[Special Note: This article was written many years ago. As I see friends in ministry struggle and as I recognize my own need for spiritual renewal, I have returned to this article about Elijah, and the biblical principles underlying it, again and again. I have found them effective in opening myself to God as he works to rekindle my spirit's fire. My prayer is that it will help you experience a similar blessing!]

A drought across much of the country left our forests vulnerable. After a few lightning strikes and a few careless campers, what was once lush, beautiful forested mountainsides now are scarred, ugly, and burned out. The eerie remains of the brutal fire mar the landscape. At first glance, these once gorgeous forests look hopelessly lost to flames. They are burned out and burned down. Yet history teaches us that given time and the right rains, the forest will return. It is a message those of us involved in ministry and service to others need to hear.

Those involved in serving others often find themselves feeling much like the charred remains of a once beautiful forest. Either the challenge of the task, or the well placed attacks of Satan, has left them depleted and vulnerable. Life takes a turn for the worse, and they find themselves feeling empty, used up, useless, and burned out. What can you do when sleep does not replenish your sense of exhaustion? What do you do when you don’t have the energy or will power to quit but dread every sunrise which reminds you of your inadequacy and failure? What do you do when you’re spiritually burned out? I believe the story of Elijah offers us some insight on this difficult problem (1 Kings 18:1-28 & 1 Kings 19:1-21).

Immediately following Elijah’s great victory over God’s enemies at Mount Caramel, his life was threatened by evil Queen Jezebel. He ran for his life. Jezebel had killed hundreds of God’s prophets during Elijah’s time. He ran from her threats. He ran until he fell exhausted and defeated. He collapsed... a burned out wreck. He had fallen from the height of ministry’s mountain to the valley of ministry’s despair. But God’s grace led him to a better place. Elijah’s recovery offers us some insight for our own way back from spiritual depletion, burn out, and exhaustion.

The first step? Elijah was honest with God. He told him the frustrations and discouragement of his heart (1 Kings 19:4). He whined and moaned and felt sorry for himself in the presence of God. While I’m not big on anyone having a pity party for oneself, it is necessary for us to be honest with God and with ourselves, about how we feel. It may not be right or righteous, but it is where we are. So often we don’t feel we can be honest with God, so we are never honest with ourselves. The way back from flame-out is honesty with God and with ourselves — honesty about our limitations, our frustrations, and our inadequacies. Quite often, however, we can’t be honest with ourselves until we’ve been honest about our own unrealistic sense of self-importance. Being honest in the presence of God reminds us how petty our perspective really is in the grand scheme of his work in the world.

Next, Elijah rested and received nourishment (1 Kings 19:5-7). Emotional exhaustion and depression can often lead us into poor eating and sleeping habits. Before we’re ready to attack the challenge of going on, we often need to get some rest and nourishment. As we pause and acknowledge our need for refreshment, God gives us spiritual refreshment as well. We see this same principle with Jesus and his care for his disciples (Mark 6:31-32). Spiritual depletion and physical exhaustion often are related.

Elijah then went to a place where he knew God had been real to his people (1 Kings 19:8). For Elijah, this was a special mountain on which God had once appeared to his people. For us, it may be rekindling our prayer time, our listening to Christian music, going back and visiting a spiritual retreat, or seeking prayer time with an old friend. The key is putting ourselves in a place where we know God has acted and blessed his people before. Yes, we know God can act and reveal himself anywhere, but the act of submitting ourselves to him and reconnecting with our spiritual past is often vital for us as we seek to reawaken our heritage.

In addition, Elijah waited on the direction of God for his life (1 Kings 19:9-13). He wanted to experience the presence of the living God. He knew without this encounter, he would not have the strength to go on. For us, this probably means dedicating ourselves to time in prayer, the reading of Scripture, and connecting again with spiritual friends. Often we are like Elijah, wanting and expecting to see God in the dramatic and awesome revelation of his power. Yet more often than not, God’s presence in our lives is revealed in more subtle ways as we submit ourselves to him and wait for his guidance. This frequently comes to us through the words and companionship of a trusted friend; a sermon spoken as if it were just for us; a well-timed song’s message which we need to hear to awaken a spiritual memory; a piece of Scripture we read or remember which speaks directly to our need; or a bit of especially relevant reading material we "just happen across" as we are waiting for God to show his will in our lives. God’s "still small voice" can be heard, but only if we seek him and are open to his many ways of blessing us.

Finally, Elijah left that place and invested himself in the future of his people by carrying on his ministry and involving another to follow in his path (1 Kings 19:15-18). Elisha carries on Elijah’s great faith and ministry so God’s work goes on after Elijah returns to God. Often the cause of burn out is our own misguided and unbalanced sense of indispensability. When we invest ourselves in others, we let God remind us that his work will go on without us and after we are gone. It is not our ministry, but God’s that is important. Recognizing that we minister to honor him, not to bring honor to ourselves, helps us involve others in the work of God. This revitalizes us and insures that “the torch is passed” to a new generation of servants for the Almighty.

While there is no magic formula for a return from burn out, we need to realize God has done a great work through others after they have collapsed under the weight of ministry. He can do that work in us as well. The charred remains or our present can often be the beautiful place of God’s redeeming work if we will seek him and let him restore life after burnout.

Many things can contribute to our spiritual burn out:

  • Overextending our ministry to the point of exhaustion and fatigue
  • Unaddressed sin in our lives
  • Not having partners or apprentices to help & invest our time
  • Trying to do ministry all by ourselves while not equipping others
  • There is no magic formula.
  • Having an over-inflated estimation of our importance and ability
  • Losing touch with God in regular quiet time
  • Direct and relentless opposition from the devil or others in our community of faith
  • Family and health crises
  • Serving in a survival-focused situation where we see no immediate reason to hope things can change

So which of these is hardest for you and which is your biggest threat?

Is there something else you have found that leads to burn out not listed? How have you seen that at work?

I'd love to hear from you on my blog about this!