I do not present my lifestyle as a model for anyone! My father left me with a model of working very hard and of trying to make use of every moment productively. He was a good Methodist who followed the advice of John Wesley who said, “Redeem the time. Catch the golden moments as they fly!” That’s the way I have tried to live. The Lord called me to be a minister of people and a preacher/teacher of the Word. Mixing personal work with study, preparation, public ministry and family responsibilities has not been easy. It has been very tiring; and even though I am as excited about ministry as when I began over thirty-eight years ago, I think I live with tiredness a lot of the time. I don’t take this as an ideal model. I don’t think God has called everyone to be so busy.
But I think there are many people today, not only in vocational ministry but also in so-called secular work, who struggle with tiredness because of trying to do their job well while also doing other necessary things. This has led me to the conclusion that, for many of us, our cross is the balanced life. Some give so much time for personal devotions and for the family that they can neglect their job and “Christian service.” Others serve well, do their job well but they don’t give adequate time for devotions and family. Both those models are unbalanced. The balanced life is often described as “doing everything in moderation.” I think rather that the balanced life is being fully obedient to God in all areas of life. That is difficult; and to many, it is their cross.
How can one go on working hard without burning out under such strain? I can think of a few essential things that have helped me.
Most importantly, I believe spending time with God in prayer and the Word recuperates our tired souls. However busy we are, we should not rush through this time. Therefore spending this unhurried time with God every day is like an oasis slowing down our rushed lives. Even more important is the security that comes from being in intimate touch with the sovereign and almighty God. Yes, there are pressures, but when we are with God we are with one who is bigger than all our challenges. This lingering with God attacks our insecurity. I believe the drivenness that insecurity produces, and not necessarily hard work, is the major cause for burnout. Lingering in God’s presence helps challenge our insecurity and the drivenness that derives from it. “…they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isa. 40:31).
I have also tried to take a weekly Sabbath day when I do not take on ministry responsibilities. I do this primarily as an act of obedience to God, whose Word commands us to take one day off every seven days. My Sabbath day is not Sunday as I preach almost every Sunday. But lay persons may find that Sunday is the best day for their Sabbath rest. On that day they can find refreshment by doing things that are different to their usual strenuous responsibilities.
I have had friends all my life who have been my “shock absorbers”! Foremost among these is my dear wife, who mediates God’s grace to my life more than anyone else. But I also have male friends to whom I can share about my disappointments, challenges and temptations. They help release the pressure of my challenges, and help me respond to them wisely. Their comfort also helps me overcome the temptation to bitterness which kills joy and handicaps so many hardworking people.
I have tried to walk for exercise regularly. I find this very refreshing, and it is a good time to clear the mind and to think (that is, to theologise). Many of the little articles I write are born during these walks.
I will stop with that, though I can list more things (listening to music, watching TV—especially news, cricket and mystery programmes). But today I want to highlight one other thing. Even doing all of the above things we can lose our thirst for God—that aching yearning for more of God. I think this thirst is a thrilling thing. It makes us aware of our immeasurable riches in Christ and that we are not experiencing those in their fullness. This thirst is one of those things that keep us fresh and our love for Christ burning. But this thirst must be cultivated.
On a recent trip to India the Lord reminded me of one of the ways thirst is fed in our lives: being exposed to people who walk or walked close to God. Exposure to them ignites a thirst in us. In Delhi I missed my train because of heavy traffic on the way to the station. Instead I had to travel in an all-night bus from Delhi to Ludhiana. As the bus conductor and driver did not speak English, I was very nervous about missing my stop (which was a wayside stop, not even a bus stop). So I did not sleep all night. At the conference I was desperately in need of sleep. On the second afternoon and evening I decided to sleep and walk, and to miss the evening meeting so as to spend some time with the Scriptures. But something prompted me to go to the evening meeting. The speaker was a seventy-three year-old Indian medical doctor, Dr Kuruvilla Varkey. I was greatly refreshed by listening to him. God gave me a chance to just imbibe Dr Varkey’s love for the Lord and his deep knowledge of the Scriptures.
On my way back from Ludhiana by train I read a book by D. L. Moody that I had downloaded free on my Amazon Kindle, Secret Power or the Secret of Success in Christian Life and Work (Get it; it’s free!). I felt my heart burn as I began to sense the passion for God that the great evangelist had. Three days later, I read a quotation about prayer from J. O. Fraser (a missionary to the Lisu people in the mountains of China). When I was young God had used Fraser’s biography to powerfully convince me about the need to depend on and solicit the prayers of others. Again I sensed the passion for God of a lonely man who served the Lord faithfully for many years with no visible fruit until finally the Spirit broke through.
Try to stay close to people who have walked or are walking close to God. Just like Elisha asked for and received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9-15) we may find that being close to them results in a thirst that enables something of their passion to come to us also. The thirst opens us to receive from God so that it becomes possible for “God’s love” to be “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). In other words thirsting is a gateway to freshness.
Reading good devotional material by godly people slowly is also a fine way to open ourselves to spiritual feasts. Today it is very encouraging to see people listening to the sermons of famous preachers on the internet. This is a good way to be refreshed. But the value of reading is that you can read slowly and meditatively, and you can stop to reread a section, to think and to pray if there is something that especially strikes you.
Perhaps I must make a comment about the practice of some Christian leaders not sitting down to listen to the preaching/teaching at a worship service, a conference or a Bible study. Often they seem to be very busy during this time but sometimes they are seen to be chatting outside the hall where the preaching/teaching is taking place! Apart from being a bad example, it could be a sign that they have lost their thirst for more of God. Perhaps they think there is nothing this speaker can teach them. Last Sunday I was upset that a certain person had been sent to preach in our church. But sitting under his preaching I was deeply touched and enriched by God. I had to repent of my judgemental spirit.
God can speak to us through people whom we view as being much less mature than us. The great Chinese preacher, John Sung, was in a backslidden state while a student in New York. He went to an evangelistic meeting and was dismayed to find that a teenaged girl was the preacher. God spoke to him through her and that led him to return to God. He became one of Asia’s most powerful preachers ever.
Yes, there are many Christians whose actions can leave us angry and cynical. So we must carefully choose those whom we will look to for inspiration. Thank God that the history of the church has left us with myriads of such people who (despite their weaknesses) rekindle our thirst for more of God. “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Psalm 16:3).
Don’t stop being thirsty for God! And remember that being influenced by godly people could trigger that thirst in us.