To Spiritually Thrive, We Must First Spiritually Survive (And Help Others Do the Same) | Sojourners

To Spiritually Thrive, We Must First Spiritually Survive (And Help Others Do the Same)


Theology doesn’t save us from spiritual burnout — people do.

No matter how convincing our doctrines and beliefs may be, they’re ultimately empty and unsatisfying if there’s no human relationship personifying them.

Throughout our faith journeys we’ll be faced with moments of suffering, hopelessness, and sheer desperation — sometimes lasting for what seems like forever. We’ll want to give up — sometimes we will.

These hardships can devolve into isolation, bitterness, and ultimately transform what was once a healthy spirituality and turn it into a total rejection of God. Within Christian culture we label this as “burnout,” but in reality it’s more of a “falling out.”

Not only do we have a falling out with God, but we also disassociate ourselves from other believers and those closest to us. When we feel hurt, betrayed, or abandoned by people we assume God is to blame, causing us to doubt God’s love for us — even questioning God’s very existence.

Many quit faith not because of a newfound disbelief in God, but because of broken and unhealthy human relationships — people are the main reason we give up on God.

There are basically two types of Christians: those who bring people closer to God, and those who drive them further away.

Our faith hinges on relationships.

Every Christian has experienced life-changing moments of spiritual intervention — faith-saving interactions that happen in many forms. It may have been an old friend, family member, college roommate, mentor, or even a random stranger that intervened at exactly the right moment to provide relief, encouragement, safety, or help — saving our faith from certain death.

On numerous occasions we get pulled back into a right relationship with God only because people were willing to love us, and this wouldn’t have happened without individuals selflessly making the decision to invest, sacrifice, and give of themselves.

The amazing thing is that these people probably didn’t even realize the impact they had. Because in many ways the relationships and encounters are mundane: getting together for prayer, an invitation to coffee, watching sports together, or just hanging out and doing life together.

These profound moments occur through ordinary and unremarkable actions. It’s within these contexts that we feel loved, cared for, and fully realize, accept, and appreciate our divine worth.

Throughout the Bible God calls us to love God by loving others, but we manipulate God’s message by interpreting it as going on mission trips, tithing, and doing religious things in order to maintain the status quo while simultaneously avoiding deep and meaningful interactions with those closest to us. Some Christians are guilty of doing as much as they possibly can in the name of God while at the same time trying to get by with as little relational investment as possible.

To make matters worse, we preach to people about theology, trying to convince them of God’s love through words, formulas, ideas, sermons, and teachings — without any type of relationship that actually proves the doctrines we’re trying to communicate.

And instead of honestly loving people as themselves, appreciating who they really are, we poison relationships by having an agenda — wanting them to attend our Bible study, visit our church, change their beliefs, and convert.

But true love involves relating to people, listening, empathizing, learning, and being in honest and vulnerable and difficult relationships. If we can’t sacrifice of ourselves and simply love those who we see every day — with those who are all around us — how can we be expected to travel hundreds of miles and effectively minister to others?

Theology is wonderful — and essential — within the context of relationships, and our study and beliefs about God should thrive within a community of believers. But outside of life-giving relationships, our theology is usually toothless, empty, unsatisfying, and even harmful.

Christian platitudes, quoted verses, and overused clichés don’t do much when we’re struggling in our faith. Instead of superficial religious jargon that’s treated more like propaganda than the Gospel, we need real people intervening in our lives.

You are desperately needed in someone’s life. Today. Right now!

Don’t overcomplicate the love of Christ.

It means helping those around us: being a good friend, loving parent, supportive spouse, kind sibling, helpful co-worker, respecting those who are different from us, and taking the time to love people in practical, small, routine, and real ways.

You don’t need to be a pastor, an official church leader, or hold a ministry degree from a Bible college. No special training is required. Don’t assume you’re under qualified or not significant enough to make a profound difference in someone’s life — you are.

Life-changing love doesn’t require much: a 15-minute meeting, an email, a Facebook comment, a voicemail, a friendly text message, getting together for lunch, scheduling a playdate, inviting people over for dinner, watching the game together, or just spending time together.

Within a society obsessed with money, efficiency, and busyness, dedicating time and energy toward someone is one of our culture’s greatest gifts of love.

Are people worth the effort? Are they worth the two minutes it takes to send an encouraging note? Are they worth the hour of our morning to meet for coffee? Are they worth making a meal for? Are they worth whatever inconvenience it costs us to invest in their life?

For people who get spiritually “burned out,” they feel like they aren’t worth it. In many cases they’re totally justified and have been abandoned or rejected by the Christian communities around them. They haven’t been loved, or they’ve been sacrificed and forgotten for the sake of convenience, ignorance, and apathy.

Then, when they stop attending church and no longer identify as Christians, we act surprised. Why do they feel this way? What happened?!

Too often the fault lies with ourselves: we weren’t communicating the divine presence of God, and were too busy doing other things. We weren’t present, and we didn’t love.

So today, tomorrow, next week, and for the rest of our lives, let’s practice being present with others, interacting on a human level, relating to people and being brave enough to align ourselves with their sorrows, doubts, struggles, and joys — to be a part of their lives, and allow them to be part of ours.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth the effort. In the end, our relationship with God is directly influenced by our relationships with others. God is a relational being that demands we love others just as God loves us. God help us.

Stephen Mattson blogs at He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, , and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

Image: MJTH /