The Subhuman Life
It’s easy to settle for a subhuman life. Despite all our efforts, achievements, and success, many of us discover each night that our hearts don’t rest. You might think that busyness is just a modern problem, but King Solomon reminds us that we are facing an ancient struggle: “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest” (Eccles. 2:22–23).
This isn’t a problem only for busy and important people. It’s a problem for everyone:
- A sixth grader wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to get to swim practice. She goes to school all day then rushes to piano lessons in the afternoon. Straining under her parents’ Ivy League expectations, she stares at homework until 9:00 p.m.
- A college student, pumping Red Bull into his bloodstream, takes honors classes and volunteers at the soup kitchen to build his ré-sumé. He works out twice a day and attends every social event to avoid being single and alone.
- Young married couples are pulling fifty to sixty hours per week each at work. Since they have no children, they also feel it’s their Christian duty to lead a small group, serve in children’s ministry, sit on the church finance committee, and participate in neighborhood cleanups. They’re exhausted and feel guilty about their exhaustion. They think, “Maybe we’ll slow down when we have kids.”
- A new mom is bitter with the sudden life change. Just a few months ago, she was up-to-date on the latest fashion, up late for girls’ night out, and spending an hour every morning pouring over the Scriptures and her women’s Bible study. Now she’s up for the 2:00 a.m. feeding and diaper change. She can’t even get quiet time on the toilet.
- The fifty-year-old businessman can’t keep up with this new generation. He sees younger men willing to work twice as long for half as much. It threatens his livelihood and his identity. In spite of a failing body and his doctor’s warnings, he works round the clock. He doesn’t want a heart attack, but he doesn’t know how to slow down.
I could go on, but I hope you see the point. This is the North American church. The examples I’ve shared are not exceptional case studies but the common experience of people in our churches, from pastors to preschoolers. We are all going somewhere. We’re all running late. We’re all too stressed out to see what’s happening.
Step back for a moment and consider what our busy lives communicate to our neighbors. Children are busier. People are unhappier. Pastors are quitting. Thirty-five hundred churches close their doors each year. Louder than any sermon, our lives are shouting:
- We don’t trust God.
- We don’t know how to stop working.
- We don’t know how to enjoy life.
We settle for less than we’re made for. We settle for less than Jesus paid for. We refuse to stop. We refuse God’s rest. We aren’t meant to live this way. It’s a compulsive, subhuman life.
The Compulsive Cycle
I’ve lived it. In 2010, I had completed nearly ten years of ministry. We were in the midst of a capital campaign to renovate a new building. Externally, things looked great. But I was burned out and dying inside. It all climaxed in Florida. We did beach things. My kids buried me in the sand. We ate out at seafood places. But I was a zombie. The one or two days of slowing down and settling at the start of a needed vacation never ended. Reality felt distant. My wife Mandy can always tell when I’m tired. On this trip, even my in-laws noticed: “What’s wrong with Daniel? Is he not feeling well? He doesn’t seem his usual self.” Reading the Bible was dull. My prayers felt parched. I was afraid. Is this how pastors die spiritually? Where is God? Is this my life?
I called a pastor friend. I explained my state. How did this happen? It all felt so sudden, but it wasn’t. This was half a decade in the making. I reaped what I had sown. Soon, with the help of others, I could articulate exactly what happened.
Christian leaders often find themselves in that place—emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. A few years back, Rich Plass and Jim Cofield, from Crosspoint Ministries, listed seven signs of burnout for the Sojourn Network website. I was exhibiting most of them.
Why do we burn out? Sometimes there are external factors (e.g., a severe illness in the family; overwhelming financial pressure because of a job loss), but sometimes our souls are at risk because of the compulsions driving us from within.
Receive God’s Presence
There’s good news for leaders stuck in a cycle of compulsion. God wants you to put down your performance and be fully awake to his presence. God has a better way. Instead of burnout, God invites leaders to participate in communion with him. Contemplative leaders receive God’s transforming presence. They are fully awake to it. And as a result, they give their transforming presence to others.
This article is adapted from Leadership Mosaic: 5 Leadership Principles for Ministry and Everyday Life by Daniel Montgomery.
1. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), 207–8.
2. Josh Levs, “Overscheduled Kids, Anxious Parents,” CNN, March 10, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/08/living/overscheduled-busy-children.
3. Carolyn Gregoire, “Happiness Index: Only 1 in 3 Americans Are Very Happy, according to Harris Poll,” The Huffington Post, June 1, 2013.
4. “Statistics in the Ministry,” Pastoral Care, Inc., accessed July 10, 2015, http://pastoralcareinc.com/WhyPastoralCare/Statistics.php.
5. Jack Wellman, “Why We Are Losing So Many Churches in the United States,” Christian Crier, October 26, 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2013/10/26/why-we-are-losing-so-many-churches-in-the-united-states.
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