By Amber Riggs
There are these little markers in my life that let me know when I’m not managing stress well. My patience with my kids tanks. I become too busy to eat. When I get in bed at night, the very act of being still will trigger nervous twitching. I’ll avoid doing things that need to be done and perpetually put them off “until tomorrow”. Instead of going to bed, I will “wind down” by staying up way too late watching a Hallmark movie. Once I get in bed, my social media feeds will be treated to a few extra scrolls.
There are other tell-tale signs as well. I’ll catch myself confiding, “I’m exhausted…I’m not thinking clearly right now…I’m a little overwhelmed…I just have a lot to do…I’m not sure when I’m going to fit this in.” Or sometimes, it’s more subtle, and I’m speaking the language of powering through it: “You can do this…Just a few more days…I’ll wake up early to do it…”
THE LANGUAGE OF IMPENDING BURNOUT
I’m not so naive as to believe that I’m alone in this. Deny it as much as we want, but this is the language of impending burnout, if not burnout itself – and it is interwoven into the vernacular of American culture. Even if we avoid using the term “burnout” itself, its descriptors pop up in regular conversation. And if we aren’t talking it out, we may be acting it out in cynicism, irritability, frustration, or downright anger.
Then, there are the physical responses. How many of us have persevered through a season of intense stress only to find ourselves subjected to a non-negotiable, physically mandated period of rest? Simply put, we get sick. When we override all of its warning alarms, our immune systems have the uncanny – and frustrating – ability to force us to stop and receive rest that we desperately need.
For Christians, the prescription for managing our stress is often “pray more”. While I do not want to discount the importance of prayer, if we spend the majority of our prayer time asking God for His power to persevere through each day, we may be missing out on seeking and listening to His deeper desires for us and the wisdom that accompanies it – desires that we would learn to more fully practice His presence and purpose in not only our work, but in our rest as well.
IMAGING GOD IN OUR WORK
When How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation hit the social media newsfeeds recently, it immediately went viral. In a response article, Jonathan Malesic convincingly asserted, “This isn’t a generational epidemic; it’s a societal one.”
Most of the conversation regarding burnout revolves around the notions of both the quality and quantity of our work. After all, we reason, work is what causes the stress to begin with. It’s the curse – or so we assume.
In God’s original plan, however, work was not a curse but a means of blessing. In fact, He commissioned humanity to work in their shared garden home and take care of it. This garden home was the place on earth where heaven and earth touched. It wasn’t just a home for humans. It was God’s home. While God mysteriously sustained it, it was humanity’s job to care for it. In fact, when we read closer, it becomes evident that humanity’s job wasn’t merely to care for this garden home but to expand it. In a multi-millennial project that would inevitably involve millions of humans, through our work, we would partner with God to bless the entirety of earth with the holy nature of heaven. This was inherently enjoyable, fulfilling work!
Interestingly, our identity and what it means to experience the fullness of our humanity is intimately tied to this work. We have grown accustomed to thinking of the “image of God” as a noun, but to grasp the thrust of this phrase, we also have to regard it as a verb – as an action. Yes, our physical appearance and inherent functionalities as humans bear witness to our “likeness” to God, but this is an incomplete picture. That is, we were created to image God, thereby reflecting His character and ways into earth.
THE COVENANT OF VOCATION
This action of imaging God is what N.T. Wright refers to as the covenant of vocation: “The vocation…is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for [His] world. The main task of this vocation is ‘image-bearing’, reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker.” 1
Accordingly, the only way humanity could successfully maintain and expand our garden home was to image God as we did this work. This is the context that gives humanity’s rebellion its perspective. A covenant is a partnership. In rejecting this covenant, humanity decided that we don’t want to partner with God in bringing heaven to earth. That is, we don’t want to reflect Him and His ways but rather, we want to be independent. We want to do things our own way.
Guess what – our ways naturally lead to stress and burnout. Our ways are to pursue power, possessions, and pleasure. Those pursuits have casualties. Not only do they break our bodies down, they break our communities and systemic relationships down as well. The result is a domino effect of death.
JESUS RESTORES OUR WORK
This is why the life of Christ set His teachings apart from every other theology. Even though He was “in very nature God, [He] did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage.” Rather, He became a servant, suppressing the human pursuits of power, pleasure, and possessions. He wasn’t ruled by these things. Instead, He was ruled by a Father who delighted to share His power, pleasure, and possessions without Christ conniving for it.
Jesus offered us a way to invite the kingdom of heaven back to earth. Through Jesus, our bodies can become spaces dedicated to the presence and purposes of God. Not only that, but His resurrected life has the power to transform our bodies into images that once again reflect God’s character and ways into the world.
But what about our work? Through Christ, our work today can take on the same purposes that it had in the very beginning. We may use different tools now – smart phones, laptops, vehicles, wrenches, paintbrushes, pianos, buildings, academic scholarship, bulldozers, scrub brushes etc. – but God’s original plan for us has not changed. Whatever our job, what does our work boil down to? Bring and then maintain the presence and purposes of heaven into the spaces we inhabit. In a multi-millennial project that will inevitably involve millions of humans, our work is still to partner with God to bless the entirety of earth with the holy nature of heaven. And not just bless individual humans but bless all of creation. The soil, the air, the creatures, the oceans, the economic systems, the markets, the courts, our relationships. All of it. Just as God planned from the beginning.
RECLAIMING OUR QUALITY OF WORK
Here’s the rub. With all of humanity’s obsession about heaven, when faced with the prospect of bringing heaven to earth, professing Christians and non-Christians alike have asserted time and again that we want to create our own version of heaven. In our own version of heaven, we continue to usurp God as its ruler. We let our sweet-talking hearts convince us of the “right” way of doing things. We’ll even distort God’s words to justify our rule.
We try to make our intended end justify the means. We try to create a blessed version of earth without engaging in actions that image God’s character and ways. Look no further than our political systems to see this at work. Smear campaigns, manipulation, name-calling – it’s all fair game as long as the politicians manage to push through the legislation that we believe enforces or facilitates our understanding of heaven on earth. But that isn’t how imaging God works! Imaging God involves working towards God’s vision through embodying God’s character and ways. When we sacrifice one component of the kingdom for the sake of another, it’s sobering to realize that we wind up undermining them both.
SOME STRESS IS INEVITABLE
It’s a lesson for our own work, as well. When we try to make the intended end justify the means, its consequences are going to increase our stress. It’s time that we reclaim our work – all of our work – for the purposes of caring for and expanding the kingdom of heaven. We do this by asking Christ to teach us His ways and transform us into image-bearers who reflect God’s character. The irony is that even when we can’t see tangible effects of our work, the very act of imaging God expands the kingdom in ways that will only be revealed when Christ reappears and completes the work of bringing heaven to the entirety of earth.
Joining Christ in embracing our covenant of vocation isn’t about pursuing or enjoying a stress-free life. Rather, Paul the Apostle warned us that in this life, we will suffer as we care for and expand the Kingdom. Stress is inevitable. Christians are still subject to the domino effect of the pursuits of power, pleasure, and possessions. We are going to encounter people who are downright hostile to us. We are going to work in systems that exploit our labor. We’ll breathe in air that has been polluted with greed. We’ll drink water that has been contaminated with the by-products of pleasure-seeking. We’ve all inherited genetic predispositions that leave our bodies vulnerable to disease. A certain amount of stress is inevitable.
STRESS TELLS US THAT SOMETHING IS WRONG
At the same time, we shouldn’t ignore the signs of stress in our lives. They tell us that something is amiss. Something is awry. In many cases, that something may be our own approach to work itself. Therefore, each of us would be wise to spend time grappling with God regarding how he wants to transform our approach to work.
It comes down to this: When we see our primary work as that of being a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, we are often going to get bogged down by the “quality” of our jobs. However, when we understand those jobs as means by which our character and actions reflect God’s rule into every corner of civilization, the weariness of our bodies can experience the energy of being powered by an eternal purpose.
RECLAIMING OUR QUANTITY OF WORK
The second leading concern in the growing conversation regarding stress and burnout relates to the quantity of work we engage in each week. As Christians, we can be prone to the reasoning that if our job is to care for and expand God’s kingdom, the more work we can do, the better!
However, imaging God through work is still only half of our covenant of vocation. When we take yet another look at God’s original plan, we don’t see humans caring for and expanding the garden for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We know that when God competed His work of creating that He took up residence in His garden home and rested, much as His presence would later fill Solomon’s temple. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that humans are invited to not only image God in work but to image him in rest as well.
In part two, we’ll explore what it means to image God in rest.