Burn-out Doesn't Have to be a Wipe-out!
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Have you ever felt burned-out? You know… that feeling of frustration and weariness of soul that has no clear vision for renewal. “Burn-out Syndrome” has a way of creeping into our spiritual psyches imperceptibly and sets us up for disaster because it becomes the filter through which we perceive life and the standard by which we make our decisions. When we find ourselves chin deep in what seems to be pointless striving, we are dangerously close to something akin to despair, so naturally we become extremely vulnerable to taking desperate measures to solve our problems.
The problem, of course, is a faith one (or a lack-of-faith one, to be precise). There are countless examples in the Bible of God’s men and women either falling and failing or succeeding and conquering. The determining factor for the outcome of their burn-out is consistently whether or not they refocus their lives on God and resume confidence in Him and His promises.
God’s people are clearly not immune to the hazards associated with being burned out, of course. We are, after all, on an adventure in which the Lord calls us to put our faith into action in practical ways and the biggest challenges to faith are found less often in crises than in long periods of monotony. Crisis is simply a match that ignites the fuel of mounting doubt and apathy.
Consider Elijah, a servant to the LORD, who had daringly confronted a king named Ahab (a weak man whose throne was controlled by his God-hating wife, Jezebel).
“Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1 ESV).
The Lord directs Elijah to a quiet haven away from Ahab’s soldiers (and Jezebel’s malice) and time passes without any weakening in the resolve of Ahab to reject God and rule the land in his own way. For a long while, Elijah lives by himself and has nothing but time on his hands. The Bible tells that after awhile, Elijah’s resources are depleted. Circumstantially, it becomes clear that God is using this in positioning Elijah to be a means of blessing someone else in need. Then, after more long waiting, God says that it is time for a showdown.
Now keep in mind that during the time that has passed, although Elijah has not been active in a physical sense (at least in regard to his calling and ministry), his mind has likely been very active. With all the down time that he has had, one would like to think that he is especially refreshed and encouraged, that any and all doubts about God’s faithfulness to Elijah, not to mention Elijah’s sense of purpose, will have been arrested in that extended “alone time” with God.
And at first it seems that way. He boldly confronts those who have been instrumental in leading people away from a concentrated and fruitful devotion to the one, true God (in Genesis 18), and through him, God thoroughly trounces them and their phony gods. One would expect Elijah to be on what we often call a “spiritual high”.
But the long moments of frustration and weariness have taken a toll on poor Elijah. Jezebel's hatred of the Lord remains unabated, Ahab continues to be a weak-kneed ruler who will let his apostate wife rule the roost, and idolatry remains the policy of the people of Israel.
Elijah is, in every sense of the expression, burned out. He had lived his life to see the people of God return to God in whole-hearted affection. He had spent all his hopes and fears in what appears to be the vain pursuit of revival for God's people. And it appears to be of no avail. So, he does what any of us would likely have done. He gives up. He quits. He runs away.
“It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4 ESV).
But God uses this breakdown in Elijah’s life as a means to refresh and reorient him to God’s love and power (see 1 Kings 19). When Elijah seems to be about as low as he can be (alone in a cave at Mount Horeb), God speaks.
“The word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:9-10 ESV).
Burn-out has a way of making us feel all alone and forgotten. It makes moments of failure seem bigger than they are and God smaller than He is. It takes all our hurts and fills our hearts with them. It takes all our fears and fills our sight with them. We feel that all has been pointless and must be so bad that even God cannot make anything of our messes. “He’s left me,” we think and discouragement becomes full-blown despair.
We want God to come into our circumstances with wind and fire, making the earth quake with power as He overthrows what is wrong and sets up what is right. Of course, He CAN do this, but because God more often works quietly in the hidden places of the hearts of people to change the world, we, in our burn-out, give up, quit, and run away (figuratively if not literally).
If this describes where you are in your walk with God right now, then remember that God is present even when the fires do NOT come, the winds do NOT blow, and the earth does NOT shake. It was in a still, small voice (a gentle whisper) that God spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) in encouraging words to the effect that God was still working in unseen ways. Things were not as bad as Elijah thought, nor was he as alone as he felt. Not only that, but God would yet woo back the hearts of His people and overthrow the spiritual imposters to whom they bowed.
Today, God’s Word is filled with encouragement for His children, although we too are beset with long moments of apparently pointless waiting, long lists of seemingly fruitless failures, and long lines of increasingly hopeless people who will not listen to the hope of Jesus Christ that you profess. Very rarely is a war won with a single battle, nor is a heart changed with a single touch. If you are feeling burned out, the remedy is the rehearsing of God’s goodness to you as well as the promises He has bequeathed you. Remember to look to the God of the Bible and NOT your circumstances. Circumstances are, after all, only a smoky mist that distorts and shrouds the reality of the spiritual world around you.
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 21 years. He is the author of The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com”. Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Copyright © Thom Mollohan.
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