My friend was very discouraged. At the urging of his wife and pastor, he had come to a businessmen’s retreat at a mountain resort where the topic I was speaking on was burnout. After one of the evening meetings, he and I sat alone in a cabin before a blazing fireplace, talking late into the night.
The man was a Christian, but he had a series of disappointments that had sent him spiraling into the pit of discouragement. He shared with me an inner pervading ache that would not go away.
The high-pressure environment in which he worked was getting to him. He was physically and emotionally exhausted from working too long and too hard at a very demanding job. A combination of perfectionism, overcommitment to work, and conscientiousness had produced high expectation and disappointment with his own performance and with that of others.
“Nobody cares as much as I do … nobody works as hard as I do … nobody is as responsible as I am,” he said grimly. This forced him to work all the harder with less results. His defenses were down and his temper was revved up. This made him ill-prepared for the crises that hit him. He was shocked when he sensed that his superiors didn’t appreciate his heroic efforts that bordered on what he perceived as martyrdom.
Things weren’t going any better at home. Since most of his energy was spent at work, he had little time or patience for the needs of his wife and two children. The least they could do for him, he said, was acknowledge what he was doing for them by keeping life trouble-free at home. They didn’t schedule their crises according to his availability and ability to cope. Exercise, recreation, and relaxation had been sacrificed at the altar of pressure at work.
At the same time, he realized that he could not say no to added responsibilities which only multiplied his syndrome of discouragement. Lately his marriage had been strained and his family life distressed by the same overcritical attitudes that dominated his attitudes at work. Restless and sleepless nights were wearing him down.
The whole world was on his shoulders, he thought. In it all, he was taking himself too seriously, and not taking God seriously enough.
As we talked, the fire in the fireplace burned down into embers and then seemed to go out, leaving the grate full of ashes. “That pile of ashes is just like my life,” he said discouragedly, “all burned out!”
Then he said something that indicated the depth of the ache in him. “If God cares, how could He allow this to happen to me?” Now even God was an enemy and under the same scrutiny of the man’s judgment which he had leveled on his fellow workers and family.
I assured him that God was not against him and that He could help him reorder his priorities and get his life back in order. We talked about his faith. Though he had been active as a member and officer in his church, he had never made a commitment of his life to God.
He believed in God but had not experienced the release of entrusting himself and all areas of his life to God’s lordship. This accounted for the immense lack of freedom and healthy self-acceptance that drove him on to the questionable goals that he had never surrendered to God. We talked about the great difference between working to achieve our goals for God and allowing God to work in us to accomplish His plans for us.
Next, it was time to talk about what he could do to rediscover new romance and delight in his marriage. The Lord was there guiding both of us as the man thought about the time and tenderness that would be required. And what about the children? They needed him badly. He would have to give up his “drop-out” status as a father and allow God to free him from transferring to his children his own drive for perfectionism. They needed encouragement and affirmation in order to be all that they could be.
We concluded this in-depth analysis of his life and then I asked him to form in his imagination a picture of himself free of the discouragement and living a life in the flow of grace and acceptance. What kind of rest, relaxation, release of judgmentalism would it take? What would happen if he loved himself as much as God loved him? What different attitudes would guide his relationships? How would he prioritize his life as God’s man, committed to be a receiver and transmitter of hope and vision?
It was time to pray. I suggested that we ask the Lord to heal the ache of discouragement inside him. God would show him the way and give him the courage to act on the specific steps he had been guided to take as a part of his commitment to a new quality of living.
While we prayed, some unburned pieces of wood in the ashes of the fireplace flickered into flame. Hearing them crackling, we looked up.
“You see,” I said, “God can bring fire out of the ashes!”
To drive home the implications of the parable we felt the Lord had given us, I took some dry pine logs and asked my new friend to designate each one for the steps he knew that his new commitment demanded. As he prayerfully placed each one on the flickering flame leaping out of the ashes, the fire began to blaze even more brightly than when we first began to talk earlier in the evening.
“God not only can bring fire out of the ashes,” I said, “He can use the kindling of our surrender and willingness to set us ablaze again with new joy and courage.” The man smiled with relief and then retired for the first full night of sleep and rest he’d had in a long time.
Discouragement. We all experience it at times. Some are seldom free of the spiritual malaise.
There are those who are suffering from the spiritual sickness of discouragement right now. Others have known this debilitating virus of the soul in the past and know they are ill-prepared for the next attack. Still others are very concerned about loved ones or friends who are immobilized by discouragement and long to help them.
Once again, I am amazed at the practical way the Bible helps us find answers. Elijah, the ninth-century B.C. prophet, is a classic case study of discouragement. What happened to him and what God did to cure him gives us specific guidance for burnout. It is the story of what the Lord can do to bring fire out of the ashes.
Elijah was a Tishbite of Gilead, an area in the north of Palestine east of Jordan. God called him to be a prophet at a time of crisis in Israel during the reign of King Ahab. This weak and vacillating king had married a foreigner, Jezebel of Tyre. She brought with her the priests and worship of Baal and Asherah. Her passion in life became the obliteration of the worship of Yahweh and the establishment of Baal worship as the national religion.
At the darkest hour of apostasy, the Lord sent Elijah to confront the king. The prophet’s name spelled out his mission: Yah is El, Yahweh is God. Elijah established his prophetic credentials and shocked Ahab to attention with a grim judgment. “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my words” (1 Kings 17:1).
With that he left the king to ponder who, indeed, was God in Israel. And a long drought began as Elijah had predicted. Then the prophet disappeared as quickly as he had entered the court, but it was not the last Ahab would hear from Elijah.
During the months that followed, the Lord prepared Elijah for a decisive battle with the spiritual sickness which gripped his people. He sent him east of the Jordan where he discovered that the Lord could meet all his needs. He was fed by the ravens which brought him bread and meat. Then he was led north to Zarephath, a city of Sidon, where he was cared for by a widow. The meager resources of the woman were miraculously multiplied by the Lord so that she could feed the prophet. Then, as affirmation of the hand of the Lord upon him, Elijah was given power to heal her son and bring him back to life.
The Lord wanted His prophet to be sure of His power. Since nothing can happen through us which has not been demonstrated in us, the Lord was preparing Elijah to trust completely in the power of the Lord of the impossible. When he was ready, the Lord gave him his impossible task. He was to return to Ahab and engage the prophets of Baal and Asherah in a battle to the finish.
Elijah returned to Ahab with a challenge which would decide who was God in Israel. “Send and gather to me all Israel at Mount Carmel, together with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table,” Elijah demanded. Ahab accepted the challenge and called all of Israel to come to Mount Carmel.
When the people and the foreign priests and prophets were gathered on the mountain, Elijah thundered his decisive message. “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).
To help them decide, he set up a test of Yahweh’s superior power. Two altars were built, one for Yahweh and the other for Baal. Two oxen were selected for sacrifice, one on each of the altars. Elijah carefully explained the conditions of the contest. “Now let them give us two oxen; and let them choose one ox for themselves and cut it up, and place it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other ox, and lay it on the wood, and I will not put a fire under it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, He is God” (1 Kings 18:23-24). All the people agreed saying, “That is a good idea.”
The battle was on. The prophets of Baal wailed all day long, “O Baal, answer us,” but no fire came on their altar. After relentlessly taunting them with their impotence and Baal’s silence, Elijah prepared his altar in a way that only the Lord of the impossible could bring fire.
He had the people pour twelve barrels of water on Yahweh’s altar. The water flowed around the altar and filled the trench around it. Then when it was evening, Elijah prayed, “O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that Thou art God in Israel, and that I am Thy servant, and that I have done all these things at Thy word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O Lord, art God and that Thou hast turned their heart back again” (1 Kings 18:36-37).
Fire fell on the altar consuming the ox and the wood and licking up all the water in the trench. Elijah and God had won. The people were convinced. “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God,” they cried, falling on their faces.
That would have been more than enough to exhaust the spiritual resources of Elijah, but he was now revving at high speed. Fire on the altar was not adequate for him. With frenzied compulsion he marshalled the people and killed all the prophets of Baal and Asherah at the brook of Kishon.
Then it was time to pray for rain. Expending superhuman energy, Elijah put his face between his knees and poured all that he had within him in prayer for rain to end the drought. At long last a cloud appeared on the horizon over the sea. Soon the sky grew black with clouds and a heavy rain descended on the land. The Lord had answered again.
When Ahab saw the rain descend, he knew it was time to return to Jezreel to tell Jezebel the amazing thing which he had witnessed. He harnessed his chariot and drove through the rain at high speed. We can only imagine his astonishment when he saw Elijah running beside and then ahead of his chariot with unbelievable energy. The prophet of the Lord outran Ahab’s chariot to Jezreel!
At the end of that eventful, spectacular day, Elijah was exhausted and depleted. All his spiritual and physical resources had been completely spent working for the Lord. There was nothing left. Fire had descended on the altar, but Elijah was burned out. He was ill-prepared psychologically for the most excruciating test of his endurance which was still ahead of him.
Jezebel was enraged when Ahab told her about what had happened on Carmel and about the slaying of her prophets. She sent a bitter, threatening message to Elijah. “So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time” (1 Kings 19:2).
At any other time Elijah would have taken that message in courageous stride. But, after all he had been through, expending all he had within him in his battle for the Lord, the message crushed him with unbearable discouragement. He had thought that Mount Carmel was the final battle with evil. Jezebel saw it as a skirmish.
Elijah knew an emotion he had never experienced before. He was afraid. The mighty prophet ran for his life. With ashes of bitterness in his soul, he ran south to Beersheba and then on into the wilderness. When he could run no farther because of sheer exhaustion, he fell down under a juniper tree and begged God to let him die.
The spiraling descent from self-doubt to disappointment to discouragement hit bottom in despair. “It is enough,” he said, “now, O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.”
Burnout. The components of what I call “the Elijah complex” are worth analyzing because they can happen to all of us. There are five things which contributed to Elijah’s depressing discouragement.
First of all, he was totally exhausted from working for God. There is no depletion as dangerous as that which comes from overextending ourselves for righteous causes. Elijah had expended his energies for Yahweh instead of being a channel for His power.
God had answered with fire on the altar and rain from the skies, but Elijah had felt the display was dependent on his preaching and persistence. He had not realized how much it had cost him to reestablish God as Lord in Israel.
Second, Elijah was naive. Simplistically he believed that the defeat of nine hundred and fifty prophets would settle the threat of evil in Israel. He had, however, only touched the tip of the iceberg. His “once and for all” battle was only a beginning. But he was too exhausted to realize that. Jezebel’s threat was all it took to snap the thin thread that tied his weary mind to reality.
Like many of us, one little disturbance can defeat us when we are down. We too get caught in the web of thinking that accomplishing some task for the Lord will finish the battle.
In contrast to generals like Napoleon and Washington, who were never more dangerous than after defeat, Elijah — and many of us — are never more vulnerable than after a victory which has drained all our human resources.
Almost every day I talk to or receive letters from Christians who have burned out working for God: pastors, church officers, members of churches, and people active in good causes. Our strenuous activity for God can be the most dangerous threat to our relationship with God if we work in our own strength rather than in the flow of His Spirit. The shift from dependence on Him to self-generated, self-justifying effort is subtle. Our work for God can become a source of pride and an extension of our own egos.
The next aspect of the Elijah complex is closely related to that: perfectionism. The prophet expressed that intoxicating narcotic when he said, “For I am not better than my fathers.”
Whoever said he had to be? The Lord had called him to be committed to the task given to him, not to compare himself with anyone else. The biblical meaning of perfect is to accomplish the end or purpose for which we were born. Perfectionism is very different. It is our effort to have everything maximum on our own strength. We are never satisfied, always restless with our own and other people’s accomplishments.
Elijah had the proud desire to outdistance his forefathers and everyone else around him. He lost touch with his humanness and blocked out the previous gift of vulnerability to receive God’s grace.
Many of us know what he went through. We, too, want to set standards and meet them impeccably. The mistake is that we take our readings of how we are doing from the performance of others rather than from God. But when is enough, enough? Seldom. And we burn out trying to pressure ourselves toward some image that never gets fulfilled.
Perfectionism leads to isolation. That’s the next thing we see in discouraged Elijah. On Mount Carmel he had arrogantly said, “I alone am left a prophet of the Lord.” He had forgotten that a hundred prophets of the Lord had been hidden by Obadiah (1 Kings 18:4) and surely there were others. Not all the people had been duped by Jezebel. There were knees that had not knelt to Baal. But Elijah was too possessed with his own passionate efforts for the cause to notice.
When his strength burned out and Jezebel threatened him, all he could say was, “I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” In wounded pride he abandoned even his faithful servant. There was no one left to share his grief, to talk over his discouragement. The loner was left alone to make his solo flight into the bottomless pit of self-condemnation.
A major cause of burnout is our separateness, our willful independence. We all need people who can help us realize that what we are feeling they have felt. Discouragement deepens in the false idea that no one else feels the way we do.
There is powerful healing in the words of a friend, “I know how you feel; I’ve been there!” And in an even more sublime way, the incarnation expresses the ultimate power of empathy. There is nothing we can go through that the Lord did not face as our Immanuel. God knows, understands, cares!
Finally, Elijah’s discouragement reached its peak when he felt the futility of the future. He was so tied up in himself that he heard Jezebel’s vitriolic message as the call to close the curtains of history. Why try? What could he hope for? He lost his vision of the sovereignty of God. Most of all, he had given up the meaning of his name Elijah — “Yahweh is God.” Elijah was really god of Elijah!
What can God do with discouragement like that? What He did for Elijah is exactly what He is ready to do for us. It is exciting to note that as there were five elements to the prophet’s complex, there were five ways God dealt with him. The cure of discouragement is in all of them for us.
The first remedy was to put the exhausted warrior for the Lord to sleep. He was too physically depleted to be open to reason or new hope. There are times when we get so down that rebuilding our physical strength is absolutely essential.
The first step out of discouragement is to love ourselves enough to reorder our lives so we can get adequate sleep, recreation, exercise, and times away from demanding schedules. The problem, however, is that when we are down we keep thinking that redoubling our efforts will pull us out of the tailspin. That’s why we need friends to discern the tell-tale signs that we are about to break and help us leave the universe to God while we regather our energies.
When Elijah awoke, he was at least rational enough to know that he was hungry. The battle on Mount Carmel had worn him down. He needed food. The Lord met his need. “Arise and eat” was the simple command. The prophet ate and drank the cakes and water that had been provided and fell asleep again. God who knows us better than we know ourselves provides exactly what we need to get us going.
When Elijah was rested, the Lord told him to go on in the wilderness to Mount Horeb. The place where Moses had met God and received the Ten Commandments was to be the place of healing. When Elijah arrived, the Lord asked a very strange question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Why, when the Lord had told him to go to Horeb, would He ask Elijah what he was doing there? For a good reason: to help the prophet get in touch both with what was happening to him and with his real feelings.
Elijah’s response did just that. He rehearsed the whole discouraging situation. “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” With his feelings and perceptions focused, the Lord could begin to deal with the deepest need that was causing his discouragement.
The Lord does that with you and me. What are you doing here? In this condition? What caused this? How did it happen? The question to Elijah was an expression of profound love. The Lord did not rebuke him for his discouragement; He simply asked for an account of the circumstances and of his feelings.
A crucial dimension of the healing of our discouragement is to spread out before the Lord exactly how we feel and the things that caused our condition. The Lord seeks to use us with others to ask these same questions tenderly and incisively. When we are challenged to answer how we got to where we are in our discouragement, we are at the beginning of the way back to health.
God did not debate with Elijah over the blame he transferred to other people. What He said in response was the next step to healing. He told Elijah to stand on the mountain before him. The prophet’s greatest need was a rebirth of his relationship with the Lord. He needed a demonstration of the Lord’s power, a reassurance that in spite of all that happened, the Lord was still in control.
That’s exactly what happened. First there was a mighty wind which split the mountains, breaking the rocks around the prophet. Then an earthquake made the earth beneath Elijah’s feet tremble. Finally, a fire leaped up out of the mountainside. The prophet was shaken and shocked at the physical manifestations of Yahweh’s presence.
Greater than the wind, earthquake, and fire was the internal experience of grace in Elijah’s soul. The Spirit of God spoke to him in a still small voice — a quiet whisper — which brought calm and assurance. The outward displays of power were matched by an inner manifestation of love and encouragement.
The final cure for Elijah’s discouragement was to put him back to work. The Lord gave him specific instructions that would solidify the prophet’s assurance that God was not finished with Israel or the unfolding drama of history. He was told to anoint his successor. Elijah’s work would go on! Then he was to anoint Hazael king over Syria and Jehu king over Israel. The Lord had plans for His chosen people.
Elijah didn’t have to carry the universe on his own shoulders alone. To make that undeniably clear to the prophet, the Lord told him about seven thousand people who had remained faithful and had not worshiped Baal. Elijah’s isolation was cured by the humbling and then uplifting knowledge that he was not the only faithful man of God in Israel.
What God did for Elijah, He can do for you and me. If the ashes of discouragement smolder in your heart, be sure of this: God can and will cause a flame to be ignited. He is not finished with us. Therefore, we are not finished.
Listen for the wind. Sense the quake of His power. Feel the warmth of new fire. Most of all, listen. And the Lord will speak. Do you hear?
“I love you. I will never give up on you. We have work to do together. You don’t have to work for me any longer. Let me do my work through you! I am still the Lord of the impossible.”
From Lord of the Impossible by Lloyd John Ogilvie. (c) 1984 by Abingdon Press. Used by permission.

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