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Elijah and Burnout

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

Burnout is “considered a state of physical or emotional exhaustion from ongoing stress.”[1] People who are driven will often eventually encounter burnout at some point. It’s simply where you’ve given out more than you have, and you are left depleted of resources for your own mental and spiritual health. We tend to think of burnout as something not really addressed in the Bible, but that is because we’re not looking for it. We see it in David, Job and Moses. Look at how he speaks to the Lord.

I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Num. 11:14-15)

Elijah suffered from burnout

But let's turn to the story of Elijah and Jezebel. In 1 Kings 18, we find our prophet riding high. After prophesying a drought that has lasted for three and half years, the Lord sends him to confront King Ahab and tells him to gather the 850 false prophets on Mount Carmel. Notice how Elijah is bold. He’s unafraid to challenge the king of a powerful nation.

Next, there is a formidable confrontation between the one prophet of God and 850 false prophets. You know the story. The false prophets cannot get their gods to answer, and then the prophet of Yahweh entreats heaven, and God answers by fire. The false prophets who had deceived Israel are put to death. It is worth reading his prayer. Just imagine, he is surrounded by 850 people who want him dead. The people of Israel are watching to see “is Yahweh God or Baal?” The average person would crumble in fear, but our prophet is ready.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. (1 Ki 18:36–38).

A spiritual renewal takes place in Israel. “When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!’” (1 Ki 18:39).

In the series of powerful events, Elijah climbs Mount Carmel and prays for the rains to come. As the sky grows gray and black, he is filled with supernatural power to run 14 miles to Jezreel. Ahab made the same journey in a chariot, but Elijah beat him there by running.

The Story Turns

After all of these great victories, Elijah must be riding high. I certainly know the great feeling after a powerful victory and I am sure many of you do. When Ahab reports to his queen (their marriage was quite a bit out of order), Jezebel is furious over what has happened. She sends a messenger to Elijah, telling him he’s a dead man walking. “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them” (1 Ki 19:2).

Based on everything we’ve read so far, and if we were reading the story for the first time, we would assume that Elijah would go and confront Jezebel. But our story takes a dramatic and unexpected turn at this point. The Bible tells us that Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.

“Take my life!”

Had I not experienced burnout myself, I would not have noticed it in Elijah. But he has all of the classic signs of someone who has overextended himself to the point that he cannot move forward. He is spiritually and emotionally exhausted. He is experiencing severe situational depression (meaning his depression is not chemical related, but from his lifestyle).

It is not uncommon after great kingdom victories to go through some sort of demonic attack. In some ways, this helps to keep us humble and remember that all that we do is a result of the grace of God. But burnout is more than a demonic assault. In some ways, it is worse because we have the authority to rebuke the devil. Burnout is your body doing what a car does when it has no oil—it locks up and says, “I’m done!” You can rebuke things all day long, but it will have no effect.

Let’s look at how the prophet responds to the death threat in chapter 19:

1. He is afraid v. 3.

2. He runs from his calling v. 3.

3. He left his servant in Beersheva (a southern Israel desert city) v. 3.

4. He isolates himself and goes alone into the wilderness v. 4.

5. He prays for God to kill him! v. 4.

6. Realization of his humanity—“I am not better than my ancestors” v. 4

7. He is hopeless.

Again, if you have never suffered this type of burnout, the story is shocking. One day, he calls down fire from heaven and rids Israel of their false prophets, bringing spiritual renewal. Just a few days later, he is asking God to take his life, wallowing in self-pity.

How does God minister to him

If you find yourself in the situation, I have some good news for you. It may feel like a life sentence, but the minute you address the problem you will find yourself returning to normal.

I want you to notice how God remedies him.

1. He falls asleep v. 5.

2. An angel touches him—I am going to assume there was some sort of infusion of spiritual life. v. 5.

3. He’s given food. v. 6.

4. He eats and drinks and then goes back to sleep.

5. The angel touches him again and feeds him again v. 7.

6. God gives him supernatural strength for a 40-day journey v. 8.

Barnes and Comfort share in their commentary, “God knows when to answer laments and when not to—sometimes, all we need is a good nap and some food.”[2] I would add that there is a combination of God meeting his physical needs and his spiritual needs. I look at this 40-day journey as a sabbatical. It was a time for him to renew his strength in the Lord and get some physical rest and nourishment. "He wasn’t punished for his burnout," writes Betsy St. Amant Haddox, "he was taken care of and continued in his purpose."

In the same way that God met his spiritual and physical needs, his breakdown was not just a matter of physical exhaustion but also an incredible spiritual attack. Jezebel and the demonic power behind her were powerful.

I had a season of ministry where I experienced a series of incredible wins. It was so amazing that I sat back and marveled at the grace of God. I was smart enough to know that this was not my wisdom and abilities. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being the person that God was using. The fruit was amazing. And as others saw it and asked me to do more, I gladly agreed. On the one hand, I knew in the natural I was doing too much, but I was still having fun. It appeared that God was blessing things … until I had my Elijah moment.

When it hits you, it hits you hard. One day everything is going great; the next day, you don’t know right from left. It was a great reminder of my humanity and my need to take care of myself if I’m going to be any good for others. For people who are driven, like me, burnout is an easy trap to fall into. One of the passages that jumped out at me was from James chapter 5.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (Jas 5:17–18).

It’s the first part—at the end of the day, Elijah was only human. Yes, God’s hand was on him to do great and mighty things, but he lived in a human body with finite abilities and limitations. He needed a sabbatical. He had to get away from his ministry for a little while. But after those 40 days, it appears he is ready to get back in the game. When you’re going through burnout, you think the game is over. You experience so much anxiety and depression that you think life will never be the same again. What else could drive the great prophet to ask God to take his life? Here’s the good news… This too shall pass. It is not a life sentence.

There are steps, though, that you do have to take.

  1. You have to get away from the anxiety.

  2. You need a season separated from the things that are overwhelming you.

  3. You need good spiritual and mental counseling.

  4. You need to rebuild your life where you were not doing everything for everybody.

  5. You need to learn how to say no (and then not feel guilty).

  6. You need some restful vacation.

  7. You need to share your load with others.

Elijah experiences some of these things. His counselor is God Almighty. He gets a 40-day vacation to Horeb, which refers to Mount Sinai. Many scholars see Elijah is the second Moses according to Barnes (see note 4). As we stated earlier, Moses also experienced burnout and restoration. It is no accident that God takes Elijah on a 40 day journey to the place where God met with Moses for 40 days—Mt. Sinai.

Elijah gets much-needed rest and healthy food. And by the end of the chapter, he’s ready to get back in the game. But now that he can see straight, he’s able to bring his complaint back to God. And he is about to get a faithful helper in Elisha.

Don’t ever be afraid to complain to God. Moses (see above), David, and Elijah all complained to God at certain times, and it can be very healthy. Mark Chironna writes in his amazing book, On the Edge of Hope, “When your troubles seem too heavy to bear, voicing your complaint to him is neither wrong nor bad. The psalms teach us to do that very thing, and so does Job.”[3]

Now the well-rested and renourished Elijah asks for understanding:

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Ki 19:10).

Next, the Lord continues to minister to him, but differently than with Moses. "Elijah was expected to wait for the presence of Yahweh on Mount Sinai, as Moses had, Yahweh, this time, was not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but rather in the “still small voice.” [5] It may be that the Lord was saying, “until now you’ve known me as the guy who answers by fire, but in your final years, you’re going to know me as the gentle one who loves you.”

Part of overcoming burnout is to see God as He truly is. The more we truly understand the nature of God, the healthier we are and valuable to those around us.

And then God sent him on his way, giving him several tasks, including the anointing of his replacement Elisha. For years, I saw this as God rejecting Elijah. The fact that is a dominant view amongst scholars. His failure to confront Jezebel caused God to replace him with Elisha. I see it much differently now. First of all, Elijah goes on to minister some 16 years after this. Secondly, I think God was demanding that the prophet have some human companionship. (Remember, he left his servant when he ran into the desert—Elijah was a bit of a loner, and it wasn’t healthy.) If you look at his communication with Elisha, he doesn’t seem all that thrilled about taking on a protégé. What he needed some administrative help so he could focus on being a prophet. And lastly, about three years later he is able to rectify his failure regarding Jezebel. Keep reading.

God brings things full circle for Elijah’s healing. The very next time we see Elijah is in chapter 21. Once again, he confronts Ahab but not just that—he is able to go back to where he failed and finish the task. He addresses Jezebel directly and prophesies the death of the one who threatened his life—the one from home he ran three years earlier. “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel’” (1 Ki 21:23). This was fulfilled when Elisha anointed Jehu and he goes into Jezreel, and several eunuchs throw Jezebel out of the window, where the dogs devour her (2 Ki 9:35-37).

How different is this new Elijah from the one we find asking God to kill him in chapter 19! He has been healed, he’s been given a greater revelation of God, greater courage, surely greater humility, and recognition of his humanity, and his passion for serving God has returned.

Maybe you feel like Elijah did when everything was coming against him, and he was depleted of mental and spiritual energy. Take courage and do the things Elijah did, and you will notice the fears, anxiety, and depression dissipate and finally disappear. It may mean having hard conversations with people who depend upon you to explain that you cannot do as much as you had in the past or will need more help.

Amid my situation where I was taking on way too much, my best friend said to me that none of us is indispensable. Meaning, God doesn’t need you to do everything. I argued with him—no, I did not think that God needed me to do everything—but in the absence of other people, I took burdens on myself that God had not called me to. As I unburdened myself, I was surprised at how quickly spiritual life came back to me. And it will come to you as well.

[1] “How to Recognize (And Heal) Spiritual Burnout,” Vantage Point, accessed November 3, 2022, [2] William H. Barnes, 1-2 Kings, ed. Philip W. Comfort, vol. 4b, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012), 162. [3] Chironna, Mark. On the Edge of Hope (p. 143). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] William H. Barnes, 1-2 Kings, ed. Philip W. Comfort, vol. 4b, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012), 165.

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