By Daniel R. Vess
Do gospel sermons seems like tired, old reruns? Does your mind and your mouth switch to automatic pilot during hymns? Do you get a lot more excited about your favorite sports team than you are about being a disciple of Jesus? Do you find yourself criticizing the sermon and the song leader rather than searching for what you can learn from the services? Do those smiling, happy Christians get on your nerves? Are you just plain tired of the sometimes empty routine of Bible study, devotions, prayers, and ministry? If so, then you may be suffering from a common spiritual malady which we will call "Spiritual Burnout".
Just what is Spiritual Burnout? When you think of burnout you envision a variety of images, such as the burnout shell of a building. However, burnout is not limited to old buildings. Burnout happens in the business executives, classroom teachers, marriage partners, students, preachers and children of God.
Many spiritual giants of the Bible have suffered spiritual burnout, such as, Moses, Jeremiah, and even Elijah. In I Kings 19:4 we learn of Elijah's burnout. "But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, "It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers" Why was he so depressed? Had he committed some crime? No. He had simply declared the truth. He had done what was right - and what he got in return was death threats from the Queen of Israel. It hurt him deeply. Analogous to Elijah, nearly all of us experience times when our spiritual appetites diminish or when God seems distant and we are suffering from spiritual burnout.
COMMON SPIRITUAL EXTINGUISHERS
Why do we suffer from burnout? There are several reasons for this. We will only be able to explore a couple of them in this tract.
1) RUNNING ON FUMES.
The great prophet's desert depression was preceded by the Mt. Carmel triumph. Elijah had been on the mountain three days earlier, engaged in a remarkable confrontation with the pagan priests of Baal. This was the age of Ahab and Jezebel in which God judged the land with a "no rain" edict for three years. Elijah had challenged the priests to a duel of sorts, and he had scored a spectacular victory by the end of the day. An altar had been erected on the mountaintop. Two bulls were prepared for sacrifice: one for the Baal flock and one for Elijah.
It was suggested by Elijah that which ever god answered by sending fire to consume the sacrifice would be the victor. The Baal priest were to go first and take their best shot. Elijah cried out,
24 "Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, He is God." So all the people answered and said, "It is well spoken." 25 Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it." 26 So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, "O Baal, hear us!" But there was no voice; no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they had made. 27 And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened." 28 So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. 29 And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention. (I Kings 18:24-29).
What an absurd scene of sincere, grown men dancing, screaming, and cutting themselves in order to gain the attention of their god. Yet their zeal was all in vain.
Next it was Elijah's turn. He repaired the long ignored altar of the Lord, set up the wood and the prepared animal, dug a ditch around it, and drenched the entire alter with water. Then he prayed.
36 ..."LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. 37 "Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again." 38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, "The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!" (vv. 36-39).
Talk about passion! One man against a spiritually depraved nation, a powerful king and queen. God answered the prayer with force!
The next thing Elijah knew he was running for his very life. He had received death threats from Queen Jezebel who was upset at the humiliating defeat of her god at Mt. Carmel. Elijah was afraid, "And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there" (v 3). He could have said, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but your threats will never hurt my passion. Instead, he asked God that he might die, "But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, 'It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!'" (v. 4).
Was this the same man who performed valiantly on Mt. Carmel? He ran to Jezreel fuel short. He was had expended tremendous spiritual, mental physical, and emotional exertion. He was running on fumes. Elijah was depressed, ready to give up, to lie down and die. What he did, however was to lie down and sleep. More than anything else, Elijah needed some sleep and some good food, and it was provided. God knew just now to deal with the drained prophet.
5 Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, "Arise and eat." 6 Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came back the second time, and touched him, and said, "Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you." 8 So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God (vv. 5-8).
Perhaps, our spiritual burnout is caused by over work or over commitment. Unfortunately we sometimes act and think as if we came from the planet Krypton - Super-Christians. We try to be spiritual men of steel. Yet remember, Elijah was a man of like passions as we. He needed God to send an angel to fix him breakfast twice and to tuck him in. Additionally, like a car, we only come equipped with gas tanks that will only hold so much. We cannot fun on fumes forever. Soon you get no where as your car coughs, sputters and leaves you stranded and depressed by the side of the road. Remember, even Christ and his disciples needed re- "creation" in a deserted place. It would be nice if this were the only cause of burnout, but too few Christians work so hard that they are running on fumes.
2) UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.
Having defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, Elijah may have thought his victory had demonstrated once and for all that the pagan idols were nothing. We also desire to make a difference for Christ in the lives of those around us. Yet when that vision fails to mesh with reality we too burnout. Years are passing, yet we see nothing happening. Burnout takes place when we feel that we are batting our heads against the wall day after day, year after year. When our dreams fail to materialize. However, we should keep them in proper perspective. No dream is going to unfold as smoothly as we have imagined. Remember, God has promised us success if we don't burnout. "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart" (Gal. 6:9).
3) UNCONFESSED SIN.
Although Elijah's discouragement was not caused by his sinning, sin does remain the number one reason for spiritual burnout. Half-buried sin will do great harm. David knew this. In Ps. 139:23,24, he wrote, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
David's desire was the difference between him and Saul. Both sinned and both confessed. Yet the similarity ends there. Saul confessed his sin hopeing to retain a position of prominence. David lamented his sin because it was an offense to God. He saw sin for what it really was.
Ask yourself: Am I engaged in practices that dull my spiritual sensitivity? Am I harboring some unrepented sin in my life? Am I stubbornly hanging on to a vice instead of giving it up? If so, you will undoubtedly become depressed spiritually and/or you will harden in your sin.
4) REPETITIOUS RITUALISM.
George MacDonald wrote, "Nothing is so deadening to the divine as a habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things." This is why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees. Their religion was steeped in repetitious ritualism. For example, they had created and elaborate system of rules to keep them from breaking the Sabbath day laws. If their house caught fire on the Sabbath they could not put it out. Firefighting was considered work. Nor could they remove their belongings. That too would be considered a violation of the Sabbath. However, according to Pharisitic traditions one could wear several layers of clothing out of their burning home without sinning. Furthermore, if a Jew ate an egg laid on the Sabbath you would be a sinner. These Pharisees taught that the hen worked to lay the egg. The consumer of the egg therefore would be guilty via proxy. Undoubtedly tilling the ground was work. Spiting on the ground was thus considered work, because it would move the soil. When they condemned the disciples of Jesus for not keeping their tradition of washing one's hands before you eat, Jesus rebuked them saying, "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mt. 15:7-9).
Do you attend church? You should. But perhaps, you need to rethink why you do. Is it merely a ritualistic habit or to worship God? Do you pray? You should, but not as a mere formality of your religion. Check to see if you've lost sight of the true goal of these activities. Disciplines that should breathe the very life of God into our lives can stiffen in rigor mortis if we lose sight of Christ Himself. We must meet with a Person, not a habit.
REIGNITION AFTER BURNOUT
How can I overcome spiritual burnout? There are many things which can help, let's consider a few.
1) FIRE UP THROUGH FELLOWSHIP.
Israel encountered the hostile Amalekites who would not permit them to pass through the land on their way to Mt. Sinai. However, Moses had a plan (See Ex. 17:9-11). Joshua would go with the army of Israel into the valley to face Amalek. Moses went with his aides, Aaron and Hur, to the mountaintop to hold the rod, symbolizing God's power and authority. It was an interesting day of ups and downs as one army and then the other prevailed in battle. The Scriptures tell us that whenever Moses held his hands with the rod upward, the armies of Israel began to advance against Amalek. But when he dropped his arms, the battle turned against the Israelites. Finding a stone for Moses to sit on, Aaron and Hur stood on each side and held up his arms "so that his hands were steady until the going down of the sun" (v. 12). Israel easily won the battle.
When Moses' batteries were low and he was tired out, his special friends were just the energizers he need to keep him going. We all need special friends to help us win the battles in our lives. Someone to hold up our hands. Even Elijah was later given Elisha. Moses was surrounded by friends, and together they accomplished what not one of them could have done alone.
Don't try to be a spiritual Lone Ranger. Our movies, television, and books focus on just such heroes, overcoming tragedy without support from anyone, standing tall, solitary.
But real life works differently. We need each other. The Hebrew Christians were told to continue to attend for encouragement, "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:25).
One Sunday afternoon the preacher went to visit a gentlemen who had been absent from worship services for quite sometime. As he stepped into the erring brother's home he didn't say a word. They simply sat quietly by the fireplace watching the flowing embers. Then the preacher took the poker and pulled a hot glowing ember out of the fire onto the hearth. As that ember grew colder and darker the other embers were becoming hotter and brighter. At last, when the lone ember on the hearth was cold the preacher leaned over, picked it up with his bare hands. Upon being thrown back into the fire, the ember was soon growing hotter and brighter. The brother then turned to the preacher and said, "You need not say a single word sir. I get the message. I'll be at the services of the church tonight."
Why is it so important to go to church even when we are not in the mood? We draw strength from being with others. Each one present imparts energy to each other, and just like the Energizer Bunny and can keep on going and going and going...
2) REKINDLE THE PASSION OF OUR PAST.
Recall the excitement you experienced when you first committed yourself to that good news. The Hebrew writers reminded the early Christians of "the former days."
32 But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: 33 partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; 34 for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. 35 Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward (Heb. 10:32-35).
Those were "the good old days," when they had first become Christians. Yet their early enthusiasm was waning. Some of his readers were not attending church services anymore. They had "drooping hands" and "weak knees" (Heb. 12:12). Christianity had turned out to be not a constant experience of excitement, but a long, difficult struggle. The Bible is a very realistic book. It does not ignore the fact that enthusiasm wanes and frustration sets in, even in the best of causes.
To keep the original passion alive and burning bright is not that difficult. It is all in the way you approach each day. Jesus said, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Mt. 6:34). Once there was a married couple who played the recording of their wedding service each year on their anniversary, this helped keep their love burning bright. Remember, this day is the first day of the rest of your life. If we take up our cross daily, we are renewed day by day. Or as the Psalmist wrote, "This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24).
3) BURN RUBBER
When Elijah was suffering from burnout God just didn't let him retire altogether. He sent Him to anoint a new king over Israel, a new king over Syria, and appoint his successor.
15 Then the LORD said to him: "Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. 16 "Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. 17 "It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 "Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him" (I Kgs. 19:15-18).
Nothing helps keep one out of trouble like staying busy. Although a Christian is not to merely do good works, he is to be "zealous for good works" (Tit. 2:14). He is not to simply love his brethren, he is to love them "fervently". "not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord;" (Rom. 12:11).
The Greek word for zeal is "zelos" meaning "to burn with zeal, to be heated, to boil..." (Thayer). Enthusiasm is unmistakable evidence that you are in love with your work. One large company told its employees that they can leave their brains at home and be forgiven, but if they leave their enthusiasm at home they are fired. Christ was in love with his work. He said, "I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work" (John 9:4). Nehemiah and the Jews finished the walls of Jerusalem in 52 days. Why? Because they had a mind to work. We are to abound in our work for the Lord, "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (I Cor. 15:58). Burn rubber in God's work and watch your spiritual passion reignite.
There is a positive side to Spiritual Burnout. It is a warning signal to the Christian to awake and rekindle their passion for their first love. Like a hot air balloon when the flame burns out we begin to drift down toward destruction. When the flame burns hot and bright we sour higher toward heaven and closer to God.
Every Christian and every congregation needs to work hard to revive its spiritual spark. "The story was told about the church house that was on fire and the preacher, the elders and a few members came to put out the fire. A man across the street also came to help. After the fire was out, one of the elders thanked the man and said, "I don't believe I've seen ;you before." The man replied, "No you haven't". "But why, you only live across the street". 'Because this church has never been on fire before'". Remember, spiritual zeal is contagious. There is nothing more impressive or attractive then a church full of Christians on fire for the Lord.
TIPS FOR REVIVING YOUR SPIRITUAL SPARK
1. Telephone and talk to a friend about it.
2. Read a biography of a faithful preacher.
3. Take a walk alone in a park or field and pray aloud to God.
4. Study a book of the Bible until you "own" it.
5. Set back and listen to a recording of Scriptures.
6. Go through and pick out our 10 favorite songs and study the words then jot down why they are your favorite.
7. Find someone with their own problems and lift their spirits.
8. Do a Bible study of a character you admire.
9. Keep a spiritual diary.
10. Memorize a chapter of the Bible.
11. Take notes during the sermon.
12. Figure the difference it would make to God's work if you gave God a pre-tax offering rather than a post-tax offering.
13. Do a word study throughout the Bible: Love, hope, etc.
14. Pray daily for someone you have problems liking.
15. Attend a gospel meeting in a small church far away.
16. Write lyrics to go with the music of a hymn. Sing it.
17. Memorize a piece of uplifting poetry.
18. Check out a religious book from the library.
19. Fast from a specific time. Pray during the time you would usually eat.
20. Share the gospel with someone.
21. After each chapter you read in the New Testament, write a sentence summary of the chapter and a personal sentence on what that chapter said to you.
22. Draw a cross. Then list all your sins that come back to haunt you as dark memories and then in red ink write "Nailed to the Cross" then throw it away.
23. Write out a prayer to God.
24. Teach a class.
25. Do one act of kindness each day that you never expect to be thanked for.
26. Pray through the front pages of your newspaper and News.
27. Each day for a week write down how your day would have been different if you were not a Christian.
28. Know each book of the Bible well enough to state in one sentence what the book is about, and recite one key verse that captures for you what the book is saying.
29. Attend Bible Study Sunday morning and Wednesday.
30. 10,000 ideas won't work unless you are willing to commit the time. Do it! Today.
This sermon was preached at the Forum Terrace Church of Christ on July 5, 1992