I like hero movies. My grandsons love them. Hollywood adores them.
In the last decade, about sixty superhero movies have been released, roughly one every eight weeks: Spider-man, Iron Man, Batman, X-Men, Thor, etc. Not to mention their sequels. (Forget that I mentioned them.)
I probably love normal hero movies even more, the ordinary civilian with a boatload of ordinary problems, facing unbeatable odds. Their stories stir something in me, a desire to go down swinging or to throw myself on a grenade. I see myself sacrificing everything for a greater cause, living a life of significance, having a life that matters.
But I wonder, sometimes, if hero movies insidiously stir the wrong thing. I once asked a hugely successful pastor for the key to his success. He said he just wants to be like his hero Jesus, and then he quoted St. Augustine,
Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.
Three years later he was exhausted, disillusioned, frustrated, and embittered. He dropped out of all service, divorced his wife, and—the last I heard—he was installing Invisible Fencing. He was a Super-Saint Burnout.
He had said he wanted to be like his hero Jesus, but he later admitted he just wanted to be a hero himself.
Burnout is so common these days that there is a test for it called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. It classifies burnout as “a multi-dimensional syndrome composed of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency.” The pervasive spread of burnout is no surprise given the current world of downsizing (oops, right-sizing), hyper-efficiency, dehumanization, and bad economy.
Burnout in the work-world is no surprise, but it plagues Christian ministries too. Why is that?
One of my favorite hero movies is Rocky. He’s a normal guy with job issues and girl-friend problems. And he’s a mediocre boxer with a chance for fame in a fight with the champ.
His girlfriend (A–dr-i-a-n) wonders why Rocky works so hard. He mumbles, “I’m just a nobody. It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. All I wanna do is go the distance. Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”
There’s a little bit of Rocky in all of us, but it’s not the charming, aw-shucks, simple champ. There is a dark, sinister, grasping, rumble of panic inside all of us that wreaks devastation. We’re not just working for the general good of the world; we’re working for acclaim, to know we’re not bums.
The driving force
My dad used to quote an old preacher’s proverb: Don’t let the pulpit drive you to the Word, let the Word drive you to the pulpit. There are two ways to preach. We can let the pressure of identity (the pulpit) drive us frantically to performance, or we can let the force of God’s love (the Word) propel us to speak.
Two different people can spend ten hours on a sermon (or any job); both invest the identical time, both develop identical outlines, and both deliver identical sermons. Afterward, one is a bit tired but the other is shattered, drained, and totally spent. What’s the difference?
All work tires us out. That’s why we need sleep. That’s why Jesus needed sleep. But a hidden work beneath our work secretly torments us; we work hard to make art (that’s good) but we work even harder to make the artist; like Rocky, we mumble, “Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”
Working to create something brings life. Working to be something burns us out. The feverish work beneath our work is an evil taskmaster shouting at our hearts, “Work harder you bum.”
Our superhero problem
The world is populated with narcissistic people who single-mindedly serve themselves. They should watch more hero movies. Hero movies inspire us to serve other people, to risk our lives to save the world.
But hero movies also covertly inspire us to risk our lives to save ourselves; we want that superhero greatness, to prove we’re somebody of worth. So, like those self-serving narcissists, our service is still about us. It’s just more surreptitious.
We are clandestine operatives working under cover of the capes of our heroic deeds, but the poor victim we fight for is our own identity. Our exhaustion, cynicism, and growing inefficiency are signs of wanting to be messiahs and not just serve the messiah.
I’m realizing that much of my heroic intensity (such as it is) is simply a stealthy selfishness. Argh! Sin is primarily relational; it’s not wrong-doing so much as it is wrong-being. I’ve been choosing a being—my superhero identity—that doesn’t need God.
Jars of clay
If there ever was an Academy Award for super-hero saints, Paul is a shoe-in for an Oscar. If he wasn’t being beaten, stoned, or chased by wild beasts, he was being shipwrecked, imprisoned, or bit by snakes. And there’s always that thorn in the flesh that no one understands.
How did he survive those shipwrecks without making a shipwreck of his life; how did he burn like a beacon without burning out like the rest of us?
Time and again, Paul pointed to one greater than himself; Paul didn’t work to lift himself up but to lift up another. He said of himself (and us), “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels [that’s us!], so that the surpassing greatness of power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
That’s what I need more than superhero greatness; I need confident superhero humility. “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not”(Jeremiah 45:5 KJV).
Besides, if you saw me in my Spandex bodysuit, you’d think you were in a horror flick.
I love your posts. They always speak to me. This is my second year being a leader in our homeschool ministry at church and I am learning so much. I LOVE what God has called me to and I am learning that leaders are just servants with more accountability. It’s so easy to get caught up in being a hero. It’s addictive! My stupid phone with email and Facebook notifications is like heroine. My husband said put the phone down and step away from it! Lol I can’t miss this or that. I want to pray for everybody. Pointing people to Christ like Paul did, that’s what I want to do. I can’t believe how easy it is to get off track and start thinking you are something especially when you get praised so much. It’s dangerous to receive praise if you are not walking in humility. Thank you, keep posting, it makes a difference and is very encouraging!
Thanks for your personal sharing. I so know the feeling of being addicted to my smartphone. I think God is up to something in that area.
I dropped and broke my smartphone two weeks ago. I was on my way to a retreat, so I couldn’t replace it then. Now I just put the sim card in an old (really old) flip phone we had laying around. So my smart phone is dumb. No email, no internet, no To-Do list, etc.
And I feel lost. And I think it’s a good thing. I’m not longer the savior with my saber-light-sword (in my smartphone). It’s kind of like a forced sabbatical or a forced fast.
I think the more I can see God as the hero, the more I can “be” a hero without the dangerous side of trying to be the messiah.
Thanks for your fun sharing.
Often the reason we burn out is lack of love. Here are some ways to get back on track: We must surrender our wills and allow Christ to love through us. Make a concerted effort to remember what God has done in the past through this ministry and recollect what these people have meant to you. Were they there for you at a difficult time in your life? Have they at times brought you encouragement? Also surrender selfishness and wrong motives for ministry. I wrote more about this here: http://www.faithreboot.com/christian-zombie/
I agree, we mostly burnout because of lack of love. But I burn out mostly when I focus on trying to love (doing) rather than receiving God’s love (being). I keep forgetting, “We love because he first loved us.” It’s so tempting to perform (love) rather than receive (love).
As you say, remembering what he has done reminds of that he’s doing all things now (not us), so there is room to rest.
PS: I love your image of Christian Zombies!
I am totally quilty of doing love and forgetting to notice that I receive it…
But I am a doer, rather than a passive person…so this receiving sound a lot like a passive thing….So it is hard for me…Have you any tips? Does this receiving of love mean only waiting? At the time Jesus came looking for me and I turned back, I really felt the love, now its kind of getting lost inbetween everyday stuff like washing dishes….I still get very touched in church, but it is getting harder to notice love at other times….And with that- it is also getting harder to beam out love….I am irritatable a.s.o….of course I could always blaim it on the hormones (I am 38+ weeks pregnant), but I´d rather not- cause I know, It´s not the issue:)…ANy suggestions???
Pregnancy hormones really do contribute (I’m told), as does tiredness, lack of exercise, bad diet, how our parent’s treated us, and a bad hair day (I’m told).
We also have natural personalities. Some of us are naturally more active, some more passive, some more outgoing, some more introverted.
I think part of our goal in the Christian life is to learn to live out of our supernatural lives and not just our natural lives. When we do what comes naturally, how can we help others who don’t have our natural gifts? We can help them, but only we only offer natural help.
Or we can see what God has done supernaturally in us, and simply “witness” to his supernatural work. God may supernaturally speed some up and slow others down.
I think the key is a prayerful reflection on what God is doing (vs. what we are doing–which may be perfectly fine), and then doing that more.
Seems God has been hitting us both with the same thoughts as I have been recently reflecting on our love of action films and action and superheros.
I believe that hunger comes from the fact that we were created for glory, adventure, greatness and a certain wildness was instilled within us. The real issue is not those things we were created with them. The real issue is that we often try to find them in the created, rather than the Creator. This is what I believe Christ meant when he said that His yoke was easy and His burden was light. As we learn to enjoy and rest in knowing that God is fervently in love with us our desire to find those things in Him grows and he does indeed give us the desires of our heart.
GREAT Words as ALWAYS! BTW- The reason why you said you like Rocky is why I like Die Hard (the original) and my dock in named Rocky.
I love Diehard, actually all of them but the most recent in Russia.
But don’t tell anyone I told you.
I am sharing this with many of my friends and family. The oldest advice my mother gave me but without these details. I always have been the hero to everybody without concern of my own spirituality and physical well being.
And Sam I did chuckle picturing you in the spandex!
Chuckling! Oh no. I’m not sure what’s worse, calling it a horror flick or a comedy.
Thanks for what you shared.
Right on the mark again. As usual. I can relate to pretty much everything you wrote. As usual. 🙂
I think I’m “on the mark” mostly when I notice a flaw in myself and share it. Turns out, I’m not alone!