A Spiritual Politics for Burnt-Out Christians

I have a testimony: At the end of last year, I felt an unshakable sense of dread about the 2024 elections and all that it could entail. This dread was accompanied by an acute feeling of burnout, fueled by my exhaustion with how broken and polarized our politics have seemingly become and how another election year would test both our faith and democracy. This burnout showed up in restless sleep, nagging fatigue, and a frustrating sense of déjà vu, all of which impacted my mental, physical, and spiritual health.

By all accounts, I’m far from alone: A recent Pew survey found that 65 percent of Americans say they often or always feel exhausted when thinking about politics and 55 percent often or always feel angry. Though this may sound relatable, it isn’t sustainable. Left unchecked, I fear this kind of national burnout tempts us all to tune out and disengage at the very moment when political engagement, including voting, is critical. Worse still, this kind of political cynicism and despair plays into the hands of authoritarian leaders who are all too happy to use the political vacuum created by exhaustion to gain their own power.

As Christians, we tend to approach exhausting election years with two opposing, but equally unhelpful, theologies. On one side, paraphrasing the words of St. Teresa of Avila, is the idea that God has “no hands but ours.” While rooted in beloved passages of scripture like Matthew 25, which instruct us to care for others as we’d care for Jesus himself, when these Christian teachings are taken too far, we start to feel that the burden of solving all the world’s innumerable problems falls solely on us.

Even if we recognize (quite reasonably!) that none of us can individually solve massive societal problems like poverty, racism, or war, it starts to feel like there’s a never-ending list of ways we need to do more to be God’s agents in the world. As the news stories pile up — End climate change! Cease-fire now! Avert a government shutdown! Save our democracy! — the weight of it all becomes too much to bear. In the activist world, far too many friends and colleagues have suffered mental, physical, or spiritual burnout at the hands of this kind of pressure. The problem with this theology, even though well-intentioned, is that it can result in a savior complex and mislead us into relying on our own limited wisdom and strength rather than to constantly seek to tap into God’s unlimited wisdom and strength.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen Christians face exhaustion with the state of the world by disconnecting from politics altogether and turning inward. After all, if we believe God is in control and will make everything all right in the end, why worry about anything, including the state of our politics or grave injustice? This approach echoes the Essenes, a movement during the time of Jesus who sought to withdraw from society to focus on their more communal and pietistic life. In 2024, this might sound like Christians who say the church “shouldn’t be involved with politics” or that we just need to focus on soul care. Though these are tempting responses in a world where everything feels like it’s constantly on fire, the problem is that we end up becoming “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good,” as the adage goes. We cannot ignore that our savior challenged many of the religious and imperial powers of his time, actions that ultimately led to his crucifixion for the crime of sedition. Taking up our cross and following Jesus often does require sacrifice and courage to get in the way of injustice.

Sometimes scripture seems to embrace both views, even within the same passage. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs listeners not to “worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:25). Yet, just a few verses later, Jesus tells the same followers to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all things will be added unto you.” So, which is it? Are we supposed to not worry so much or to keep seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness in the here and now?

There are no easy answers to these timeless theological questions. A popular saying often attributed to St. Ignatius tries to solve this theological tug-of-war by splitting the difference, instructing Christians to “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depends on you.” But I believe there’s a better way to be followers of Jesus in this exhausting world — a way that more accurately embodies the relationship between human beings and our Creator. Rather than just “giving it to God” or believing God’s work can only happen through our efforts, I think we’re called to be co-creators alongside God, co-laboring together to bring forth the new creation that is “on earth as it is in heaven.” For me and many of my colleagues at Sojourners, this fusion of faith-inspired activism for social justice with an inner life that values contemplation, self-knowledge, and a personal walk with God is the heart of our faith. We need both activism and contemplation to avoid the dual extremes of a burnout-inducing “it’s all on us” faith or a faith that turns away from very real suffering or injustice.

Guided by a spirituality rooted in both justice and contemplation, we can discern the kingdom-building work that each of us is most called to do. To do this, we have to take seriously the Apostle Paul’s teaching that we are one body with “many parts” (1 Corinthians 12:12) and recognize that much of the necessary work of justice and advancing the common good will be better done by others with different gifts. This also allows us to understand and honor our own limits both individually and collectively, helping us to know the times when we have work to do or when we must fully entrust outcomes to God. For people at either extreme, it can be very liberating to discover and follow this middle way, which is ultimately nothing less than following the way of Jesus.

For those of you who find yourselves utterly exhausted by the thought of another election year, I have three tips that have helped me combat burnout without disengaging from the world around me.

  1. First, learn to recognize the warning signs and know when to pause and be still. I have found great comfort in a simple but meaningful prayer that Fr. Richard Rohr teaches based on Psalm 46:10. You simply pray aloud the words, “Be still and know that I am God” and then take a deep breath and slowly exhale. Following the same pattern of speech and breath, you repeat the phrase, omitting another word which each repetition: “Be still and know,” “Be still,” and then finally “Be.” This prayer reminds me to be still and gives me space to remember that I am not God — nor should I try or need to be! There is a profound consolation in acknowledging that followed by reflecting more deeply on God’s attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and unconditional love.
  2. Second, as we lean into caring for ourselves and those around us, identify a few constructive ways that you feel called to be involved with this fraught election season. Once again, we aren’t called to do everything, but we are called to do something. This could include volunteering to be a poll worker (which are desperately needed across the country), engaging in a voter registration drive, serving as a poll chaplain on Election Day through Faiths United to Save Democracy, and so much more.
  3. Finally, we must embrace Jesus’ command to love both our neighbors and our enemies, a commitment that has become increasingly countercultural. This is especially important given how much vitriol and anger people are already feeling. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, we must learn how to find the image of God even in our enemies, seeking “only to defeat evil systems.” We must be hard on evil systems, but we also show as much grace and empathy as possible toward people.

Loving our enemies might start with simply praying for those who are your political other or adversary. I truly believe our prayer life is a way to empower us for the work of justice and righteousness. You can also get involved in efforts like “It Starts with Us”, which is building a movement of people committed to cultivating our innate capacity for curiosity and compassion, and courage to overcome the forces that divide us.

Entering into 2024, I came out of my own wilderness of burnout by taking a real pause over the Christmas holiday and starting the new year by recentering my relationship with God. Through prayer and discernment, I gradually gained clarity about what God was calling on me to focus on in 2024 — and where I needed to honor my own limits. While I know this is not always easy or possible for everyone in the same ways, I hope you can do the same.

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