Asia I was with you totally—laying my life on the line, serving the Master no matter what, putting up with no end of scheming by Jews who wanted to do me in. I didn’t skimp or trim in any way. Every truth and encouragement that could have made a difference to you, you got. I taught you out in public and I taught you in your homes, urging Jews and Greeks alike to a radical life-change before God and an equally radical trust in our Master Jesus.” (Acts 20:17-21 The Msg)
One of Paul’s main aims in life was to achieve the most he could for the thing he was passionate about: for God. Its a theme he comes back to in other letters - for example Collosians 3:23 ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart.’ Paul’s heart is clear: he wanted to give it everything he had.
But at the same time he was aware of another vitally important aim. In Acts 20 he continues ‘What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God.’ (Acts 20:22, 24). Paul wasn’t just about pushing himself now - he wanted to carry on following God and always have the energy and the passion to keep going to the end. Paul didn’t just want to start the race - his aim was to finish the race.
In these short excerpts from Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus, he describes perfectly the twin challenges facing us as Christians. Passionate about our faith, amazed by the generosity and grace of God and inspired to share our own life changing experience with other people, we don’t want to ‘skimp or trim in any way’ either! We want to push ourselves to the limit to do the best we can for God. But at the same time we have another challenge: to be able to keep going. It is no use to anyone if we are only able to continue serving God for a few years and then burn out - if we start of at a sprint and soon have to stop exhausted. We need to be able to finish the race.
So how do we get the balance right? How do we manage this huge challenge of achieving all the things we want to, reaching for the heights that God has dreamed for us and fulfilling the potential stored within us without pushing to too far? How do we push the limits but stay sane?
It’s worth looking at how Paul managed the considerable stress he came under? Want a snapshot of Paul’s stress levels? Check out his description of just some of the things he experienced in his time in ministry: ‘I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.’ (2 Cor 11:23-28 NIV).
Paul was certainly aware of the pressure he was under and he seems to manage a key balance between his drive, and desire to achieve so much in his life and with his own realistic human limits. At the end of the day, he was able to check his ambition and drive and recognise that ‘my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me’ (Acts 20:24 NIV). Paul knew that as big a challenge to him as the things he wanted to achieve was to make sure he kept going: to avoid burning out or dropping out, but to make it to the end.
Don’t lose your zeal …
Paul was a prolific writer, with 13 new testament books to his name. One of these is the book of Romans. Whether you think of it as a lecture or a letter, Romans is an incredible book. NT Wright describes it as ‘a masterpiece’ but also as ‘like being swept along in a small boat on a swirling, bubbling river’. As he says ‘the energy and excitement of it all is unbeatable.’ Written by Paul to the Christians living in Rome, it was a letter that went ahead of him as he planned to visit them, and set out some of his teachings. It is a letter full of advice, wise words, and attempts to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings that had arisen amongst this bunch of new believers.
Romans 12 sets out Paul’s key advice to live by - advice for people who are followers of Jesus in how to live their lives. This is, in essence, a summary of what Paul has learned so far on his own journey as a Christian. It is what he has learned about life. It is valuable advice coming as it does from a man who has had such an experience of God that he has turned full circle from persecuting Christians to leading them. Coming also from this high achiever, it is also advice that is particularly pertinent to those of us now, so many years later, who are living lives of trying to ‘pack everything in’.
In Romans 12 Paul sets some pretty high bars for the way we live our life - a series of do’s and don’ts about how to live. Hidden amongst these is a very interesting verse for anyone struggling with stress, or wondering how to manage the various demand on their time - a verse which illustrates perfectly the tension we all carry between doing too much or doing too little. It is Romans 12:11.
How this verse is translated depends a lot on which version of the bible you read. Here it is in the NIV: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.” The Message translates it slightly more starkly: “Don’t burn out: keep yourself fuelled and aflame.” However, confusingly some other translations seem to carry completely the opposite message: here’s one from the NLT; “Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.’
So which is it, should we be taking care not to burn out, or is the message to work hard? The answer is that this verse speaks perfectly of the balance we need to manage between the two: the tension that exists in these twin challenges, to work hard and get the most out of our short time on this earth, but also to manage our energy well and make it through to the end, to avoid burnout and keep ourselves going. Too often I have heard enthusiastic preachers yell ‘I WANT TO BURN OUT FOR GOD!!’ To understand quite why this well meant, passion driven comment (more about how passion can be related to stress later) is so misguided, you need to look deeper into what Paul meant when he wrote this short but impactful verse.
To understand fully what Paul is saying, you need to look at the original language he used. At the time of writing this I and my family are living in France - a fantastic experience made all the more challenging and rich by the fact that we are living and working in a different language from our native tongue. We are experiencing first hand daily the way in which you can lose some of the meaning of your words when you try to translate into a different language. Sometimes you can translate directly, but often - particularly when there are more complex meanings, something is lost - the essence of what you are trying to say is there, but the nuances of your message can get lost. Paul was of course writing in Greek - as one of the primary languages of the Roman empire. Greek was also one of the most ‘international’ languages of the time - a language spoken by a lot of people across the Roman empire. As such it was perfect for an epistle which Paul hoped would be read by many hundreds of people - as indicated by the subscript found on many manuscripts ‘for the Romans’.
The Greek word used in the key part of Romans 12:11 is ‘oikneros’. This word can have a variety of meanings dependent on the context ranging from to delay/lag behind through to ‘to be slow/hesitant’ or ‘to feel lazy/lethargic, lacking in energy’ - or, as the NIV translates, ‘zeal.’ This is what we need to avoid - losing energy meaning that we drop back or lag behind. There is a sense of having lost the passion that drives us, the drive that keeps us going. In this context it isn’t about laziness, it is about losing your energy, running out of fuel.
In this verse, ‘oikneros’ is used in direct contrast to another word - the greek word ‘zeo’. The meaning of this word is focused all around heat: to boil with heat or be aglow, aflame, hot. You can understand its meaning more clearly by looking at some other contexts in which it was used - for example in Acts 18:25 (where we learn that Apollos ‘had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour [zeo]’) or in Titus 2:14 (we must be a people ‘eager [zeo] to do what is good’).
So, to totally understand Romans 12:11 we need to think about both these sections together. We are advised by Paul to aim to be fervent in the way we live our lives: to boil with heat; be aflame, to be energetic, ‘hot’ and passionate for God. Here then is the sense of pushing the limits, doing all we can to use our lives and gifts as an offering for God. However, we must make sure that whilst living like this we do not lose our ‘zeal’ - our energy, our drive and passion. We are not called to burn out for God! Instead we should work to the maximum of our potential but tread carefully the line between that and pushing it too far. The RSV puts it nicely: ‘Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the spirit, serve the Lord.’ (Romans 12:11 RSV) Here lies the warning to manage our energy sensibly: to tread carefully the line between being all-out for God and burned out for God.
Don’t hold back!
Paul’s message in Romans 12:11 - and the message of this book therefore is not one of holding back. There may be some sensible changes you need to make to your lifestyle in order to manage tress well. But good stress management isn’t just about giving up the things we feel passionate about. Too many people who struggle with stress are advised to give up a lot of the things they love doing. Disempowered and demoralised they step away from jobs they love, ministries they are sure they are called to, situations, people and places they are passionate about. That is not the answer. The key to managing stress is not one of cooling down or suppressing your passion/zeal. It is as Paul advised - keep your zeal, but also keep yourself well fuelled and energised. Manage stress well, so that you stay on fire instead of burning out.
In John’s gospel, Jesus makes a number of statements about who he is, trying to explain to the people around him why he was there. Probably the most well known is in John 10:10 ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10 NIV). There are various different translations of this verse but all have that sense of something more - life in a form that is bigger, better, more than the alternative without Jesus would be. The king James version talks of having life ‘more abundantly’. Perhaps my favourite translation comes from the Message which talks of ‘real and eternal life..more and better life than they ever dreamed of’ (John 10:10 The Msg).
It all brings to my mind the image of a swing. Not just any swing. It is a swing that was in the grounds of the primary school I went to as a kid. To this day I can visualise that swing clearly, in my mind like an old sepia photograph. It had huge, tall posts that seemed to reach high into the sky, as high as the trees that stood next to it. The swing took ages to get going, so there was always a queue and if you managed to get onto it, and have time to get the best out of it before the end of playtime you were lucky. But it was so worth it. Because once you were working that swing well, you didn’t just swing - you soared. High in the air, effortlessly, wonderfully free that swing was like no other. It was everything a swing could ever be and more.
When I read John 10:10, I think of that swing, but also of other swings I have seen - the ones I came across once with my daughter when she was young which had chains on them only a few feet long, so no matter how hard I pushed, she never really got any kind of swing worth having. Or the ones in our local village playground as a teenager which would have been great except someone had spun them over and over the bar until they swung high out of reach on tiny chains. You can still swing on these swings, but it isn’t the same. You cannot get going. You cannot sweep through the sky, or experience the true joy they were designed for. Too many people live life like this, limited, shortened by stress or the impact of stress on their lives. God does not call you to live a half life. He wants more for you - better than you could ever have dreamed of.
Jesus came so that we could have life in all its fulness - life where you soar. His wish for us all is that through Him we can reach our full potential and really experience life. Life to the full is life lived to the max, life where we squeeze every last drop out of it. It is life where we achieve the most we can and truly reach our potential. This is life where we soar. It is not a life of doing less.
The most important thing you do …
So, I wonder how you are feeling as you are reading this? Full of energy? Worn out? Or just flagging a bit? The truth is that if you want to get the most out of your life,- if you want to soar - learning to manage stress well is likely to be the most important thing you do. I see and get to talk to plenty of people who are unlikely ever to be limited in what they achieve in life by their ability. They are very able and very talented in their fields. Neither will they be limited by ay lack of passion or drive. They are well motivated and highly driven to go the extra mile and achieve the best they possibly can. No, the reality is that many of them are being limited by the impact of stress in their life, and on the fact that at no point have they ever learned how to deal with stress healthily. In the twin challenges of their life they run really well, but there’s a very real risk they won’t make the finish line at all. Instead they are forced to leave careers and causes they are passionate about. They wrestle with the clash between a heart which is passionate for a cause, and a body and mind which seems unable to deal with the challenge of going for it.
If you want to push the limits in your life - if you want to achieve the most you can for God, the most important thing you may ever do is take the time out to work through the things covered in this book. If, like Paul, you want to run to win the race, make sure you learn how to sustain your energy - your zeal - right through to the end. Learn what to do in those times when life seems to go crazy. Learn how to recuperate when your energy levels are being drained on every side. Learn the rhythms you need to set into your life in order to make sure you are refuelling your energy regularly. Stay energised, stay healthy, stay ‘fuelled and aflame’ (Romans 12:11 The Msg).
-- This is the opening chapter from 'Refuel: How to balance work, life, faith and church - without burning out' - the new book by Kate Middleton. To read more - including chapters like 'Are you a stresshead?', 'Is your passion stressing you out?' and 'Can you care too much?'. Click here to find out more about the book, including a blog by Kate, check out the website refuel1211.co.uk