The Elijah Syndrome: Fired Up Or Burned Out?
I Kings 19:1-8
Your job can be hazardous to your health. If you don’t believe me, look at Elijah. In I Kings 18, he was on fire for the Lord and he won a great victory for God’s cause in the world. One chapter later, I Kings 19, he was huddled up under a broom tree feeling sorry for himself, exhausted, and burned out. That’s what I call “the Elijah Syndrome—Fired up or Burned out?” It was not only a problem for Elijah, but it is the most prevalent social disease of our time. Job burnout, a debilitating psychological condition, brought on by unrelieved work stress, strikes far more people than we realize. But in fact it’s as old as Elijah. So let’s take a clinical approach to the case of Elijah. First, we shall diagnose the problem, and then we shall apply a prescription for healing.
Let’s begin with the diagnosis.
Elijah was a man of great courage. He was one of the most rugged and dominant figures in the Old Testament. There was in him little or no sense of fear. He refused to capitulate to evil. He would not keep silent even when his very powerful king ordered him to do so. He was so fired up in his work for the Lord that nothing, and no one, could quench the flame.
You will remember the dramatic story recorded in I Kings 18 where Elijah called the priests of the pagan god Baal to a contest atop Mt. Carmel. It was to be a kind of “spiritual Super Bowl.” It was designed to identify the one true God. You remember how Elijah thundered out to the people: “How long will you go limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, then follow Him! If Baal, then follow him.” Then you know how this fired-up prophet called for the fire of God to fall from heaven—and the fire fell, and the false prophets were destroyed. It was a great victory for God. The forces of evil were put to flight. And Elijah was exuberant.
Then Jezebel, the wicked queen of the land, got word about what had happened. She was enraged. She sent a message to Elijah, and the message was painfully blunt. It read: “By this time tomorrow you will be dead as a doornail.” That was the proverbial straw which broke the back of Elijah’s spirit. He had worked so long and so hard. He had poured so much of himself into the cause of his Lord. He had believed that the victory had been won. But now suddenly, a new obstacle rose before him, and it sent him sliding down the slippery slope of depression. He burned out, and all of the classic symptoms of burnout can be seen in him.
It is clear that Elijah was fatigued. He was physically and mentally exhausted. Of course, it is mental weariness that leads to physical weariness. It’s tough to wear out a body. If you use a muscle, you don’t wear it out, you build it up. So it’s what goes on in our minds which influences what happens in our bodies. That truth dawned on me a few years ago when my son, John David, was sixteen. He had a summer job and worked hard during the day. One day he came home looking exhausted, but I asked him to mow the grass. He protested that he was too tired. I insisted because the grass was already too high. Grudgingly, he agreed. But I have to tell you that when I looked out, I couldn’t tell if he was holding up the lawnmower, or it was holding him up! And was it ever moving slowly! Then suddenly, a car pulled up to the front curb and out stepped three sixteen-year-old visions of loveliness wanting him to go “hang out,” as they put it. I want to tell you, the rest of that lawn got cut instantly. He worked like a man possessed. You see, it was all in the attitude of the mind which dictated the state of the body. When the mind told him to get with it, it didn’t matter how hot it was or how long he had been working or how tired he felt—when the mind told him to go, he went!
Elijah’s problem was that his mind was worn out. He had just emerged from a long campaign to call the nation back to its faith in God, and he had just experienced the stress and strain of the contest on Mount Carmel. He had spent his emotional capital. He was mentally whipped. And when the mind is tired, beware, for there is a price to be paid. That’s one of the symptoms of burnout.
And it is clear that Elijah was fearful. In I Kings 19, verse 3, we read: “Elijah was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life.” Under normal circumstances, he was a man of great courage. But Jezebel’s threat to kill him was serious and she had the power to back up her words. As a result fear gripped Elijah’s soul. We know how attitudes determine what we see. In fact, we don’t see things as they are—we see things as we are! And when we are afraid, it colors the way we view everything around us. We begin to overreact to the circumstances about us, and we even begin to take on a dollop of paranoia. That’s what we see in Elijah. Earlier he had faced down the 450 priests of Baal without a trace of fear. Now he felt that the whole world was against him and the whole world was after him. A classic symptom of burnout.
Also, it is clear that Elijah was frustrated. He thought that Mt. Carmel would settle things. He had planned it as the decisive event to restore the people to a right relationship with God. But things didn’t pan out the way he had planned out—and that frustrated him. We can understand that. One of the reasons we love sports in this nation is because the games come to a conclusion—someone wins and someone loses and it’s over and we can go on with living. But life doesn’t work that way. What’s more, God doesn’t always operate in accordance with our plan or in harmony with our calendar. There are ambiguities and deferrals and postponements along the way—and those things tend to wear us down. In fact, Elijah was so frustrated at the way things were working out that the Bible says “he asked that he might die.” He was ready to give up, one more symptom of burnout.
Then it is clear that Elijah was feeling sorry for himself. In verse 10, Elijah says: “I, even I only am left, and they seek to take away my life.” Of course that wasn’t really true. We are told later on that there were 7000 people in Israel who stood on the same side as Elijah, but he was so overcome with self-pity that he couldn’t see it. There’s an old French proverb which goes “At night all cats are gray.” That’s true. In the dark, you can’t tell the difference between chalk and cheese, between brass and gold, between wine and water, between weeds and flowers, between friend and foe. Just so, when we enter the dark night of the soul, we can’t see clearly and we begin to think: “I, even I only, am left.” That’s a clear sign of burning out.
That’s what happened to Elijah. He became mentally and physically fatigued; he became too focused on his fears; he became frustrated because of his impatience; and he began to wallow in feelings of self-pity. That’s burnout. It happened to Elijah. It can happen to us.
Now let’s look at the prescription for healing.
The good news is that God moved into Elijah’s experience, produced a prescription for healing, and the burned-out prophet became once again a fired-up servant of the Lord. The prescription has three parts: rest, renewal, rededication.
God said to Elijah: “I want you to get some rest.” I find it fascinating to realize that the first key to overcoming burnout is to get some good sleep and some good food. Rest and refreshment. God provided Elijah a good meal, some refreshing water, and a sound sleep in order to replenish his strength. You know our bodies are remarkably resilient. In fact, they are rather like kudzu. I know that doesn’t sound very flattering, but I mean it. We imported kudzu from Japan in order to cover our hillsides to prevent erosion. The problem is that you can’t stop kudzu. You can burn it out, you can cut it out, you can poison it out, you can freeze it out, but it keeps coming back. The body is the same way. It keeps resuscitating itself, if you just give it the time to do so. So when your spirit begins to flag and the fire of life begins to die out within you, follow God’s advice to Elijah: First, get some rest and refreshment—good food and good sleep.
Next God said to Elijah: “I’ll give you some renewal.” For Elijah, that renewal came through forty days spent at Mt. Horeb, the mount of God. Now I know that not all of us are in a position to take 40 days off, but every one of us does have the opportunity to build into our lives times when we get away, even briefly, from the normal demands of our daily life. Jesus did that. I am going to say something which sounds a little jolting but I think it is true. Sometimes Jesus got so sick and tired of the tired and the sick that He had to get away from it for a while. There are many times in the Gospels when we are told of Jesus’ exhaustion. J. B. Phillips was once asked what was his favorite Bible verse. You know how church people are when they ask a minister to designate a favorite verse, you had better come up with a good one. Well, J. B. Phillips said: “My favorite verse is John 4:6—Jesus was tired and he sat down beside the well.” There was another time when Jesus was so worn out that He fell asleep in the stern of the boat. Jesus understood the need to build some times of renewal into our experience. Jesus possessed incredible poise and power, strength and certainty. Those things were His because He did not so lose Himself in the purposes of God that He lost His contact with the presence of God. We need to remember that. Sometimes we so get to giving ourselves to good and worthwhile things that we begin to become impatient and irritable. Children get on our nerves. Traffic drives us crazy. We lose our train of thought and our focus of attention. Our judgement is impaired. Our psychosomatic aches and pains begin to bother us. At that point, Jesus says: “Come away to a lonely place for a while and touch the face of God.”
Then God said to Elijah: “I am calling you to rededication.” We are told that God spoke to Elijah not through a roaring wind or a rattling earthquake or a raging fire, you don’t talk to upset people that way. You speak to people like that in a still, small voice. So God whispered to Elijah and said: “There are great things ahead for you to do, Elijah. Rededicate yourself to me and together we shall do them.” That’s what re-ignited the fire in Elijah. It was Maurice Maeterlinck who told about a lighthouse keeper on an island just off a cold, stormy, and rocky coast. The supply ship had been delayed in reaching the island with fuel oil. As a result, the people who lived near the lighthouse ran out of oil. They were living in the dark and sometimes in the cold. So this lighthouse keeper, a compassionate and caring man, began to give the reserves of the lighthouse oil to the people nearby. Soon those reserves were all gone. One night the light in the lighthouse went out and there was no fuel with which to re-ignite it. That very night the supply ship came, and not seeing the lighthouse, it was driven into the rocks and destroyed. My friends, we have lives which are aflame by the grace of God. When we separate ourselves from God, when we do not give ourselves anew and afresh to His cause in our lives, then our light will go out.
Let me share this with you because it is too good not to share! Bishop Ellis Finger once told of a first-grade teacher who was having a horrible day. It had rained all day and she had been cooped up in a small classroom with 37 first graders and no recess. There had been one problem after another. She was exhausted, ready to give up, anxiously awaiting the 3 o’clock bell to ring. At quarter-to-three, the teacher noticed that it was still raining, so she began the arduous task of getting the right raincoats and the right rain-hats and the right rain-boots on the right children. Finally she had them all fixed except for one little boy. He had a pair of boots that were just impossible to get on. No zippers. No snaps. No hooks. They had to be pulled on with great effort. The teacher pushed and pulled and yanked and tugged until finally they slipped on. She was so relieved. Then the little boy said: “Teacher, you know what? These boots ain’t mine!” The teacher wanted to scream but she didn’t. She took a deep breath, whispered a prayer, swept the hair back out of her eyes, and then she began the battle of getting those boots back off the little boy. She pulled and yanked and tugged and jerked, and at last they came off. The little boy then said: “They’re my sister’s boots, but she lets me wear them!”
Here then is the last word I have for you today. The power of Jesus Christ is not ours. It belongs to Him, but He lets us wear it. And when we strap on a commitment to Jesus Christ in our lives, when we take up the torch of our faith, when we commit ourselves to live for Christ each day, when we accept Him as our Lord and Saviour, we come alive—we are made whole—we are healed. That’s the way to be fired up, not burned out, in life.