Imagine this scene:
Two armies, one righteous and one unrighteous, caught in a great battle. The hours stretch into days, and still no victor emerges. The stakes grow higher by the minute as the slain cover the earth around them. In the end, the righteous are victorious, but it was not without great cost. Their victory is not met with the sound of cheers and celebration. Instead, a deep mourning, and even deeper exhaustion, overcomes them. The thought of burying their dead is overwhelming, and many a weary soldier simply sits in despair, and wonders: what was the point? So many lives lost, and their battle-worn bodies and minds cannot move on, despite their pending needs and duties that demand their attention.
Each of us can relate to this feeling of deep weariness of the spirit. After a literal battle, this might be called being battle-worn. In the spiritual, we call this burnout. As believers, we might wonder if we should feel that way. After all, we live out in faith and hold victory in Jesus as a fierce battle cry. And yet, can we grow weary in our bodies and spirits, even after seeing great moves of God? Is it even okay to feel that way?
Let’s look at the Bible for examples. One clear case of such burnout appears in the story of one of the most prominent prophets of the Old Testament: Elijah.
Elijah lived in the northern kingdom of Israel where the contemptible Ahab and his wife Jezebel, ruled. Ahab had set up pagan alters, sacrificing the nation’s children upon them, leading Israel further away from the Lord. His ways were evil, and he provoked the Lord more than all of the kings before him (1 Kings 16:30-34). Elijah had proclaimed a drought to Ahab as a response for his evil deeds, and indeed no rain came. By the time the Lord charged Elijah to see Ahab in the third year, Ahab and Jezebel had massacred many prophets of God. Elijah confronted Ahab with his evil ways and challenged the pagan prophets of Baal and Asherah to a showdown of who was the one true God. The rest is history: more than four-hundred pagan prophets ended their lives in service to a false god, and God showed Himself to Israel in a mighty way, miraculously consuming Elijah’s altar with Holy fire (1 Kings 17- 18).
Yet, despite this great move of God, Elijah found himself at a spiritual standstill where he prayed for God to end his life. After fleeing the angered Jezebel, Elijah found himself in the wilderness, praying, “Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19: 4). This hopeless prayer is not what we would expect from someone that had experienced a great victory. God had proven Himself to be the great “I AM,” and Elijah had proven to be faithful. One would think that this would be a great time to celebrate and rejoice, singing songs of praise to the Lord for taking back “what the enemy stole.” Perhaps one would even say that this would be a great sign or motivation to move forward and remove all the pagan altars in the land. But the Bible states that instead, Elijah ran for his life and prayed for death. Elijah was a prophet of God, and he had seen firsthand how God would move for him. So… what happened? Why was his soul so troubled? Why did a vengeful queen threaten his unshakeable faith? How did he get so spiritually tired and burnt out that he lost his will to live?
One could surmise the types of questions Elijah asked God: What was the point of this show of God’s power when Jezebel was still determined to kill him? Why bother declaring the Word of the Lord when Israel still followed their pagan king? We see Elijah vulnerable in a way that is not often seen among those great figures of the Bible. He is vocalizing the same questions that we ask: What is the point of fighting when the victory is painful? When the cost of battle is so high? Where is God when we are too tired to want to live? How can we continue to hope when it feels so far out of reach? God welcomes our questions, and yet we feel guilty asking them in our own places of weariness.
Spiritual exhaustion, if not tended to, can quickly grow into despondency and even jadedness. It’s not uncommon for church leaders to desperately need a sabbatical or, in some cases, withdraw from their church entirely, sometimes even abandoning their faith. There are moments when we see our loved ones struggling to be present in service when their hearts are heavy. Maybe you find yourself trying to find the strength to raise your own hands when, like Moses, you lack the spiritual energy to do anything but simply be present (Exodus 17:11-12).
We’ve all experienced this one way or another: mentally, emotionally, and spiritually struggling to the point of burnout. We look back, wondering how on earth we got there in the first place. It can be depressing to believe this as a continuous linear timeline of your future. However long you feel this way, it does not have to last forever; there is hope for its end.
God did not despise Elijah’s spiritual condition, nor did He ignore his cry. He met Elijah right where he was, without judgment. In fact, He used Elijah’s burnout as an invitation to come closer and see a more intimate side of Him. God didn’t promise that the trouble would go away, but He did encourage Elijah and give him the strength to continue onwards. The Lord passed by Elijah, something that had not happened during Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Elijah’s spirit was moved not by the broken rocks, the wind, or the earthquake, but by the Lord’s “still small voice” (1 Kings 19: 11-13) – a sound he could only hear by being close to it.
Elijah then took Elisha as his apprentice. Perhaps instead of rejoicing, the real celebration was that he set up and passed his mantle to a leader for the next generation. This generation would remember when God miraculously showed up on Mt. Carmel. They would see Elisha perform miracles, such as healing leprosy and raising the dead.
Keep in mind that Elisha probably gleaned wisdom from Elijah’s spiritual burnout and used that knowledge to do greater things than that of his mentor. We may not understand why certain battles are difficult, or why it pulls so much out of us when we face them. However, just as God took care of Elijah, we must hold onto the fact that He will take care of us. When we surrender our spiritual exhaustion to Him, we find that He was not as distant as we once believed, but in fact closer than ever before. His still small voice is there, promising that in our troubles, He will deliver us all (Psalm 34:19).