I suppose I could use the words stress, worry, as well as anxious when talking about the struggle that affects all of us from time to time. In the world there are many remedies offered to counter these problems. The world's solutions to stress involve things like drugs, vacations or some type of therapy.
As Christians, however, we believe that even if these methods might be helpful, the most satisfying and permanent solution to the problems of worry and stress can only be found through faith, and specifically through faith in Christ. With this in mind I'd like to review the story of Elijah and how God helped him deal with his extreme case of stress, worry and eventual burnout.
1 Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time." 3 And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
- I Kings 19:1-3
Elijah lived in the 9th century BC. He was a prophet who served God during the reign of several kings and one especially bad ruler: Ahab who was married to Jezebel. Much of Elijah's ministry involved the conflict between himself and the royal couple over the introduction of pagan worship in Israel.
Jezebel was from Tyre and through her influence the worship of Baal-Melquart, the official nature god of Tyre, was being actively brought into the kingdom. In response to this, Elijah had prayed for a drought to come over the land and it did not rain for three years. Since Baal was a deity that was suppose to control nature, this drought was a demonstration of this pagan religion's emptiness. Of course the drought also made the king and queen greater enemies of Elijah.
After three years Elijah challenged all the prophets of Baal to meet him at Mt. Carmel in order to demonstrate who was greater: Jehovah or Baal. At this meeting Elijah taunted and ridiculed them and performed a great miracle before the assembled people to show that the God he served was the true God and Baal worship was futile. After this demonstration he ordered that the 450 prophets of Baal (prophets appointed and supported by Jezebel) be killed. As if this was not enough, Elijah also offered another prayer asking God to send rain, and after three years of drought, the heavens opened and the water poured forth. After doing these things, realizing he may be in danger, Elijah escaped on foot to another town.
Elijah experienced a physical, emotional and spiritual roller coaster for three years culminating in the great showdown at Mt. Carmel; he was only a man and was close to burnout.
2. Symptoms of burnout - vs. 4-14
In verses 4 to 14, we read that Elijah experienced things that were beyond what normal life required of ordinary people:
- Natural disaster
- Threats of death
- Forced travel and hiding
- Rejection by society
People can manage some of these things, but when too many good things or too many bad things happen too rapidly we blow a fuse, we burn out as a protection against total destruction. Burnout has symptoms and we recognize these symptoms in Elijah's dialogue with the Lord:
A. Despair - vs. 4a
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die
Even though he had witnessed great victory and great miracles, he was in despair, he had no hope. His loss of hope was not because there was nothing to believe in or no proof to support his faith; Elijah lost hope because he couldn't function properly to see these things any more.
B. Self-deprecation - vs. 4b
"It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers."
Burned out people are hard on themselves; no matter what they've done, it's not good enough. Burnout makes you feel like a failure and nothing can convince you otherwise.
C. Anger/resentment - vs. 10
He said, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."
Elijah felt angry about how he felt. If you do your best, if you try your hardest, if you succeed: you should feel good, not bad. When the only reward we get from all of our efforts is fatigue and depression, we need to step back because we're close to burnout.
D. Loneliness - vs. 14
Then he said, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."
Here Elijah repeats his complaint and with it his greatest worry: that he be left alone. Burnout makes us feel that no one understands, no one cares, no one knows how we feel or why we feel the way we do. Elijah repeats his complaint to God as if the Lord can't possibly understand. Elijah lived nearly 3000 years ago yet his symptoms and feelings are so very familiar to us who struggle with depression: low self-esteem, resentment and alienation in our modern pressure-cooker society.
3. Common mistakes caused by burnout
Aside from the physical feelings of fatigue and the emotional problems associated with burnout, this condition also pushes us to make mistakes that we wouldn't normally do if we were balanced and rested:
Mistake #1 - We focus on feelings rather than facts. Elijah prayed that he might die. He looked inward and saw the world through the lens of his feelings, not through the facts of what had just happened; I feel like a failure therefore I am a failure. This is called emotional reasoning, and it's a mistake.
Mistake #2 - Comparing ourselves to others. Elijah cried that he was no better than his fathers. We usually compare our weaknesses to other's strength and always come out losers.
Mistake #3 - Motivating ourselves with negatives. Elijah complained that he had been zealous for God but the people had rejected God and his preaching (verse 10). We blame self, we push ourselves with criticism and label ourselves with harsh judgments; it's no wonder we feel bad, we become our worst critics!
Mistake #4 - We exaggerate the negatives. Elijah cried, "I am the only one left." This attitude degenerates to self-pity and despair. The cycle works like this:
- We are over-burdened, over-stimulated, over-worked, over-stressed.
- This leads to weakened physical and mental resistance as well as spiritual let down.
- This condition produces a variety of symptoms such as anger, depression, low self-esteem.
- These attitudes drive us to make critical mistakes such as emotional reasoning, false comparisons, negative self judgment and further alienation from others.
These mistakes produce more stress on our system which perpetuates the vicious cycle leading to total breakdown.
4. God's 4-part remedy for burnout
God is aware of the body's frailty, especially when under stress. In this same passage we see His remedy to renew a burned out servant named Elijah. First thing God prescribes is:
- Rest - God gave Elijah rest for his body (verses 5-8). The body will short-circuit if it does not receive rest and nourishment. A balance of work, rest and leisure is the best medicine for a burned out system. People usually "rest" until they are well enough to repeat the same mistakes that led to burnout originally. What is needed is an attitude that understands that rest and leisure are as important as work in developing a balanced and pleasing life before God.
- Release - God allowed Elijah to pour out his heart, his frustrations, fear and anger (verses 9-10). The problem with burnout is that it's like a low burning fire inside that never gets extinguished. It keeps burning and building and destroying us from the inside. Pray, cry, share with others, empty your heart out before God so the emotional energy created by the stress can be released.
- Refocusing - Elijah was seeing only the problem, but in the cave at Horeb he sought again the vision of God that had originally sent him to prophecy (verses 11-13) (he heard again the voice of the Lord). Sometimes it isn't a change of place or people that we need; it's a resetting of our sights on God, His word, His Son Jesus Christ and His church that is truly needed.
- Recommitment - One task was over, it had been a challenge and a burden. After a time of rest and prayer and renewal, Elijah is given a new ministry, a different service to perform for the Lord (verses 15-16). The best way to beat burnout is to be active in different ways with different people, pursuing different goals.
If our focus is on God and His purpose, He will be able to direct us into some service that will give us fresh hope and a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm. He will also supply us with help to do the work at hand; Elisha was to continue Elijah's work.
Elijah was human, like all of us, who nearly burned out because of the pressures of his service to the Lord, but God renewed him with:
- Rest for his body
- Release for his soul
- Refocusing for his spirit
- Recommitment for his heart
- Also reinforcement for his ministry (Elisha)
God not only cares for us, He knows exactly what we need for what ails us in every generation. Are you overanxious, stressed, burned out? Do you recognize yourself in Elijah? Are his symptoms also your symptoms? Have you given up on man's solutions to fix the problems, worldly ways to be renewed?
- Etc, all the ..isms!
I encourage you to try God's prescription for burnout:
- Find the proper balance between work and rest, even if it means less money.
- Express your feelings to God in prayer. Do it often and sincerely.
- Re-establish your priorities putting Christ and His kingdom first in your life again. This will properly order all of your other priorities.
- Begin seeking for new ways to serve the Lord through His church.
My prayer for all those who struggle with anxiety is that you will find the comfort and security in the Lord that you need to live a joyful, productive life in Christ Jesus.