I hit the field with all the enthusiasm of a young career cross-cultural worker landing in an office desperate for reinforcements. My role was a good fit, and I immediately began training for my new responsibilities. And then a few more new responsibilities. And then a few more.
Within two years I learned that my specialty was picking up the job that was in shambles and getting it into some semblance of order. That meant I could pass it on to someone else and start cleaning up the next mess.
In my third year I started trying to do a full-time job I wasn’t qualified for with 25% of my time. For eighteen months straight. Because no one else could. If you had asked me if I could really do that, I would have agreed that it was impossible. But somehow the responsibility snuck up on me. A vacancy on the team, an unexpected “promotion”, a few missed deadlines that spilled into each other. By then a lot of mission time—and money—was already sunk into the project. I wanted to save it. I eventually settled for a more realistic but far more destructive goal that if the project failed no one could ever say it was my fault. It did, and it wasn’t. But I burned out in the process and discovered too late the degree to which I had risked my future on the field. Oh, right, limits…
I hadn’t respected my limits. I didn’t know what they were, and I didn’t think I needed to know. I focused on the output—a successful project—and kept trying to achieve it even as circumstances changed to demand more and more inputs—time and energy.
God put limits on us for two reasons—to protect us and to remind us that we’re not Him. He is infinite, we are finite. We have limits, He does not. And like a loving Father, He does not always rescue us from the consequences of ignoring those limits.
As I walked through a long and discouraging recovery from burnout, the Lord walked with me. He reminded me that, although I have limits, His love does not. In my unexpected, magnified and prolonged weakness, His grace was enough.
By His amazing grace, I returned to the field on schedule. I have learned a few tricks about limits—and had to unlearn a few. My new ideal is to focus on the inputs—limiting myself to the time and energy I can consistently invest in the work—and let the Lord take care of the outputs. Some days I manage that; some days I still get caught up in meeting certain goals at any cost and find I have overextended myself. But I am much quicker to recognize untenable situations and make the changes I need in order to return to working within healthy limits.
Recently a friend asked how I was and what I was doing to take care of myself. (We all need friends like her!) I responded that I am back to skating on the edge of burnout. Not because I particularly want to risk going there again, but because I don’t know any other approach than trying to do as much of the work as I can reasonably do, and I have problems with the definition of “reasonably”. Oh, right, limits…
But I am making some good choices. I have made exercise a priority… most weeks. I have learned to carve out time—sometimes even whole weekends—that I do not expect or allow myself to work. I bounce back and forth between creative, restorative rest and complete escapism. I have been honest with friends and family about the challenges, and they are praying for me.
It isn’t easy to live and work within limits, especially in the context of seemingly limitless needs. Ultimately it means trusting God with the big (infinite!) picture and stewarding the time and energy He gave us in a way that preserves our ability to contribute long-term. Because only when we live within those limits can we keep from trading His easy yoke for a burden He never meant for us to carry.
Now if only we can remember that on Monday!
What’s been your experience with taking on more than you could bear?