Holy exhaustion

It’s never good when you hear a phrase that starts with, “I’m tired of…” It communicates that there is something in one’s life that is draining their energy, including their emotional and spiritual energy.

Even though the actual words “I’m tired of…” might not be used, you can easily identify the feeling, like when children are fighting with each other and the word “stop” is not only yelled but has become three syllables. “Sto-AH-PAH!”

Adults don’t always use the phrase “I’m tired of…” either, but in working with people in ministry, I’ve learned to see it coming from a mile away. It goes like this: When someone gets tired of doing something, they rarely come and tell me that. Instead, they start slowly backing out, gradually decreasing the rate and frequency at which they respond to messages, and ultimately default on their commitments. There’s something they don’t want to do anymore, but they either feel guilty about giving it up or are not even consciously aware of what’s going on. But it’s often what happens when someone is tired of something.

There are many things I’ve been “tired of.” Driving. Homework. Screaming kids. Hot weather. Cold weather. Ignorance. Manual labor. Dogs barking. Yeah, let me just stop trying to list everything. It’s part of life. But when is the last time you’ve been “tired FROM” something?

Tired is always going to be a part of it. Anyone who promises to make life easy or more relaxing is just trying to sell you something. A life that never makes you tired at all is not achievable – at least, not if you want a roof over your head. Life is hard work and doing it right is hard work, so we’re going to be tired. But the sweet spot is when we can find at least one thing in our lives that we leave tired FROM, not tired OF.

Let’s call it holy exhaustion.

It’s rare, and life makes it hard to find, but we all need to experience it…at least once. I’ve found that people have little interest or motivation in serving God until they experience holy exhaustion. It’s when you go to bed, tired though you are, with a sense of accomplishment and a refreshing peace of mind. It’s when you have to rest but don’t dread getting up and doing it again. You’re physically tired, maybe even emotionally tired, but spiritually refreshed.

I spent the summer of 2002 on staff at a youth camp. We had hundreds of teenagers come in each week. We climbed “rec hill” almost every day with whiny teens in tow. I taught the same 3 classes over and over again for 10 weeks. I had to get up before the sun rose every single morning. I was always exhausted. But for me, it was holy exhaustion. I spent 10 straight weeks teaching the Bible, praying with teenagers stuck in the trenches of life, and overall feeling that I was using my gifts to make a difference. I was always tired, but was also spiritually refreshed.

Holy exhaustion happens when we have found our “sweet spot,” which is the intersection between what we love, what we’re good at, and what serves others. Sometimes I prefer to use the word “calling,” but I do so with a word of caution, because a lot of people see calling as a singular time or place in their future instead of something that God is doing now. Barbara Brown Taylor articulates this problem well:

One common problem for people who believe that God has one particular job in mind for them is that it is almost never the job they are presently doing. This means that those who are busiest trying to figure out God’s purpose for their lives are often the least purposeful about the work they are already doing. They can look right through the people they work with, since those people are not players in the divine plan [as they perceive it].1

What fulfills us is not the be-all, end-all. Some things have to be done. The hungry and homeless don’t have time for us to wait until we feel called to help them. But even though calling is not about us, I’d like to believe that God has something for each us in the here and now–right under our noses–that is in the area of that sweet spot. I believe that if we’re able to find even just one thing in our lives that we leave tired FROM, it often provides just enough energy to get through all the other things we get tired OF.

Sweet SpotThese days, I’m a pastor. There are plenty of things I get tired OF: complaints that come without a willingness to be a part of the solution, triangulation, rumors, and having to pick up slack. But it’s also filled with holy exhaustion. The humbling privilege of being there with and for people in life’s greatest joys and sorrows. The chance to teach from the Book that has changed my life. The exhilarating work of helping people discover their gifts and passions to use them for God.

I know how blessed and lucky I am to have a job that I love. But our holy exhaustion does not necessarily have to be associated with what we get paid to do. It starts with simply paying attention. Not paying attention to ourselves, like the narcissistic self-help stuff would teach us to do, but paying attention to others and the needs to which we feel drawn. To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, who considers “paying attention” a spiritual practice, “Paying attention requires no equipment, no special clothes, no greens fees or personal trainers….All you need is a body on this earth, willing to notice where it is.”

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1 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

Corey Fields

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Corey is a husband, daddy, American Baptist pastor, and Doctor of Ministry student concentrating in missiology. Corey's other interests include theology, society, church life, family, music, technology, and the intersection of all such things.

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  • Wendy McCaig

    LOVE the quote. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen that exact reality. I am blessed to get to “pay attention” in a very interesting part of our city and sometimes I am exhausted “from” it but I never get tired “of” it.