Spiritual Burnout, Chronic Anxiety, and the Stress of “Making Your Life Count for God”

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“Spiritual Burnout, Chronic Anxiety, and the Stress of ‘Making Your Life Count for God’” was written by Joe Terrell. content manager at CareyNieuwhof.com. Joe’s writings for Medium, Relevant, Carey Nieuwhof, and his personal blog, Instrument of Mercy, have been read by over three million people.

You were repeatedly challenged to be a “relentless” and “radical” follower of Jesus throughout high school and college.

You read books, listened to sermons, and attended big conferences that criticized “consumer Christianity” and challenged you to reclaim your faith from the American Dream.

You were part of the generation that would ignite a global revival with your collective crazy love for Jesus. You were to be the “tip of the spear” of an irresistible revolution of prayer, worship, and missions. Scorning office cubicles, megachurches, and suburban living, you rolled your eyes at the “safe and comfortable” lifestyles of your parents and other Christians. 

You would be different.
Your generation would be different.

But then, on the other side of college, real life happened. Homeownership. Marriage. Health insurance. Tax season. Student loans. Parenthood. Performance reviews.

You try to justify your life decisions and circumstances, but deep down, you still silently struggle with the shame that you’ve sold out your faith for comfort and security.

The message you implicitly absorbed from all the books, conferences, and sermon series was that your inability to live radically for Jesus was probably a result of your unwillingness to fully entrust your life to God.

In other words, you’ve become the problem that which in your youthful enthusiasm and zeal, you swore you’d never become.

The Spiritual Dangers of Missionalism

Are you an effective follower of Jesus?
Are you producing disciples who multiply?
Are you a spectator or participant in God’s mission for the world?
Are your passions the same as God’s passions?

I’ve wrestled with these kinds of intrusive thoughts for years, and, for the most part, I do think they’re good questions.


If the messages of “making your life count for God” aren’t balanced with a healthy side of grace or a reality check, you get another pagan religion seeking to appease God’s wrath and earn his favor through sacrifice, ritual, and service.

Without an ample dose of grace and a reality check, Christianity can easily become another pagan religion seeking to earn God's favor through sacrifice, ritual, and service. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

I’ve heard this referred to as “missionalism,” or the belief that one’s worth is directly correlated to how much one accomplishes and/or suffers for the sake of the Gospel.

Missionalism elevates the mission of God above God Himself. And it fosters a worldview that reduces all people into pawns in service (or in opposition) to “The Mission.”

In With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, Skye Jethani writes,

“Some great goal — understood to be initiated by God and carried forward by us — defines everything and everyone. An individual is either on the mission, the object of the mission, an obstacle of the mission, an aid to the mission, or a fat Christian who should be on mission.”

Missionalism isn’t some easy-to-detect monumental heresy; it’s motivated by good intentions and rooted in Scripture. From the Great Commission to just about anything in the Book of James, the New Testament is clear that our faith should directly influence how we choose to live our lives.

But when missionalism intersects with our cultural tendencies toward workaholism, performancism, and one-upmanship, we can easily become marred by personal ambition, spiritual vanity, and religious dogma.

In the article “Dangers of Missionalism,” pastor Gregor Macdonald writes,

“Before long The Mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means.”

While couched in good intentions and motivated by urgent need, missionalism can quickly devolve into another futile attempt by Christians to earn their salvation and pay back Jesus for His death on the cross.

“Making Your Life Count for God” (and Other Christian Anxieties)

I’m not trying to affirm or condone a “lazy Christian lifestyle.” Nor am I suggesting that a Christian should surrender their God-given convictions and “give up.”

But I think in our over-eagerness to critique “over-commodified cultural Christianity,” we’ve occasionally swung the pendulum too far. Instead of the Gospel, we end up peddling a joy-averse religious ideology that seeks validation through intentionally making life difficult.

The regenerative life-giving good news of Jesus becomes an exhaustive grind-based culture that places a precedent on “doing big things for God” at the expense of our mind, body, and soul.

An exhaustive grind-based culture that places a precedent on “doing big things for God” at the expense of our mind, body, and soul isn't the result of the Gospel. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

I have a friend who works for a missions organization that tries to make sure people are spiritually and psychologically fit enough to work overseas as a missionary. He told me that applicants who sign up to be missionaries out of guilt or shame are often absolute disasters on the mission field.

In The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, Peter Greer, the CEO of Hope International, writes,

“Without evaluating our motives, it is possible to love our service more than we love our Savior. It is to pursue working to see “thy Kingdom come” without having a vision of our King. It is possible to be so proud of all we’re doing for God that pride chokes our good deeds.”

Perhaps our “counter-cultural” antidote can be found in the words of the apostle Paul, a man who arguably did more for the spread of Christianity than anyone who has ever lived. 

Writing to Christians at the church in Thessalonica, Paul urges believers to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” and “mind your own business and work with your hands” in order that “your daily life may win the respect of outsiders (non-Christians) and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

In the first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says that “each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.”

And in his letter to the persecuted church in Rome, Paul writes, “Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”

Paul’s words to the believers at the churches in Corinth, Thessalonica, and Rome don’t negate, invalidate, or contradict the Great Commission or other teachings of the apostles.

It’s merely a reminder that since the very beginning, most Christians throughout history have lived quiet and ordinary lives. And they weren’t any less beloved by God.

In a performance-driven culture, believing that salvation is a “free gift” may require our greatest leap of faith.

Most Christians throughout history have lived quiet and ordinary lives. And they weren’t any less beloved by God. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

The Quiet Beauty of an Ordinary Life

There’s nothing shameful about a quiet life.

And this is something I’ve had to accept the hard way.

A little over a year ago, I came to the realization that I’d been suffering from low-grade chronic anxiety for years. Like a near-constant hum of white noise fading into the background, I’d come to accept my elevated state as “normal.”

But it wasn’t. And the caustic effects were eating away at my peace of mind, temperament, and relationships.

With my wife’s encouragement, I started going to therapy to unearth where my mental health was misfiring.

The root of a lot of this anxiety? The belief that I was somehow not living up to God’s expectations for my life.

I read all of the “hard and convicting” books, attended the conferences, spent my spring and summer breaks doing missions work, and silently judged my peers who pursued degrees and careers in fields that made lots of money.

Dozens of Christian books and conference speakers have taught me the best way to induce feelings of guilt and spiritual insecurity is to draw a comparison between the audience and the lifestyle of a persecuted Christian living in a developing nation or the early Church in the first century.

See, though I could give lip service to the idea of grace, I’d been conditioned to view Christianity through a specific lens: There were Christians who made God proud, and then there were Christians who “wasted their lives.”

See, when you have this mindset, there’s always something you could (and should) be doing with your time. You could always be doing more. Or doing it better. Or doing it more efficiently so you can do more.

In a performance-driven culture, believing that salvation is a “free gift” may require our greatest leap of faith. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

So, how did I break free from the tyranny of missionalism and begin healing?

For starters, I quit reading books that made me feel bad for not being in full-time ministry or a missionary and began exploring the contemplative works of Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, and Dallas Willard.

Next, I had to internalize the reality that true sustainable growth and spiritual maturity don’t sprout from performancism and anxiety. It starts with accepting that if there’s nothing you can do to lose God’s love, then there’s nothing more you can do to earn more of it either.

If there’s nothing you can do to lose God’s love, then there’s nothing more you can do to earn more of it either. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

God certainly calls people to move to dangerous places, take huge risks, or step outside of their comfort zones. But the mundane and the ordinary appear to be God’s favorite venues for orchestrating moments of startling grace, courage, and joy.

In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren writes,

“The new life into which we are baptized is lived out in days, hours, and minutes. God is forming us into a new people. And the place of that formation is in the small moments of today.

Maybe, in today’s age of burnout and workaholism, there’s no message more refreshing, attractive, and radical, than, “Stop trying so hard.”

Jesus’s last words on the cross were, “It is finished.” What else could you possibly have left to prove? And to whom?

In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Phillip Yancey writes,

“Grace is free only because the giver himself has borne the cost. God loves people because of who God is, not because of who we are.”

There’s no fine print. No catch. Jesus isn’t a cosmic loan shark coming back with a chip on his shoulder to collect what He’s rightly owed. Nor is he a disapproving parent wondering why you’ll never measure up.

Jesus isn’t a cosmic loan shark with a chip on his shoulder looking to collect what He’s rightly owed. Nor is he a disapproving parent wondering why you'll never measure up. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

In the book of 1 John, the apostle writes, “This is the embodiment of true love: not that we loved God first, but that He loved us and sent his unique Son on a special mission to become an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The Yoke Is Easy. The Burden is Light.

You don’t have to make your life count for God.

You already count.
You already matter.
You’re already loved.

And, in a weird twist, it’s those Christians who accept this truth about their identity who end up making a real difference in the world around them – be it their living room, neighborhood, boardroom, or some remote village overseas.

You cannot freely give what you believe you had to earn for yourself.

Christians, you cannot freely give what you believe you had to earn for yourself. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

It may look like a subtle shift in thinking, but it can have monumental consequences for your spiritual life.

Once you accept your worth to God isn’t dependent on what you do for God, you’re free to live out the life God has uniquely prepared for you in all of its rich significance, humble gratitude, and meaningful duty.

The yoke is easy,
and the burden is light.

Be it through the rhythmic hum of the copier at work, the incessant ringing of another sales call, or the early-morning cries of a hungry newborn, all work can be God’s work if, in the words of pastor Tim Keller, it’s “reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others.”

You don’t have to "make your life count for God." You already count. You already matter. And you’re already loved. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

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Joe Terrell
Joe Terrell