Exhaustion and Burnout

Elijah had been following the Lord in courageous and faithful obedience, and had just confronted Ahab and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Even though the Lord sent fire to show the people that he was God over the Baals, Jezebel still threatened to kill Elijah, who had to run for his life.
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again (1 Kings 19:4-6).
Even those who are obedient can experience exhaustion and burnout - Elijah came to the point where all he could do was sleep and be fed by God. While there are no easy answers for the compounding stresses of life, work and ministry, we should watch out for the ways we can become dis-integrated from our bodies, our hearts, and our relationships:

  • Dis-integrated from our bodies: We can continue bullying our bodies year after year until we can no longer hear  it screaming for relief. By not taking care of our bodies with rest, exercise and eating well, we may find that the only thing that stops us is a heart attack or stroke or other chronic illness.
  • Dis-integrated from our hearts: It is remarkably easy for us to continue pushing ahead in  work or ministry that is actually robbing ourselves and others of life. Burnout is inevitable when we do not listen to our hearts.
  • Dis-integrated from our relationships: When we aren't listening to our own hearts, it is much more difficult to hear the hearts of others. We can also allow unresolved conflict to fester and inflict more damage over time, which will damage our relationship with God. As John said, "he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4:20).

Spiritual dryness is a natural consequence of any of these dis-integrations because a habitual refusal to listen is involved, which affects our ability to hear God. One way to lessen the distance between our bodies, hearts and relationships is the practice of Sabbath.


There are many laws and commands in the Old Testament, but breaking Sabbath was one of the most significant sins of Israel mentioned by God. Keeping Sabbath also applied to the land, which was supposed to lie fallow one of every seven years. In Leviticus 26, God paints a disturbing picture of judgment for his people if they refuse to obey him, which includes exile and the destruction of the land:

34 “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies' land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it. 
In 2 Chronicles 36:21, we see that this comes to pass when the people were removed from the land by the Babylonians and sent into exile. The land lay fallow for seventy years to make up for every Sabbath year that it did not rest. In the same way, we can refuse to rest for many years until Sabbath is no longer a choice, but something forced upon us because exhaustion and burnout have taken their toll on ourselves and others.

Resting one day of the week shouldn't be seen as a law that must be followed, but as an invitation to experience God's re-creating work in our lives. Sabbath helps us live integrated lives by giving us the space to stop and look at what does and does not give life to ourselves, our families, and our other relationships.

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