This is the last chapter in our study of stress and burnout. Of course, there are more studies and information available on the subject of stress. This short book has simply been an introduction to the subject. Our approach to the problem of stress was a little different, however, because as believers in Jesus Christ, we propose that the most satisfying solution to stress problems can only be found through faith.
With this in mind, I'd like to complete our series with the story of one man's struggle with stress and burnout and how God helped him recover. This is the Bible account of the prophet Elijah.
God's Prescription for Burnout
1Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then 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." 3And 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 9thcentury 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 their introduction of pagan worship to 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 of Israel. 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 the prophets of Baal 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 that 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
Elijah experienced things that were beyond the normal life of ordinary people:
- Natural disaster (drought)
- Threats of death
- Forced travel and hiding
- Rejection by society
People can manage some of these things, but when too many good or bad things happen too rapidly we burn out as a protection against total destruction (like a surge of electricity will blow a fuse as a protection against starting a fire). 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 the prophet had accomplished a great victory and witnessed mighty miracles at the hand of God, he was in despair and felt that 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 clearly.
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. This man lived nearly 3000 years ago yet his symptoms and feelings are so very familiar to us today 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 make 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 and 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.
And finally these errors 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. The first thing God prescribes is:
A. Rest - God gave Elijah rest for his body.
5He lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, "Arise, eat." 6Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, "Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you." 8So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.
- I Kings 19:5-8
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.
B. Release - God allowed Elijah to pour out his heart, his frustrations, fear and anger.
9Then he came there to a cave and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 10He 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."
- I Kings 19:9-10
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.
C. 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 (he heard again the voice of the Lord).
11So He said, "Go forth and stand on the mountain before the Lord." And behold, the Lord was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 14Then 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."
- I Kings 19:11-14
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.
D. Recommitment - One task was over, it had been a challenge and a burden. After a time of rest, prayer and renewal, Elijah is given a new ministry, a different service to perform for the Lord.
15The Lord said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, and when you have arrived, you shall anoint Hazael king over Aram; 16and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place.
- I Kings 19:15-16
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 or 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 and worldly ways to be renewed?
- 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. Try it and see the results.