Desiring God’s Marshall Segal’s Recipe for Spiritual Burnout

Marshall Segel writes an article about marks of true Christian community. In response I would say that what he writes is a recipe for spiritual burnout. Its a toxic cocktail for being fried, exhausted and second guessing oneself. It further highlights the problems of legalism in Neo-Calvinism.

“That’s the thing: You don’t understand burnout unless you’ve been burned out. And it’s something you can’t even explain. It’s just doing something you have absolutely no passion for.”

Elena Delle Donne  

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system.”

Sam Keen

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Desiring God is one of the main ministries of the Neo-Calvinist movement and I would suggest like much of Neo-Calvinism, it has intrinsic flaws. The biggest and most fatal in my view is legalism. That is what I read in the article “Captured. Committed. Contagious.”  by Marshall Segal. One of the problems with Neo-Calvinism is that you can never do enough, worship enough, pray enough, or often do anything correct. It becomes a system of self flagellation of constantly beating yourself in an effort to be better. The movement is lacking grace which makes it crushing. The article below that was published at Desiring God recently illustrates this point greatly. Before I continue let me write about the author…who is Marshall Segal? Marshall is the editor and writer at Desiring God. He is one of their most prolific writers on the website. He has authored  “Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy In Singleness and Dating.”   He is married to his  wife and  they live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also a graduate of Wake Forest University which in the spirit of John Piper, to have a degree from such a prestigious university and then to be working for John Piper is an example of a wasted life. Who knows maybe one day he can say, “Look Lord my Desiring God articles!”  Perhaps I am being too harsh, so with that I will start to analyze the post below. My  comments below are going to be in red.

A new year is a unique time to stop and assess our community — our church, our small group, our circle of friends. Have I found the believers I need to help me believe (Hebrews 3:12–13)? Am I making the most of those relationships (Hebrews 10:24)? Do unbelievers see us living together for something beyond this world (John 13:35)?

Six verses have shaped my vision for community in the local church more than most. They paint a vivid picture of what marked the very first church — what held those believers together after Jesus left them here on earth, what inspired them to leave everything behind for his sake, and what sustained them in the face of horrible opposition and persecution.

Acts 2:42–47 describes this community of faith for the sake of our Christian communities today. The passage is short enough to memorize, and yet big enough to shape years, even decades, of life in the local church, and captures for us at least four markings of true Christian community.

1. Relentless Devotion, Not Casual Indifference

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts. (Acts 2:42, 46)

Devoted. Perhaps it is easy for you to find churches meeting weekly or more, even within a couple miles of your home, but how many of our churches are marked by this kind of passionate devotion to God’s word and to one another? This was not just faithful attendance or reliable, spiritual routine. It was relentless joy and love — together.

What were they devoted to? To the Scriptures and to their fellowship (Acts 2:42). Not devoted like we might be devoted to a New Year’s resolution, but like we are devoted to eating food and drinking water each day. They were daily devoted to God’s word and to each other like their lives depended on it, because they did depend on it.

Is your community committed like theirs?

My contention is that the Neo-Calvinist movement in the end makes the church and ultimately the worship of the local church as the idol. The local chruch and not the Lord is what many Neo-Calvinist can end up worshipping. I am still trying to figure out if this is intentional, or if this is cognitive dissonance that comes about from good intentions. When I read that first paragragh it reminds me in some ways almost a little bit of Islam. This blind and faithful devoiton which I have more to say below, as it has other  consequences as well. Now here is the other problem with intense devotion to scripture. I think that sometimes the Bible can be made an idol as many Neo-Calvinists get wrapped up in the book and not the spirit of the Lord behind the book. I think in the end Marshall Segal and many Neo-Calvinsits are in total denial to this issue. Plus I would also suggest that one could know all the Scripture possible and still not follow, or even come to differing conclusions. There is a belief among many Neo-Calvinists that says if one has the right doctrine, or “sound doctrine” then all is well and there will be no problems. I have news for them, people can and still will sin and make mistakes. And the other problem is that Marshall in talking about intense devotion that is ultimately promoting a receipe for ioslationism, withdrawl from the world, and cutting people off. How does that line up with Jesus command to be in the world but not of it?


2. Heartfelt Affection, Not Bored Formality

What happened as they devoted themselves to the Bible and to one another? “Awe came upon every soul” (Acts 2:43). Do you think of evangelism like it’s an academic lecture or marketing pitch, trying desperately to persuade a nonbeliever to surrender and agree with us? Something different was happening in this tiny and fragile church: awe.

Awe overwhelms the mind to get to the heart. It must take the mind first. No feeling or emotion leads to real life or joy if it is not based on the truth about you and about God (Romans 10:2). Christianity, though, is not simply about getting the truth right, but about having the truth capture our hearts. If we are not fascinated with this Christ, we can hardly claim to know him.

Too many of us in too many of our churches settle for rehearsing the same truths over and over again — in singing and preaching and discussing — without expecting to be moved by God again. But awe is not only the experience of conversion, but of day-in, day-out faith in community. As we watch God move over and over — for one another and in one another — our hearts awaken in wonder again.

Is your community still moved by God?

Aaaaaaaah…. the Awe issue again! I have seen in my life time enough people who are filled with awe when it comes to John Piper. Many Neo-Calvinists sit at the lap of someone like John Piper. Beyond Piper this push for constant awe is, however, really old and it reminds me of the mindless legalism that consumes Desiring God. The claim which I have heard from time to time is that do you do church right? Do you go through the motions? Do you sing right? Do you do this, and do you do that? Etc…etc…etc… Then you would have had awe and then the following would happen.  Its the same kind of mindless dribble that leaves you second guessing yourself, and your motives. What it is in the course of time is a receipe for burnout. Its the perfect storm for becoming fried. The consequences  of such teaching is painful, traumatic, and long lasting. As I write this I just cringe and feel sick in my stomach of this theology and the long term effects which I still deal with in many ways. Jesus said my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Marshall Segel comes along and basically says through his teaching, “my yoke is heavy and my burden is crushing.” Is that what a person really needs? Where is the freedom of the Gospel in this picture?


3. Sacrificial Generosity, Not Selfish Ambition

The Christians in that first church were captured by a vibrant, dynamic, and personal vision of God, but that did not keep them from focusing on one another. They did not have to choose between being a church going hard after the God seated in heaven and a church dedicated to the needs around them here on earth. “All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45).

Christianity did not isolate believers to focus exclusively on their own relationship with Jesus, but made each believer another vital vein in the body of Christ — each of them carrying what others need from God to the one in need.

God promises to meet our every need (Matthew 6:25–33), and many times (if not most often) he meets our needs through another believer. He gifts each of us, not for self-expression or self-fulfillment, but to fill what is lacking in someone else by meeting genuine needs. God has given each of us grace that was not meant to end with us, but to extend to someone else (1 Peter 4:10). But without selfless and sacrificial compassion, grace ends up in storage, not in action.

The first Christians felt so secure in God’s promises that they let go of all they had to help one another. To the watching world, it was unexplainably selfless and foolishly generous. As happened later in Macedonia, “in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2). Joy faced with need always looks like compassion and sacrifice. In short, it looks like the cross (Hebrews 12:2; 1 John 4:9–11).

Is your community radically selfless and generous toward one another?

Oh God….I see that word radical and I cringe. In this crowd radical is a word that is beaten to death just like the word Gospel. Words like radical will lose their meaning in the course of time. That is my prediction to you. By the way when you consider it how does one define selfless genorsity? How is that defined in the end? Genorsity is important I believe and grant Marshall that, but in this canibalistic culture of Neo-Calvinsim where people are second guessing each other, how is this evaluated in the end? Some of this is tricky to write about because I do not want to come across as harsh. Here is the other question I also have…is that verse from Acts 2:44-45 applicable in the 21st Century of the United States? Or is this more of a cultural issue in the end? I am still chewing that point and thinking about it. My mind is going back and forth on this topic.


4. Contagious Joy, Not Secluded Cliques

When I think about my church and my small group, though, the sentence that haunts and inspires me most is the last one in this paragraph: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). All the devotion and affection and compassion became irresistibly contagious.

We do not measure our community strictly in numbers, because only God gives the growth, not us (1 Corinthians 3:7). But we should measure ourselves in part by whether he’s giving the growth at all. If our Christian community is committed, but not compelling to anyone, we should be asking serious questions about what we’re committed to.

Every single church in the world has a mission statement direct from our Lord himself: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). God didn’t mean for some of us to make disciples and others to do other kinds of ministry. Every Christian and every Christian community is called to win the lost and build into Christian maturity. God intends to make every genuine expression of true love, joy, and worship contagious.

Is your community consistently making disciples?

As you begin another year, look for questions to uncover weaknesses or blind spots in your church or small group. Perhaps sit down and develop a vision for how you will live and serve together over the next twelve months. Open the Bible and anchor every dream and plan in actual, memorizable words from God. With his glory as our guide, and his grace as our fuel, he will lead us and add to our number.

This fourth bullet point has this one issue that is key to Christianity and if implemented could accomplish much. That thing is love. Love which is the loving, kindness, warmth, and deep sincere caring is what makes an impact and can add to church. Love is not hammering person in church discipline. Love is not legalistic. Love it tender, gentle and kind. Love is patient, and love. Love speaks volumes, and love moves volumes. Love overcomes differences and heartache. Love unites and brings people together. Love is transparent and it is sorely lacking today. Love is missing in the church and society which has decided to become more militant and embrace bullying.

Christians should conquer by love and grace. I am not talking about the doctrines of grace, I am talking about pure grace. Its grace that shows love in amazing ways. What would happen if Christians were known for their love and the church grew from love? Would articles like this one from Marshall Segal be necessary? No I contend they would not even be necessary. Pure love from the heart with no strings attached is beautiful. Pure love pursues people who makes mistakes and doesn’t let small conflict or issues affect things at all. By the way examining blind spots will become witch hunts in many Neo-Calvinist circles. It will become an exercise in “sin sniffing” and tearing people apart.

What Marshall Segal has in this article is a recipe for legalism. Its a brutal and difficult chemical cocktail that is toxic. What it will eventually led to is spiritual burnout, and crushed hopes, dreams and ultimately faith for those who buy into this vision. It leaves a trail of hubris and pain in its wake. And it draws in people, chews them up and spits them out leaving a trial of wounded and damaged people. Legalism does that and Desiring God does that quite well. I may have been too difficult on this post, if I am then I always invite correction. As always I love you guys!

9 thoughts on “Desiring God’s Marshall Segal’s Recipe for Spiritual Burnout

  1. When I was a new Christian I would have read this article and thought it was amazing. I would have tried so very hard to be perfect. After thirty five years in full time ministry my view has changed completely. I rely more on Scripture, the Holy Spirits prompting, and realize that whether at work, or just in life I will try to show Gods love….nothing more. I do not read Christian books anymore, only listening to them in my small group. Therefore I no longer have “Author Idol”.

    Liked by 1 person

      • “Many people make Christianity more complex than it actually is.”
        If it were simple then they wouldn’t need all the conferences, books, sermons etc.

        If something is easy and has little return it is easy to jettison it, but when the investment becomes high it also becomes hard to walk away. It is the sunk cost fallacy of throwing good time and resources after bad. Burnout may well be how our creator has graciously provided a way for us to separate from something that is not working when we would otherwise be unable to escape.

        I think burnout is also a function of the lack of return on the investment. I can put forth a lot of effort when it seems it is making a difference or I am making a connection. If on the other hand it is a grind with no sense of accomplishment it sucks the life out of me.

        The problem I had reading through Segel’s article was his idea of community is long on promise but my experience with authoritarian churches is the reality usually falls far short. The commitment to Jesus and community of believers promises to fill a heartfelt need, yet it often becomes diverted into labor for an institution run for the benefit of a few men on the payroll. Ask yourself if your church friends would remain friends if you joined a different church. If the answer is no then you and your “friends” have a commitment to something other than what is advertised.

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      • If something is easy and has little return it is easy to jettison it, but when the investment becomes high it also becomes hard to walk away. It is the sunk cost fallacy of throwing good time and resources after bad.

        The key to a successful swindle:
        Get the mark so financially and emotionally involved in the con that he can’t back out, because backing out not only means he lost everything but that he has to admit he got conned. In some cases the mark becomes a fanatical defender of the con man who’s taking him to the cleaners.

        Liked by 1 person

      • HUG: “In some cases the mark becomes a fanatical defender of the con man”
        It is easier to con someone than convince them they are being conned, it is easier to deceive someone than convince them they are being deceived.

        The deception of the con man plays to our inflated ego while the truth often deflates our ego, hence falsehood wins the day.

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  2. When what you are doing is not working, the hard-line fundamentalist answer is always “Then you need to do more of it, and harder.” Which is indeed a recipe for burnout, not success. Because in their mindset, the message is perfect, the message will always be perfect, and the problem can never be with what they are teaching, or the way they are teaching it, so it must be with the congregation somehow.

    Captain Cassidy, at the blog Roll To Disbelieve, has done a lot of posts on just this idea. Faced with declining enrollments, many denominations are following a strategy like the one reflected in the article above. And it’s only pushing people away that much harder.

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  3. It might not be immediately clear why there is a potential for burn out. When we look at what neo-Calvinists writes, we unfortunately cannot just take them at face value. We always have to read them with the lens of DISCIPLINE and EXCOMMUNICATION just behind the scene. I will call these D+E for the rest of the post.

    It is like when John Piper say neither abuses nor cheating by your spouse is ground for divorce. Ok I don’t agree with that, but that’s just his extreme stance right? What harm can it do right? Well neo-Calvinist churches would D+E you for it! So if your spouse abuses you or cheated on you, and you want to get a divorce, your church will D+E you! And the irony is your abusive and cheating spouse gets to stay.

    With that said let’s quickly look at each point:

    1. Relentless Devotion, Not Casual Indifference

    If you are not only devolved but happily devoted to your neo-Calvinist church, that is ground of D+E. It is like in North Korea where when your great leader dies, you get punished if you don’t cry hard enough for his death.

    2. Heartfelt Affection, Not Bored Formality

    If you are not “moved” or “awed” enough by God, as per the opinion of the leadership, you will be D+E. So if you question John Piper about his stance on divorce, clearly you are not moved or in awe by God, and you must be D+E!

    3. Sacrificial Generosity, Not Selfish Ambition

    If you are not generous enough, or you have any selfish ambitions, you will be D+E. So write that big fat cheque to your church because you have to, even when you don’t even have enough cash to pay your rent. As for selfish ambitions, man don’t get my started.

    4. Contagious Joy, Not Secluded Cliques

    If you are not joyfully making disciples enough, that’s ground for D+E. Better make at least one new believer a month. Your church is counting closely.

    Since members are in constant fear of D+E, as interpreted by the church leadership, it is easy to see why people in these churches often burnt out. Every single thing the pastor tells you to do you must do. Else you might face D+E.

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