Today’s post is by Sarah Abbey. You can read more of her work at her blog, A Penny of A Thought.
As a Christian apologist, I firmly believe that every follower of Jesus Christ should be equipped to share the reasons for the hope they have in God. Apologetics is an invaluable tool that can lead seekers into a relationship with God and strengthen believers when their faith wavers.
But there are times when great tiredness and significant suffering stifle my love for apologetics and my passion for evangelism. In those moments, figuring out how to defend my faith is not what I want or need. While apologetics is a good tool for answering intellectual doubts, I, along with every other Christian, need more than apologetics when burnout and difficult circumstances hit the shoreline of my heart like repeated tidal waves.
In these difficult seasons, I’m worn out from defending the reasonableness and trustworthiness of the Christian message. I wish faith could be blind, so I could respond to the objections by saying “just believe.” Just as the constant crash of waves can pummel the coastline, the unrelenting and difficult objections to Christianity can leave me feeling beaten and bruised.
And life itself is hard. There’s no Biblical promise that dedicating ourselves to the mission of Jesus will spare us from suffering. To the contrary, it is often when we are the most exhausted that we hear the worst news. The aches and pains of difficult circumstances lead us into a suffering that is beyond the reach of our best arguments.
This has become very real for me in the past few months. I have experienced great weariness that has caused me to cry out to God, doubting his goodness and my role in his “plan.” In those moments, while I clung to Him, the apologetic answers I had learned about God’s goodness in the face of suffering did not offer me the comfort I was hoping for. They may have been intellectually deep, but they felt experientially shallow.
Walking through that experience has taught me a great deal about how to live faithfully before God in the midst of great suffering and doubt. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
I hope that by sharing with you what carried me through this difficult season that you will be similarly encouraged in your own hard times. Here are six restorative practices I recommend for times of burnout and suffering.
Remember the Story of God’s People
The first thing I have needed to remember was that tiredness and suffering is not just my experience, but is a constant refrain among the people of God. For instance, think of the weariness of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After an amazing display of faith in God where he stood against the prophets of Baal (450 of them!) and saw his enemies dramatically defeated, he ran fearfully into the wilderness. There, in a suicidal state he asked God to take his life. He was about as burnt out and depressed as anyone can get.
Or think of John the Baptist. He was Jesus’ cousin, had baptized Jesus, and was the first to proclaim that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)! Yet when he was thrown in prison with no indication that Jesus was seeking to free him, John doubted. He sent word to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:2-3)
If Elijah grew weary and John the Baptist doubted his confidence in Jesus, both great heroes of faith, it should not surprise me when I, or other Christians, experience times of weariness and doubt. There is a great encouragement in learning that God’s people have always had these experiences. Remember that you are not alone.
Take a break from ministry
There are times we need to take a step back from apologetics and our other ministry involvements. Responding to thoughtful objections requires our best thinking – something we cannot offer when we are physically and emotionally weak. When you are in existential turmoil, it is entirely appropriate to close that book by Richard Dawkins claiming science proves God isn’t real, to set aside the argument from Bart Ehrman opposing the historical reliability of Jesus, and let your mind rest.
Focus on something else. Heed the words of Jesus to his disciples after they had gone through a time of intense ministry: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31). This isn’t running from hard questions – I recommend Christians read the challenges of atheists so they are better prepared for evangelism. But any worthwhile project includes struggle, and engaging in that struggle will mean taking occasional breaks.
When suffering, take doubts one at a time
As important as it can be to take a break from apologetics when facing weariness and doubt, it’s also important not to swing to the extreme of ignoring the doubts that inevitably come. We need to rest, but we also need to wrestle with our doubts.
The difficulty is that it’s very rare for doubt to impact us only intellectually. Doubt is emotionally and spiritually taxing, which is often where the weariness factor comes into play. This is a crucial point because we tend to discuss the intellectual aspects of doubt and forget how exhausting this experience can be on our whole being. Sometimes the intellectual defense of the Christian faith rings hollow because our doubts are not based on reason but come from bad experiences and negative emotions. In those moments we need to remember that while intellectual answers don’t always take away our emotional turmoil, they can give us a firm foundation to stand on in the midst of the storm.
Because doubts can be so powerful, it’s wise to consider tackling them one at a time. If you’re questioning the historical reliability of the Bible, the relationship between faith and reason, or how a good God can allow suffering and evil, consider digging deeply into one topic alone rather than all three at once. Not only will this help protect you from unneeded confusion and burnout, it will also help you fully engage intellectually, emotionally, and experientially with the topic at hand.
Remember why we have hope
As we wrestle with doubts, weariness, and suffering, let us not forget what our hope is based on. Don’t let uncertainty in one area overshadow certainty in another. Ultimately, our hope is not based upon our ability to find the answer to every doubt or understand the reason for the suffering we are experiencing.
Rather, our hope is based on the trustworthy character of God. Ultimately, God is the one who made us and loves us. God is the one who implemented a plan of salvation that stretches through the millennia, culminating in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Because Jesus reigns over all, and death is defeated, we may be confident that God will prevail in our own lives, even when our circumstances are very difficult. Even death cannot stop the restorative work of Jesus, the Risen King.
Cultivate healthy emotions and imagination
There is a subtle, yet real danger when Christians tend to focus on the intellectual aspect of faith to the detriment of our emotions and imagination. So often we divide life into compartments, viewing our intellect, emotions, and imagination as silos on the farm of our personhood. But in reality our intellect, emotions, and imagination are more like spaghetti in the bowl than silos.
All three are so intertwined and connected that they cannot help but impact each other. So as we rest, deal with doubt, and remember why we have hope, we need to do this holistically. Read stories, watch movies, listen to music, write poetry, paint, and play sports. Do whatever strengthens your emotional and imaginative wellbeing. We need to be equipped to share all the reasons for our hope in Christ, not just the intellectual reasons.
Finally, we need to remember that faith, like a muscle, will require added weight to grow strong. Any weightlifter can tell you that training is not easy. As the weights grow heavier new strength has to be developed. At first the weight seems too strong and weariness sets in quickly. Doubts over whether the new weight can be sustained are prevalent. Yet with committed training the muscles grow, and with it comes added strength and confidence.
The same principle is true for us as we confront the challenges to our faith. As our faith increases so will the weights that strengthen it. There will be times when we wonder if our faith can prevail. Will it be crushed by the pressure placed upon us? Yet tested faith produces steadfastness (see James 1:2-4). It gives us strength to rest in God’s trustworthy character and the relationship we have with Him through Jesus Christ. The exercise of faith may not always be pleasant, but the strength it will produce will be worth the strain.
When we have intellectual questions, thoughtful answers are the best response. But there will be days when my passion for apologetics will wane, when suffering will leave me weary and overwhelmed with doubt. The same will be true for all Christians.
In these hard times, remember these six principles:
- Remember the Story of God’s People
- Take a break from ministry
- When suffering, take doubts one at a time
- Remember why we have hope
- Cultivate healthy emotions and imagination
- Exercise faith
I pray that you will be encouraged by God in these difficult times. Though it is hard to remain faithful to Jesus when we are enduring suffering, the resulting maturity and intimacy with God are worth it all.
Did you enjoy this post? You can read more of Sarah’s writing at her blog, A Penny of A Thought.