“As the people stood in the distance, Moses entered into the
deep darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21, NLT)
When I was 27 years old, I walked into the darkest time of my life. I didn’t know at the time that in this darkness I would also meet God.
I was a young missionary, exhausted from living. My stomach constantly ached. Taking a shower left me feeling so depleted I needed a nap to recover from it. Deciding what to make for supper was harder than a calculus exam. I could barely concentrate on work. Suppressing my tears became futile and I often cried for no reason.
I was a missionary who didn’t want to see people. Frankly, I was too tired to really care about them. I felt adrift and alone. I couldn’t see anything beyond myself.
God felt distant and terribly silent.
Initially, I thought these were symptoms of depression. But as I consulted with colleagues and medical professionals, I realized that I had burnt out.
From a very young age, I felt an acute sense of responsibility to do all things with excellence. My parents were entrepreneurs. They taught me the value of hard work and productivity. Words like “excellent” and “conscientious,” scrawled on my report card, propelled my deeper need to justify my existence in the world. I strived to do my best in everything.
My parents also taught me about effective time management. In grade school, my mother made me extensive schedules broken down into half-hour increments. She’d list everything I had to do, from the moment I got home until bedtime.
I continued this practice in university. There were no smartphones or online calendars yet, so my day-planner was my second Bible. I would use extra fine point pens to cram as much writing as I could into each tiny square, taking pride in seeing all my appointments and deadlines colour-coded.
I wanted my life to count. I’d learned in church that Jesus had paid for it with His blood. And I felt like I owed Him back. Big time. So I taught myself to say, “Yes.”
Yes, I’ll join the youth group committee…
Yes, I can lead the worship team this month…
Yes, the meeting can be at my place…
Yes, I’ll take part in starting the campus fellowship…
I wanted to prove my love for Jesus. So I also said “Yes” to going to China for two years to be a missionary. This meant cramming the last three courses of my undergraduate degree into six weeks. No breaks. No rest days. No holidays. And barely any bathroom breaks!
I figured I would rest when I got to Heaven…
The life of an overseas missionary proved demanding. There was a new culture to learn, a new way of doing ministry to become familiar with, a new language to acquire, and a new team to bond with. By the second year, tension was growing between my always-on-the-go missionary lifestyle and my innate need for solitude, contemplation and artistic expression. My soul was slowly suffocating–but I didn’t feel like I had permission to step back.
I pushed on for another two years. “One more year over there,” I’d agreed. But four months into it, I crashed. I found myself unable to function at the most basic level.
Broken, humbled and confused, I moved back to Canada. My parents graciously took me in. The initial months consisted mainly of sleeping, eating, and sleeping some more. I went to a new church where no one knew me. I saw nobody except for my best friend. I found space to heal.
It was a quiet, lonely time. As I slowly regained strength, I started to see a counselor to help make sense of why I had burned out. Taking his advice to heart, I requested an extended medical leave from work. My counselor told me it would probably take two years to get back to full capacity. It turned out to be three years.
It was an excruciatingly slow recovery process. I was tempted to “take my temperature” every day. I remember wondering, six days into my leave, why I didn’t feel better yet. But I had to learn to trust God again: to trust He was working even when I didn’t see any changes. I had to let my body catch up on the rest it had been deprived of. No one could see or measure the depth of my pain and extent of my tiredness. I had to let my soul revive itself.
The hardest part was learning how to do nothing. I wondered whether people secretly thought I was being lazy. In the heart of the darkness, I wrestled with soul-defining questions:
Who is God and what does He want from me?
What do I need to accomplish to be worthy of His love?
If I don’t complete another task in my life will I still be worth loving?
It was hard to comprehend how the answer to this last question could be “Yes.” Yet this was the truth God was daring me to embrace. Jesus had already done it all: I had nothing to prove. All I needed to do was let God love me for who I was.
I was redefined in the darkness. The “me” who emerged from the aftermath of burning out was entirely different from the “me” who had headed overseas so zealously. As I let the truth of God’s grace and total acceptance infuse my soul, I became freer, less fearful, and more rested. I began to say “No” to requests. I had to embrace my limits and respect my introverted needs. It wasn’t easy but I learned how to decline invitations. I was content staying at home by myself when I needed to rest.
I began to fill my days with life-giving things. I discovered that naps could be holy and that jigsaw puzzles weren’t just for children! I found joy in buying flowers for myself. I took up writing and painting again. I finally experienced the “unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:29, MSG) that Jesus had invited me to all along.
I had spent fourteen years ignoring my own needs in the name of “self-sacrifice.” But at the end of it all, I no longer had a “self” to sacrifice. When it was all stripped away, I was left facing the embarrassing truth that I had been driven by fear. I had lived my life based on performance, people-pleasing and perfectionism. I’d tied my worth to how productive I could be. I had spent so much time trying to tell others about the God’s grace and unconditional love. But I hadn’t actually believed in it myself. And I certainly hadn’t lived it. I had tried to earn God’s acceptance–but had only burned myself out in the process.
“Burnout is a state of emptiness… but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
Burnout returned me to the foot of the cross. I had travelled the world to tell others about Jesus but He brought me home to help me experience this truth: Christ’s extravagant love was for me, too.
Photo credit: Caitlinator