Burnout and anxiety

I burned myself out as a church-planter. It took me about eight years, give or take, and by the end I was a smouldering husk of what God intended me to be.

Burnout isn’t just a loss of energy and passion. It breaks you, deep inside. And for me, at least, one of the battles that rose up within my brokenness was overwhelming anxiety. This was a first for me. Sure, I’d felt moments of anxiety. Everyone does, probably. But this was different. Fighting it was exhausting, never-ending. Sometimes all I could do was go back to bed and beg God for a reset.

As my burnout healed, the frequency and intensity of my anxiety waned some. I was thankful for the reprieve. But again, fighting it was exhausting—even with a lifetime’s worth of strong mental habits and deep roots in Jesus and his power.

Lately God has been healing my heart from anxiety in beautiful ways. But it hasn’t come with a magic wand. It’s come through soul surgery, and it’s been both painful and glorious. I’ll get to that. But let me share a bit of my journey.

Understanding anxiety

Anxiety has felt so nebulous and hard to get a handle on in my life. Standard fear, I get: It has an object. If I’m afraid of snakes, I freak out when I see a snake, but the fear vanishes when the snake is vanquished (or I realize it was just a stick).

Anxiety, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have an object. It has more of a subject: Perhaps I fear rejection, failure, embarrassment. That’s harder to deal with, harder to vanquish, isn’t it?

My breakthrough began when God showed me that my anxiety isn’t made up of one single thing, but many little things; unknowns, minor frustrations that add up, low-key resentments, the stuff I shove under the bed to deal with later but never do, trust issues, disappointments. Anxiety is the amorphous, cumulative aggregate of my unresolved angst.

Another metaphor: Think of a pot of water that represents my stress level, heating up on the element of life. If just a single issue is bubbling in the pot, my pot doesn’t boil over. But if all these unresolved issues all get poured in there, my pot froths and spatters all over the stovetop. I feel like I can’t handle my life, and I start to shut down. By the time my body gets involved with its flight-or-flight emergency measures, I’m an emotional whirlpool.

Does this resonate with you?

The pathway to peace and joy

When I realized my anxiety wasn’t a single, formidable titan looming over me that I couldn’t possibly hope to defeat—that it was made up of a buzzing collection of little things I could manage, I saw the path forward. Jesus could help me put those little things to bed, one at a time. He could help me chip away at those tiny, festering bits of unresolved angst.

So I asked him to do that. “Show me what it’s made of,” I prayed. “I’ll go as deep as it takes. Take me where you want to go. Go as deep as you need to go to set me free.” He’s been answering that prayer. Of course he is!

What Jesus has been doing in me since is naming the nameless, dragging out what’s hidden, and focusing on the many little things that have ‘power-rangered,’ combining and morphing into a much bigger thing that’s hard to fight. Bit by bit, as I deal with those little things with God, the stress level in my pot subsides. Well, ‘bit-by-bit’ isn’t actually accurate. I’ve actually been blown away at how quickly this anxiety has dissipated.

There is a proven chemical component to anxiety. I certainly felt that rushing squeeze and weight in my body the past few years. But I once asked a counselor something like, “Does anxiety just ‘come out of nowhere’ at the whim of chemical imbalances, or is the imbalance amplifying what’s already, actually there?” Without hesitation, he replied, “It amplifies what’s already there.” What Jesus has done in my life is help me deal with what’s already, actually there, so there isn’t much for the imbalances to amplify.

I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know your story, but this has proven true in my life.

The best part

For me, anxiety is a signal that my soul is struggling with unresolved angst. My recent healing has grown an eagerness for soul surgery: “Let’s do this, Lord!” I’m to the point where I can’t wait to see what he deals with next, because the fruit and freedom is glorious when I go there.

I haven’t felt anxiety for an entire month now. My heart is full of peace—and often overflowing with joy. Just yesterday, I said to Shauna, “I can’t believe this is real life!” Best of all, my intimacy with Jesus is richer and deeper than ever before. I can’t stop praising him, thanking him, and revelling in my newfound freedom. 

I’ve learned that my struggle—my sin, the unknowns, those minor frustrations that add up, the low-key resentments, the stuff I shove under the bed to deal with later but never do, my trust issues, and the lengthening litany of disappointments? They aren’t something to get over so I can grow my intimacy with God. They are how my intimacy with God is going to grow. They are my one-way ticket deeper into God’s heart. 

Intimacy is about what we share with another person. If I don’t share something with you, I’m choosing privacy over intimacy. The more I give God, the more I experience him, because he fills what we give him. This is why the prophet pleaded with us, “Pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord” (Lamentations 2:19) 

If you pour out your heart to God, holding nothing back—no edits, no flowery words, no pretending—God will meet you there.

As C.S. Lewis once said, “May it be the real ‘I’ who speaks; may it be the real ‘Thou’ I speak to.” God doesn’t talk to masks. He doesn’t validate our lies, our hiding, our public personas. He loves you, the real you—the ugly, flawed, and hurting you. I think one reason some people don’t hear God is that they’re expecting God to meet with a make-believe person.

You don’t get the real Jesus with the fake you. He will meet you in your anxiety. He will show you what it’s made of. And he will lead you into greater freedom if you let him.

What stood out to you about this post? Do you agree? Disagree? Let’s talk!


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