3 Myths That Fuel Burnout (and 1 Truth That Extinguishes Them)

A strong work ethic has always been my calling card. During college and my early career, I packed my schedule from the wee hours of the morning until my head hit the pillow late at night. Though my responsibilities have shifted since then, I still take on too many to-dos, then feel stressed when I struggle to cross them off. In these moments, I hear echoes of my mom’s warning back in my college days: “Honey, don’t burn the candle at both ends.”

Many adults with driven personalities feel compelled to work nonstop. Whether we work at the office or at home, we resist clocking out from tasks or allocating time for breaks. Email inboxes demand our constant attention; school and sports activities consume our weekly schedules. This compulsion even extends to ministry. We realize the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few, so we say yes to commitment after commitment without considering if we can do the work well on top of our current obligations. Wanting to glorify God in all we do leads us to strain our arms with impossibly heavy burdens.

Like the apostle Paul—who suffered fatigue, hunger, and pain as he poured out his life to advance God’s kingdom—we can expect to grow weary at times in our vocations and ministry work. But routinely overextending ourselves carries greater risk than merely making us tired. It can jeopardize our health and ability to serve, hinder others from stepping into roles where they can use their gifts, and captivate our hearts with working for Christ rather than with Christ himself.

This temptation to overwork stems from wrong assumptions about who we are and what God is calling us to do. Identifying three myths we believe about work—and reasserting the truth that should guide our actions—can help us avoid burnout as we labor to shine the light of the gospel.

Burnout Myth #1: We Have to Do It All

Why do we assume we should juggle so many tasks? A viral BuzzFeed article suggests it’s because we were raised to believe we have to work all the time. Reporter Anne Helen Petersen asserts that trends in the economy, technology, parenting styles, and social media conditioned us to become “lean, mean production machines” who push ourselves to exhaustion yet still feel the urge to press on.

Often, though, the root of our work compulsion is sin. We want to be like God—limitless, all-powerful masters of our domains. Just as those who built the Tower of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves by the work of their hands, we take on every available task and fill all open time slots, stacking bricks for our own little kingdoms.

Instead of striving for control of our lives and circumstances, we need to acknowledge and trust in God’s sovereignty. Our Father in heaven is always working for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). He feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the fields (Matt. 5:26–29). He never sleeps (Ps. 121:4) and holds all things together in and through his Son (Col. 1:17).

Knowing the Lord reigns on his eternal throne, we can say no to tasks we can’t realistically complete. We can ask the supervisor to let us finish the project on Monday rather than over the weekend, or politely decline opportunities to volunteer on a more frequent basis. Accepting God’s sovereignty frees us from grasping for control and hustling till we drop.

Burnout Myth #2: God Needs Us

Many of us who grew up in the church are well familiar with the calling to be approved and unashamed workers (2 Tim. 2:15). But even when laboring to bring God glory, we can fall into sin by acting as though God needs us to accomplish his will. If we stop, how else will his kingdom advance?

This pseudo-stewardship mindset requires a spiritual reboot. While we’re commanded to work heartily unto the Lord and take care of creation, we must remember we’re part of creation. God grants us many wonderful skills and abilities, but he doesn’t imbue us with his omnipotence or self-sufficiency. He always accomplishes what he wills without any assistance from his weak and wayward children.

Moreover, God crafted us as his workmanship to walk in the good works he prepared (Eph. 2:10). And his command for us to rest demonstrates how our good works depend ultimately on him. Trust in his supremacy frees us to step away from our jobs for a time, allowing us to slow down and remember our utter dependence on him. Regular intervals of rest affirm our trust that God’s Word will go forth by his power—not ours.

Burnout Myth #3: We Have to Do It Alone

Pausing to rest honors the Lord and helps us recharge. But achieving perfect work–life balance is a pipe dream. Bosses and babies don’t always respect our need for downtime. People who work high-demand occupations, single moms or dads, and full-time caregivers rarely catch a break from their taxing responsibilities.

When heavy workloads threaten to overwhelm us, we can remember God didn’t create us to operate alone. He provided Adam a helper: Eve. He sent his Spirit as a comforter and guide. He formed the body of Christ to serve his people and the world. His Word exhorts us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

If we start feeling stretched too thin, we must crush our pride and ask for help. Because God designed us to live in community, we need to team up as gospel co-laborers and lean on one another for reinforcement. We can delegate tasks to coworkers so we can focus on a separate project, or text a friend to help watch the kids if we need to run to an appointment. Many hands make the load lighter than trying to carry it on our own.

For ultimate relief from burnout, we can only turn to our Savior. He took on the weakness of humanity, dripping blood, sweat, and tears through work as a carpenter and ultimately death on a cross. As undeserved beneficiaries of Christ’s finished labor, we get to radiate the glory of his everlasting light.