God’s Care for Burnt-Out Disciples
Let me tell you the story of Jack. Jack committed his life to Christ when he was a teenager. He wasn’t brought up in a Christian family and he didn’t get any encouragement from them when he started attending a church and going to midweek youth group meetings. But he loved Jesus passionately and was very enthusiastic about his new faith, so he barely noticed the opposition. He got involved in a small church that had to struggle to survive, and it was only natural that as he got older he became one of the leaders of the youth work.
Jack went to university and then went out into the business world. He found very few Christians in the company he worked for, and the values assumed by the people in his office were very different from his own. Money was the bottom line. Everyone was aiming for a comfortable lifestyle and lots of them were willing to cut quite a few ethical corners to get it. Jack wasn’t backward about his faith, and gradually he got used to being an object of jokes around the office. He continued to attend church and was now the leader of the youth work. He really wanted to make a difference for Christ and lead others to know and love him, but he was getting more and more discouraged. Not much seemed to be happening; so little was changing.
At a certain point in Jack’s mid-twenties, the pressure just got to be too much for him. So many family gatherings began on Sunday mornings, and he got tired of always being the one who had to be late. He got tired of being the one who was always different at the office, the one everyone else made jokes about. He got tired of all the responsibility of the youth work at church; everyone wanted to see it happen, but no one else was willing to lend a hand. He just lost his enthusiasm for it. He didn’t complain about it; he just gradually discovered that it was a lot easier to sleep in on Sunday mornings, and to blend in at the office. It’s ten years now since Jack went to church, and although he misses it and feels guilty about it, in some ways life is a lot easier for him now.
It must have been about twenty-five years ago that I first heard the phrase ‘burnout’ used to describe the experience we go through when the gap between our ideals on the one hand and reality on the other just becomes too great for us, and our inner flame dies out. As soon as I heard the phrase explained, I recognised that I’d already been close to it several times. I’d been working as a minister in small rural churches with few members, always struggling with financial problems and wondering if the church would survive, and because I was the minister it was always my fault when things went badly. In this context it was easy to lose one’s enthusiasm for Christ, for following him and for leading others to him.
Our Old Testament reading today is obviously a burnout story. It’s the story of a burnt-out prophet, the prophet Elijah. Let’s think about his story together.
Elijah lived in the time of Ahab and Jezebel, who we met in last week’s readings. Ahab was king of the northern kingdom of Israel, with his capital in Samaria. He needed allies, so he made a political marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon and an enthusiastic worshipper of the Canaanite gods Ba’al and Asherah. Jezebel was determined to introduce the worship of these false gods into Israel, and Ahab went along with her, building temples to them in his cities in contradiction to the command of Yahweh (God’s Old Testament name) that people should worship him alone. Those who refused to go along with the worship of Ba’al and Asherah were persecuted, and Jezebel tried to wipe out all the prophets of Yahweh.
Enter Elijah the Tishbite. He was a prophet of Yahweh who stood against Ahab and Jezebel. He proclaimed that God was going to send a drought on the land in punishment for the people’s idolatry, and then he disappeared into the desert. For three years there was no rain, and the people became desperate. Ahab looked all over the kingdom for Elijah and could find him nowhere.
After three years, Elijah emerged and summoned the prophets of Ba’al to a public contest on Mount Carmel. He challenged them to build an altar to Ba’al, while he built an altar to Yahweh. They would call on their god, he on Yahweh, and the god who sent fire to burn up the sacrifice on the altar would be the nation’s god. So the prophets of Ba’al built an altar and prayed, danced and sang around it all day long, but nothing happened. At evening time they fell exhausted. Then Elijah went to his altar, dug a trench around it, drenched it with water to make it difficult for Yahweh, and prayed for him to send fire. God sent fire from heaven and burnt up the sacrifice. The people all cried out ‘Yahweh is God’, the prophets of Ba’al were all executed, and shortly afterward the Lord sent the rain that the land so sorely needed.
But then came the events of our reading today. Jezebel was understandably furious when she heard that the same treatment she’d been giving Yahweh’s prophets had been meted out on the prophets of Ba’al. So she sent a message to Elijah warning him that the same thing was about to happen to him.
We can imagine the pressure Elijah was under. He was part of a persecuted minority in the land, and he had emerged as the leader of Yahweh’s faithful people. He had been hiding in fear for his life for three years. He had finally emerged to a stunning victory on Mount Carmel, and he probably assumed that from now on the allegiance of the people would be returned to Yahweh. But immediately the message from Jezebel told him that nothing had changed; she was still in charge, and his life was still in danger. Elijah had had enough. He got out of Ahab and Jezebel’s territory as fast as he could and went south to the kingdom of Judah, where he prayed “It is enough; now, Yahweh, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). In other words, “Lord, I don’t want to do this any more!”
Can you sympathise with Elijah? I know I can. We Christians are in a minority in our society today, and it wears you down to have to continually buck the trends. “Why do I have to be the different one all the time, Lord? It would be so much easier just to blend in with everyone else!” And of course, that’s what some Christians do. They keep their faith secret, and outwardly go along with the behaviour and beliefs of the society around them - worshipping both Yahweh and Ba’al, as it were. But for those who remember God’s command to worship him alone, it can be hard. We never get away from conflict, and this can so easily wear us down.
Also, to be quite frank, the church isn’t always much help. Church can be such hard work! There’s never enough money so we’re always being asked for more, and quite frankly, if I hadn’t tithed for the past thirty years, I’d be a lot richer today than I actually am! There are never enough volunteers to do everything that needs to be done. There’s an old saying, ‘There are two kinds of people in the church; pillars and caterpillars. The pillars hold the church up, and the caterpillars crawl in and out!’ Well, after a while it gets really tiring to be a pillar! It would be so much easier to be a caterpillar! Or, even better, to stop coming at all, which is the route that many Christians take when burnout gets to them.
So we’ve seen what the problem is. Now, what does God do to care for Elijah? How does God care for burnt-out Christians? Well, God knew that there were two things Elijah needed most: physical rest and refreshment, and a fresh meeting with the living God. In this passage God gives Elijah both these things.
First, physical rest and refreshment. I try to imagine myself as Elijah’s counsellor. He comes to me complaining of these symptoms of burnout, and what do I suggest to him? I probably say, “Well, Elijah, you obviously need a spiritual shot in the arm. I suggest that you go and stay at a monastery for a week and make a silent retreat. Get your prayer life sorted out, make sure you receive communion regularly, maybe go to cursillo, and meet regularly with other Christians for prayer and Bible Study”.
Well, none of these are bad things, but the problem is the poor guy’s already so tired out that I’m just adding to his burdens! But fortunately for Elijah, God is a lot smarter than I am. Yes, he was going to sort out Elijah’s prayer life, but not yet. First, he recognised a more fundamental need: a good night’s sleep, and something to eat! Look at 1 Kings 19:5-8:
Then Elijah lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat’. He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of Yahweh came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you’. He got up and ate and drank.
The body has a tremendous effect on the soul, and if we mistreat the body, we can’t expect to escape the consequences. I read somewhere that my generation sleeps on average two hours less per night than our grandparents did - that’s one of the gifts of electricity to our society! Consequently we are chronically sleep deprived. Thousands of car accidents can be traced to this every year, as well as accidents in the workplace. As a society we also don’t seem to be able to get our diet right. We either struggle with overweight, or we suffer from eating disorders.
God’s first priority was to attend to the needs of Elijah’s body. We can’t ignore this. We have to pay attention to the needs of our bodies. We need to make sure we get enough sleep on a regular basis, that we have a proper diet and regular exercise. If we need medical help to get started on this, we should ask for it. God cares about this stuff, and if we ignore it, it will only come back to take revenge on us later.
So the first thing God did to care for his burnt-out prophet was to give him a good night’s sleep and something to eat. Secondly, he arranged that Elijah would have a fresh encounter with God. One of the things that really impressed me about Bishop Victoria when she was interviewing me for St. Margaret’s was that the first thing she asked me about was my prayer life. She knew that it’s easy to get so busy doing things for God that you forget to make time just to enjoy God’s presence.
What Elijah needed was a fresh encounter with the living God. So our reading tells us of how he made a forty-day journey into the desert until he came to Mount Sinai, the mountain where God had given the Ten Commandments to Moses. There on the mountain he had a fresh meeting with Yahweh. There was a wind, an earthquake, a fire and finally ‘a sound of sheer silence’. In that silence Elijah recognised the presence of God, and out of that silence he heard God’s voice in a fresh way.
In Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning he tells this story:
In the early days of my marriage, when I was working in the electronics business, I used to get up early and sit in the morning quiet to feel God’s nearness, and I would feel it! The assurance of love, warmth, and well-being that God’s presence brought, I found to be what life was all about. I realised that if I could somehow keep this continually with me, all questions would be answered.
Someone somewhere has used the phrase ‘creeping separateness’ to describe what happens to many couples as their marriages get older; slowly, without them noticing it, they grow less close. I think that often happens in our relationship with God too. There’s a story about a little village in Africa where people go into the forest to be alone with God and pray. Because they’ve been doing this for so many years, there are little paths worn through the trees. When one Christian feels that another Christian is neglecting his or her prayer life, they will go up to the person and say “I think I see some grass on your prayer-path, brother!”
If there is grass on your prayer-path, give yourself a treat and get back into a close relationship with God. There’s no substitute for it. No amount of information about God can replace the actual touch of God on our hearts.
I would make a guess that some of us here this morning are feeling a real sense of identification with Elijah. The Christian life is wearing us down; we’re tired of being a minority in society, tired of always having to be different, tired of having to be the ones that keep the church going all the time. Perhaps, like Elijah, we find ourselves saying to God “Lord, I don’t want to do this any more!”
If you are in this place in your life, let me suggest that you seek God’s help in the same way he did. First, pay attention to the needs of your body. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Make sure you’re eating properly and getting enough exercise. God doesn’t just care for souls, he cares for bodies too; a large percentage of Jesus’ ministry consisted of the healing of people’s bodies. So make sure you give the same attention to the care of your body as Jesus does.
Secondly, seek a fresh touch of God on your life. There’s a lovely phrase that often appears in the Bible: ‘Waiting on the Lord’. Biblical people aren’t in a hurry about their relationship with God; they know that it takes time to develop a living experience of God, and they are prepared to wait until it becomes real for them. Today we’re in such a rush, and it’s no wonder that we have so little sense of the presence of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. But if we are experiencing burnout, we need to seek the Lord just as Dennis Bennett did when he sat in silence each morning and sensed God’s presence. Without this, we will burn out for sure, but with the touch of God on our lives we’ll find that we’re able to deal with the things life sends our way, because we’re no longer alone.