Poured Out, Not Burned Out

One of the most notable aspects of Paul’s ministry was his commitment to hard work and sacrifice. Paul worked hard—harder than most of his peers. In 1 Corinthians 15, he writes,

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor 15:10).

While he was careful to attribute all of his effort and results to the grace of God, he finished his life by invoking a vivid image from the Old Testament sacrificial system: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Tim 4:6).

This should serve as a challenge to those of us in Christ’s service today. The trend today is to look out for our own preservation in order to avoid the symptoms normally associated with burnout in ministry. Terms like “self-care” are often employed. Many involved in ministry divide their day or week into sections with a certain percentage reserved for their own care, and a certain percentage reserved for the help of others. But Paul seems to view his whole life as being given for others, and ultimately for Christ. For Paul, “To live is Christ.” How did Paul avoid burning out while still being poured out?

First, it is worth noting that Paul sought the ultimate approval of God, not of other people. He says this clearly in 1 Corinthians, when he writes, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God… but He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor 4:1, 5). Paul worked tirelessly on behalf of others, yet he did not seek their approval or acclaim.

If we were entirely honest with ourselves, how many of us could say this? How many pastors enter into service in order to see results in other people? This can easily slip into looking for approval from people. How many tasks in ministry are undertaken to appear spiritual – to receive praise from men rather than from God? This is a sure way to burn out. The approval of people will never satisfy. It is never enough. It often keeps us from doing the necessary things, and it ebbs and flows depending on circumstances. If our sense of satisfaction and fulfillment is based on something as fluid as human approval, we will inevitably lose heart entirely. By seeking the approval of the Lord, Paul was free to minister boldly and to ignore the pressure of expectations imposed by other people.

Second, it is no accident that Paul frequently ministered alongside others. This does not mean that there were not times of deep loneliness for Paul. Near the end of his life, he reminded Timothy of a moment when he was on trial and “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me” (2 Tim 4:16a). But Paul’s normal pattern when not imprisoned was to work with others – Aristarchus; Barnabus; Epaphrus; Gaius; Jason; John Mark; Luke; Onesimus; Silas; Sosthenes; Trophimus; Tychichus; Priscilla and Quila; Lydia; and of course, Titus and Paul’s dear friend, Timothy. And there were others as well. Simply reading through the last chapter of Romans will give us a sense of the scope of Paul’s friendships. Paul did not minister alone. He was corrected by others; he was upheld and encouraged by others; And he regularly spoke of people who are “useful” to him and to the Gospel. He was not a lone ranger, and he deeply valued his partners in ministry.

Finally, Paul knew that his ministry and his hard work was ultimately a testimony to God’s grace (1 Cor 3:6). And because it was a work of grace, Paul was careful to observe the means of grace that are outlined in the Scriptures. He prayed regularly and fervently for the churches and individuals among whom he ministered. He admitted that he did not always know exactly what or how to pray, but he was comforted in this by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:26). Because his ministry was so grounded in prayer, he pled with the churches to pray as well: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17); “Continue earnestly in prayer” (Col 4:2). With this dedication to regular prayer came diligent study. Even at the end of his life, he asked Timothy to bring his books and parchments, in order that he might study more (2 Tim 4:13). Beyond prayer and study, Paul was always faithful in attending to public worship – even when there was no congregation of Christians or synagogue of Jews. In Acts 16, we read, “And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made” (Acts 16:13). Prayer, the study of scripture, and the weekly pattern of Sabbath rest and worship ordained by God were each non-negotiable parts of life for Paul. Because Paul’s work was a result of grace alone, Paul gave attention to the means of grace ordained by God.

Paul did not divide his life into times for himself and times for others. Every moment was dedicated to the Lord. But in the midst of this single-mindedness, Paul demonstrated a biblical perspective on life and a grace-based approach to himself and his work. He was indeed “poured out” entirely. But he fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.

Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is president-elect of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He serves currently as professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. Dr. Master is also the Alliance’s editorial director, as well as co-host of the Theology on the Go podcast.

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