Burnout is a really unpleasant phenomena.
Exhaustion, Lack of motivation, Frustration & Cynicism, the ‘fight or flight’ instincts make it hard to remember things, your job performance falls off a cliff. All are signs of burnout says Dr Ballard of the American Psychological Association. “Exhaustion can be emotional, mental or physical. It’s the sense of not having any energy, of being completely spent.”
We’ve all known friends and family who have burnt out. Many of us have experienced it ourselves, to a greater or lesser degree.
There’s one guy in the Bible who completely embodies the burnt out high achiever. His name? Elijah.
In a world where the kings of Israel and the people alike have abandoned the one true God, Elijah has a tough job description: to call the King a traitor, to proclaim God’s judgement and to stand for truth. He takes the risk of backing up his prophetic claims by stopping it raining in Israel for three long years… and he heard right from God. As the evil King Ahab is hunting down and killing prophets, Elijah seeks out the persecutor and confronts him face to face. Then, in an insane contest he meets 450 false prophets of Baal on a mountain top. He challenges their god to set fire to a sacrifice. Obviously they cannot do it. Then he calls on the one true God to perform the same feat and the fire rains down.
What a victory! What success! The height of a glorious prophetic career. On his word the false prophets are put to death. And then…
At the height of his success he hears that the queen isn’t best pleased. Those prophets were her guys. And she’s out for revenge. So Elijah runs. Rather than being confident in what God has already said and done, he runs, in fear and exhaustion. He collapses one night. Then he’s up and running again. Away, away.
He feels isolated and alone. He thinks he’s the only person left in the whole country who truly honours the Lord. It’s as though everyone is out to get him. As though nothing he has done matters. He might as well just die and be done with it all. He is totally burnt out, stressed out and depressed. He ends up in a cave on another mountain, him and God, just hiding from the world and the call of God on his life.
The good news here is that God ministers to Elijah just where he is at. He doesn’t give him a thunderbolt up the backside. He doesn’t set fire to his robes or force him out of the cave with earthquake, wind or fire.
There are three stages to God ministering to this cracked pot.
First off he feeds him. Plain and simple. He send a messenger with warm, freshly-baked bread and a jug of cool water. How practical is that? When you’re done in, a good meal goes a long way.
Secondly he speaks softly, in a still, small voice. Yes, on the other mountain-top God spoke with fire and smoke. But it is the same God who takes this broken, burnt out pot and whispers sweet caresses to the troubled ear.
Only then does God ‘deal with the problem’. “Delegation Elijah, that’s what you need,” he says in a round about kinda way. He calls out a deputy for Elijah. He calls out a king to wield the sword, annihilate the evil king and protect the people. “Ooh. And by the way, mate. You’re not the only one serving me. There are seven thousand still following. So get back to it.”
I do see what God says to Elijah on Mount Horeb as a kind of pep talk.
Is Elijah perfect? No. Does he get things out of perspective? Yes. Does he bottle it when he could have pressed home the advantage? Yes.
But nobody’s perfect. Everyone has their weaknesses and Elijah gives a spectacular example of burn out from which modern-day stress heads can take comfort.
Even those who have burnt out are useful to God. Learning the lesson of the solo flyer, Elijah takes stock next time and rises gently as part of the team. A squadron of prophets, priests and kings.
Many folk do face burn out today. And in the shame of it, they stay hidden from effective Christian ministry forever. To me, the lesson of Elijah is twofold. Firstly that we need to acknowledge where we’re at, that God deals with us where we are at, and that’s okay. Maybe we need bread and water and rest. Maybe we need to hear the gentle loving whisper of our Saviour. Or maybe we’re ready for a rescue plan, ready to learn the lessons, dust ourselves off and hope again.
The second lesson is maybe the best one. Burn out is not the end. God reshapes and reuses the most broken of pots. And people.
You can read the story of this post in 1 Kings 18:16-19:21.
This is part of the Cracked Pots series of blogs.