Just reading that word makes me want to yawn. The dictionary defines exhaustion as, ‘a state of extreme physical or mental fatigue,’ or, ‘the action or state of using something up or of being used up completely.’ It’s a word that communicates weariness of the highest degree.
I think we all know what it feels like to be exhausted physically. We’re drained. Sluggish. Shaky, slow, and ready to collapse onto the nearest surface. Sometimes we’re so tired that we actually have a hard time falling asleep. We just don’t have any energy left in us.
And we’ve all been exhausted emotionally, as well. It’s the same feeling. The same struggle. We’re so drained, weary, and empty of energy. It’s difficult to do the things we normally enjoy, or that we need to do – much less muster up the strength to try new things, or do things we’re uncomfortable with.
Only, unlike physical exhaustion, sleep isn’t enough to make that weariness go away.
Emotional exhaustion gets deeper and deeper. The more stressful situations in our lives, the more intense that pressure grows. The more drained we feel. Because we feel drained, we’re too exhausted to try to ease that pressure. And because we feel helpless to change anything, we feel even more exhausted.
It’s a vicious cycle. And if something doesn’t change, it can swallow us whole.
I’m a very task-oriented person. Sitting still when I have things to do is very difficult for me, and if I’m not accomplishing something I think is productive I feel antsy and anxious. My mind dwells on everything I should be doing at that moment, and I usually end up stressing myself out. Feeling like I’m falling behind.
When I actually do fall behind, it hits me very hard. The guilt of, “I should have this done by now,” makes it hard to focus on actually accomplishing that task, and then I feel guiltier because I’m ‘wasting’ more time. And even my relaxation usually needs to be spent doing something I feel is productive.
Most of the time, accomplishing something is more relaxing to me than if I take time off and just ‘have fun’. Especially if I’m behind in my tasks.
In most social situations, I feel far more at ease interacting with people if I’m doing something at the same time. I struggle with not knowing what to say to others, so you can usually find me in the background – decorating, cleaning up, washing dishes, or doing something else that I feel is helpful.
Most the time it’s just easier to listen. I’m that person that tends to creep people out with how much I know about them, even if we’ve never even talked before, ha. I don’t mean to, but when you spend so much time listening and watching, you learn a lot.
And on the flip side, when you don’t take time to listen or watch, you miss a lot.
So far in 2021, I’ve kept myself very busy. Not as busy as a lot of people, I know, but still, trying to find the right balance of all the different aspects of my life has been a challenge. When I can’t keep up with everything, what can I delay or set aside?
Unfortunately, the thing that I’ve delayed most often has been the thing I need most: my time with God.
I know that I should never let anything come between me and God. And still, I’ve always managed to find some excuse to justify putting off my time with Him… “I’ll have more time later.” “I just can’t focus right now.” “He doesn’t want to spend time with me when I’m so out of it.” “Why would I make Him listen to my whining?”
When I want to justify something, I’ll find a way to do it.
And yet, rarely do I ever get back to that time with God. Most of the time I can’t finish all the tasks I lined up for my day, and if I do, then I’m too exhausted or still too preoccupied to focus on prayer or Bible study. Every night I’ll climb into bed intending to pray for a while, and every morning I’ll wake with foggy memories of several half-hearted phrases that I managed before falling asleep.
I am embarrassingly thick sometimes. Even when I know something in my head, God tends to need to knock it into my heart repeatedly, because I just won’t accept it the first forty (or four-hundred) times. I pray that I’ll improve at learning faster, but right now, I am so grateful to serve a God that doesn’t give up on me. One that doesn’t abandon me when I disappoint or frustrate Him. One that will stop at nothing to make sure I learn the lesson – even if it involves pain – so I can reap the blessings later.
This past month has been rough. In addition to the everyday roller coaster of life, and also greatly missing a dear friend1, I mistakenly thought I could take on far more in a short period of time than is practical – or perhaps even possible. And with every new obligation, goal, or project that I agreed to take up, or imposed upon myself, I felt that emotional pressure growing…that exhaustion seeping further and further into me.
Not all those projects are necessary, and I could probably cancel or postpone some of them. But when I set out to do something, it’s extremely hard for me to back out. If I do, I feel I’ve failed. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s plain stubbornness. Likely, it’s both of those and more. Whatever it is, it’s draining.
And the more concerned I’ve been about making sure that I’m doing enough for everyone, the more I’ve justified pushing my time with God aside and promising to make up for it after I’m caught up. When I’ve needed that peace and rest that God provides more than ever, I’ve run from it. When the help I need is next to me, I’ve turned the other way.
Recently, I was blessed to attend a youth retreat as a helper with my church. While I contemplated a bit on whether it was a good idea to be ‘unproductive’ for an entire weekend, I finally agreed to go. As the dates approached, I grew more and more excited, hoping and praying for a major spiritual breakthrough that would leave me rejuvenated and enable me to be a huge – and helpful! – minister to all the kids and adults around me.
And then I spent the entire first day almost positive I’d made a mistake.
I didn’t know the location, any of the rules (the thought of accidentally breaking rules stresses me out, haha), most of the people, or exactly what I was supposed to be doing there. I wasn’t working there as staff, so I wasn’t expected to serve meals or set up activities or any of those things. But I was also there to help. Somehow.
Finding myself in that burst of uncertainty, and already feeling emotionally exhausted, left me very overwhelmed. Typically I can find something to help me feel more confident in those kinds of situations. At least enough that I can sum up the courage or energy to try making others comfortable. But to my frustration, I couldn’t find any of that.
I was very glad for the opportunity, and cherished the kindness that people were showing me, and yet I just felt far too exhausted to reciprocate. And that made me feel guilty, which made me more drained…and again, the cycle continued. Without any of my normal ‘crutches’ of familiar people, places, rules, privacy, schedule, or even meals to lean on, I found myself retreating into a ‘shell’; even quieter than normal.
Every ounce of mental energy was spent in prayer, practically begging God to show me how to find that rest I needed. That energy. That wisdom of how best to help the people I was around. How could I tell them that I wasn’t being quiet because I didn’t like being there, but because I felt useless?
Everywhere I looked, I saw people stepping outside their comfort zones, being outgoing, reaching out to the kids…and I felt too utterly tired to even smile much.
And nothing I did seemed to make any difference in my exhaustion. After all my prayers and hopes that the weekend would be a wake-up call for me, and that I’d be able to be a blessing to others, it felt like I was failing. I was sure I was disappointing not only myself, but the other youth leaders there as well. My frustration with myself grew.
And as usual, the moment I reached the end of myself, was the moment God took over.
I’d been praying for a huge breakthrough. A time where suddenly everything would click into place and my exhaustion would disappear. An ‘aha’ moment that would leave me feeling strong and confident and right at home in the midst of a new place and community.
Instead, I began to hear God speaking to me through countless little things.
Through the worship songs that morning (including one of my favorites: In Christ Alone2), through the teaching about rest and peace (centered around Matthew 11:28-30, which I’d meditated on for hours the previous night), through moving conversations and prayers with the other youth leaders, and through the slower-paced activities that allowed me to bond with the kids and not be preoccupied with rushing to keep up.
Little by little, I realized that I felt calmer. Stronger. More peaceful. I could take deeper breaths, smile more, and be more honest about my uncertainties. I was reminded of the different beauties and strengths of all personalities, and how each one was best suited for ministering to different people.
I gradually stopped making myself feel guilty that I wasn’t as outgoing and ‘fun’ as some of the other leaders there, and started watching for the opportunities to minister in the quieter ways that were natural to me. I still felt uncomfortable. I still felt tired and unsure about the best things to do and say. But I also started listening and watching closely for God’s lessons. His nudges in the right direction. His insights.
And I learned that my focus – while good-intentioned – was wrong. Rest isn’t about doing or not doing anything. It’s about being.
Being honest. Being available. Being willing, and vulnerable, and teachable. Being in a right place with God naturally leads to doing the right things.
When I tried to do or not do things based on what I thought was best, it only led to more desperation, stress, and exhaustion. And when I couldn’t summon the strength to do things that I thought I ought to, I just felt more distant from God. After all, I was trying to be a light for Him. I was trying to find the energy to reach out to the kids and encourage them. Why wasn’t He blessing me with an abundance of that?
He was blessing me with enough. And He was teaching me, through every conversation, song, smile, Scripture verse, and activity. As I turned my focus away from doing things for God and the kids, and focused instead on being close and available to God and the kids, I felt so much more peace. I felt far more rested, even with the constant physical activity and the late nights.
God showed me that while I can do a lot of things that I might think are helpful and pleasing to Him, unless I’ve taken the time to be in His presence and listen to what He actually desires, I’m only working myself ragged for nothing. I may even make things worse because I’m plowing ahead without His blessing.
It’s counter-intuitive for me to think that amazing things can be happening even as I rest. Even if I am not doing anything. Even if I feel lazy, or like I’m falling behind, or that I can’t further God’s kingdom without actually accomplishing something physical. But God is always working. And when we accept the invitation to enter His work – to work where He’s working and do what He’s doing – that’s where we find true rest.
What I’m finding more and more is that when I place God first in my life, everything else falls as it should around Him. Not everything is easy or lighthearted – far from it. But the only way we can truly be at rest is by being dependent on Him.
As I continue to seek His will before rushing straight to the tasks I’ve assigned myself, I find that I’m far more productive. Far more at peace. And I know that I’m making far more of an eternal difference than if I were to ‘save myself time’ and disregard those crucial moments with my Savior.
Without God’s guidance, it’s so easy to fall into one of the rest/work extremes. Either resting too much because it’s more comfortable, or too little because it’s ‘lazy’. Either working too much because it’s the ‘right thing to do’, or too little because it’s hard. But when being in constant and close communication with God is our focus, He will guide us into the perfect balance for our lives.
Our work will feel restful. Meaningful. Ideal for us. And we’ll know what to prioritize, what to refuse, what to accept, and what to avoid. Since God showed this to me again, I’ve been careful to prioritize Him above all else, and it’s made a world of difference.
When I feel anxiety and exhaustion creeping up on me again, I take a moment to pray and refocus my attention on Him, reminding myself that He is in control. That He knows the perfect balance for me. That He is walking with me every step of my life, helping me carry my burdens and accomplish what He wants me to accomplish.
I’m sure I will be continuing to relearn this lesson in deeper and deeper ways as time continues, but for now, I’m focusing on being rather than doing. Every day I’m choosing to be available to Him, to be willing to do what He asks, and to be open to the people and opportunities that He’s placing in my life.
It’s not a bad thing that I like to be productive, and that I enjoy working. God made me that way. But I need to remember that my accomplishments don’t equal my worth. My busyness doesn’t help others or please God if I’m too busy with just what I think is best. God knows exactly what I need to do and be. I’m looking forward to finding out more and more of those things every day.
And whether I’m active and sweating, or still and silent, I know I’ll be at rest – as long as my focus remains on God.
I pray you’ll be the same.
“Come to me,
all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy
and my burden is light.”
(Matthew 11:28-30 NIV)
1.I talked about my friend here.
2. One version of In Christ Alone can be found here.