Christianity and burnout: A theology of weakness


I'm currently lying in bed, with my laptop precariously balanced on my lap. I am as horizontal as possible, while still being able to (just about) crane my neck enough to see the screen and type. Because once again I find myself needing to take a 'rest day', with glands the size of golf balls and severe fatigue. Once again I have spent the day trying to take it easy, watching a bit of telly, having a lie down, sending a few emails, having a lie down, writing a few words, having a lie down. And now I am attempting the mega combo of writing and lying down. I may need a lie down from my lie down soon.

The fact is that I am pretty weak. Phew... there, I've said it. My body simply isn't all that resilient, and I seem to get tired-er and ill-er than most people I know. A few years back I suffered chronic fatique for six months and my body hasn't been the same since. I watch others racing around, day after day from busy work to busy social lives to busy church activities to weekends away... and there are moments when I join them and think, 'Isn't all this fast-paced activity great!?' And then, inevitably, I begin to feel the deep knock-on effect in my body and BAM...It's time for a lie down (or several).

I'm fortunate that my lifestyle allows for rest. Studying part-time and working part-time means that I can have a few quieter days each week to recuperate, but I'm still not as respectful of my body as I should be. I have far too many late nights, push myself with exercise, and don't sabbath in the way that I would want to. Somehow I still feel surprised and frustrated when I burn myself out, and when my body can't keep up with the demands I make of it.

Even if you've never had an illness like mine, you may relate to this feeling of exhaustion. Maybe you've reached burnout point, or simply feel that life is a bit much sometimes, and that every once in a while it all feels too overwhelming. The way we live our lives seems vastly out of sync with the way we were built to operate. In this context, the way we structure church life means that it becomes another thing on our to 'do' list. We therefore get flaky, and miss church because we simply need a night or morning off. 'Regular' church attendance is now defined as being once a month, a statistic I don't find all that surprising.

But the rhythm of faith hasn't always been this way. The simple art of being a Christian hasn't always been an additional exhaustion-factor for faithful people. One striking example of this is the life of Julian of Norwich. I'm a huge fan: she was the first female writer in Britain, from Norwich (where I hail from) and has a profound theology of weakness and illness. In her writings, we see Julian praying for three ailments from God, so that she might spend her days reflecting on his goodness and identifying with the suffering of Christ.

Let's not move on too quickly here. She actually prays to be ill. What?

Our theology of weakness and illness is completely the opposite. We pray that we might be well so that we are able to fulfill God's plan for our lives. We see illness or an inability to fulfil our activities and churchly duties as a frustration of God's mission on Earth. The Mission requires energised and well people to fulfil it, and weak people unfortunately can't really partake in that. We take the 'weak then strong' phrase from Paul as a sequential statement, suggesting that it is through the journey of weakness that we become strong at the end, once we have fought the battle and overcome, emerging at the other side healthy and armed with a few stories for sermons in our back pocket.

This is not the picture that Julian provides. There's a special kind of strength Julian is after. Not the bouncing around, sermon-giving, Alpha-course running, energetic-worship-leading kind of strength. She desires the sort of strength that comes only through intimacy with Jesus. And intimacy, for Julian, was to identify with Jesus in his suffering. To become weak like him. To live a life totally surrendered to God, in which the divine interface of giving and receiving love comes to the fore. To be enjoyed by God alone, lying, alone, in her chamber at Norwich Cathedral.

It's this strength that left the lives of those who visited Julian at her sick-bed completely changed, for all who came to see her saw something of the presence of God.

I don't feel particularly spiritual, or close to God even, in my moments of weakness. When my head is fuzzy and my body is tired, it's hard to think of anything other than, 'Please God, make me well!'. But sometimes, as I lie weakly in my bed, I think of a parent's delight at their sleeping baby. They watch their little lump sleeping soundly, pretty much all day, every day. The baby offers nothing, and yet the parents delight in her and smile, thankful for her very existence. And as I lie there, I imagine the smile of God over my weak and weary body, which offers Him nothing, but in which He delights, simply for existing.

I'm not suggesting we go all-out Julian and hole up in cathedrals across the land, cancelling everything on our schedules. But listening to the voices of those outside of our activity-driven, doing-focused Western culture can feel helpful in these moments when we just can't keep up anymore. And maybe as the Church it should be us, weak and weary though we are, who offer the burned-out world something different.

Phoebe Thompson is Head of Research at Youthscape. Follow her on Twitter