When You Can’t Seem to Bounce Back…

After my head-on collision with pastoral burnout, a Christian counselor told me bluntly: “You didn’t get this way overnight. You won’t get healthy overnight either.” 

Outwardly I nodded my most humble nod.

Inwardly I thought, Oh yeah? Just watch. I’ll pray, read, and podcast my way out of this in no time at all!

Given six weeks off, I did my best Rip Van Winkle impersonation. I took long, drooling mid-morning snoozes, post lunch and pre-supper naps. I retreated to a friend’s lake house and gawked at God’s gorgeous creation. I did a lot of journaling and went to counseling. I studied the prophet Elijah’s burnout (1 Kings 16-18) and read several books on the soul—wearing out a couple highlighters in the process. Forty plus days of very little doing and a whole lot of being.

Can you believe at the end, I felt more tired than when I started?! 

Doctors explained that when we push too long and hard without resting, our bodies have to pump adrenaline to keep up. Problem is, our adrenal glands were designed to provide an occasional, short-term boost—mostly for emergencies. Adrenalin was never meant to power our lives in an ongoing way. This is why a rest-less lifestyle always wreaks havoc on our bodies and souls. We don’t realize how depleted we actually are until we stop. 

Thankfully, if/when we do crash, there are people and prescriptions, old truths and new habits that can help us recover. But mostly, when we get to the place of sheer exhaustion, what we really need is time.

Think about it. You can refill a glass of water in a couple of seconds, a pond in a few weeks. What about something as big as a soul? 

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Odd, isn’t it? In some Bible stories, one divine word, one holy touch, and grim situations are immediately reversed. More commonly, however, God takes his time. 

How else do we explain the prominent biblical theme of “waiting on the Lord”?  Book after book, it’s forty years of this hard situation and four hundred years of that unresolved mess. 

To be sure: God always does what he promises, but he’s never in a rush. “Quick fixes” are the exception, not the rule. 

After pushing too hard for too long, I had to embrace a crucial truth: Time wasn’t my enemy; it was my friend (and a necessary part of my restoration). I learned that the slow journey to wholeness is being every bit as important as the destination. 

If God isn’t in a big hurry, why are we?

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Here’s a two-part hack for exhausted souls:

First, be patient with God. Though his purposes can be tedious, they’re transformative. While you’re tapping your foot waiting, he’s doing far more than you know. He’s using the chisel of time to shape you in deep ways you can’t yet see. 

Second, resist that powerful urge to speed up the healing process. Hurry is the dysfunctional response of a disordered heart. It’s a big part of how you got in trouble in the first place! Racing to try to get well will be like gulping seawater to quench your thirst!

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One day I heard a thump on our patio door. Peering through the glass I saw a beautiful ruby-throated hummingbird laying on the brick pavers. 

I winced. Everyone knows that hummingbirds have only two speeds: frenetic and dead. This little guy’s whizzing and buzzing days were obviously over, brought to a screeching halt by an unyielding pane of glass. 

Only they weren’t over. 

After a few seconds, the bird moved slightly. A few minutes more and it managed to struggle into an upright position. The poor guy looked so groggy you could almost see tiny cartoon stars swirling above his head. 

I left. 

When I returned a couple hours later to check on him, he was gone. 

My little friend just needed some time. Of course. After a big crash it can take a while to regain your bearings. 

Are you empty? Here’s permission to sit and be. Take as long you need. Time is your friend, not your enemy.