Paul warned Christians not to become weary in doing good, but did not give much detail about how to overcome spiritual burnout. Does the Bible tell how?
“If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now” (Numbers 11:15).
These words of Moses are dramatic, but also revealing—dramatic, because to pray for death is an act of desperation we would not expect from so great a servant of God; revealing, because these words tell us something about the limits of human character.
Moses was frustrated at the ungrateful complaining of the Israelite tribes. The people had been delivered from what may well have been the most powerful army on earth at the time (Exodus 14). They had been miraculously fed manna in an inhospitable desert (Exodus 16), and they had witnessed something of the glory of God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19).
But instead of thanking God, the people grumbled. They remembered what they missed from their time in Egypt. They remembered “the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5).
However, they did not remember the harsh Egyptian bondage, nor did they remember the miracles and the unfaltering grace of God.
A case of spiritual fatigue
It was this continued grumbling against both Moses and God that wore Moses down. He was experiencing what we might call spiritual burnout or spiritual fatigue.
When we take a closer look at the events leading up to Moses’ prayer for death, we can begin to understand his feelings. Numbers 11 opens with a brief description of fire from the Lord that consumed some of the Israelites who had been griping (verses 1-3). The fire stopped only after Moses prayed for the people.
Immediately after this incident, the people again began to grumble. Together with the mixed multitude that had left Egypt among the Israelites, the people “yielded to intense craving” for something other than “this manna before our eyes” (verses 4-6). The miraculous bread from heaven wasn’t enough. They wanted more!
It was at this moment that Moses reached his breaking point. In a shocking eruption of emotion, Moses bluntly asked God, “Why have You afflicted Your servant?” (verse 11). He said that he was “not able to bear all these people alone” (verse 14). And then he asked God to take his life.
What had worn Moses down was not a single severe trial. It was his continued interaction with people who were anything but godly. As Moses later wrote, the Israelites did not have “a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4).
Worn down by living in the world
Christians today also live among the ungodly. Like Moses, we can become frustrated and worn down by our interactions with people in the world. (In fact, we can even become frustrated by interactions with our less-than-perfect Christian brothers and sisters.) We can reach a breaking point.
What about you? Are you struggling with spiritual fatigue? Would you even recognize it?
The problem is important enough that the apostle Paul warned congregations in Galatia and Thessalonica about it (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13), though the root cause in each case was different. In these passages, Paul basically admonished believers not to grow weary in well doing, but didn’t give details about how to overcome spiritual fatigue.
In some cases, spiritual burnout is obvious. That was certainly the case for Moses when he responded in anger and frustration. Sometimes, however, spiritual fatigue is not so easy to identify. It hides behind complacency. That was true for the church in Ephesus.
Lost first love
Late in the first century, the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation. The second and third chapters are in the form of letters from Christ to seven churches along a mail route in Asia Minor. (These churches also symbolize eras in church history, but the lessons are for all Christians throughout the ages.) The first mentioned is the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7).
Christ commended members of this church for perseverance and patience. He also commended them for not becoming weary (verses 2-3). They were enduring, and they were continuing in the faith. So far, we do not see signs of spiritual fatigue.
The next verse, however, identifies a big problem. The church had lost its “first love” (verse 4). In essence, the church was going through the motions, doing what was right, but without any real feeling or passion. What they were doing was not from the heart. Their complacency was a sign of burnout.
Christ commanded the church at Ephesus to “repent and do the first works” (verse 5), warning them, “I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.” In other words, Christ would remove that church from His presence.
Fortunately, Christ did more than command repentance. He also showed how the church at Ephesus could change course. He commanded them, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen” (verse 5). Remembering—described in this passage and elsewhere in Scripture—is an important key to maintaining the proper perspective in life.
To remember “from where you have fallen” meant that the Ephesians were to look back to a time when they were at a spiritual high point. Christ was telling them to remember the burning passion they had felt when they first became followers. They were to return to their first love.
Return to your first love
We know something of the early years of the Ephesian church through the book of Acts. What stands out in the narrative account is the zeal of the first converts. They persisted in “the Way” despite strong opposition in the synagogue. This opposition forced the early Ephesian disciples to leave the synagogue and to begin meeting at the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9).
“But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).Even more telling is the account of those individuals who had practiced magic before becoming Christians. Their zeal was so great that they burned the costly books of magic they had once held so dear (verse 19). The total value of these books was 50,000 pieces of silver, an enormous sum of money.
It is this time of unparalleled zeal that Christ commands the church at Ephesus to remember. And that is something all Christians should do when facing spiritual fatigue. We should remember how we felt when we were most zealous in following “the Way.”
A key to overcoming spiritual fatigue
What John wrote in Revelation regarding the power of remembering was not a new concept. God’s people are told throughout Scripture to remember—sometimes for encouragement and sometimes for perspective. One example is a psalm composed by the sons of Korah.
The song, in the form of a prayer, gives us a glimpse into a personal, emotional struggle. The psalmists declare, “O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I will remember You” (Psalm 42:6).
Remembrance is shown to be a key to overcoming spiritual fatigue.
Remembrance may not always be something we initiate ourselves. The apostle Peter considered it his duty to remind the Church of the “exceedingly great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4) in store for all faithful believers. In that epistle he wrote, “I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you” (verse 13).
Renewing your strength
When we are faced with spiritual burnout, we may find ourselves exasperated, as Moses was, or complacent, as the church at Ephesus had become. We may find it difficult and frustrating to deal with our non-Christian coworkers and neighbors. We may not feel like praying or studying the Bible. We may want to skip church, and we may not want to serve our brothers and sisters.
But these moments are the very times we need to get on our knees and ask God for help. He understands our limitations, and He knows what we face.
In one of the most comforting passages in the Bible, Isaiah rhetorically questions the people of God about their understanding of the true God.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (Isaiah 40:28). Isaiah’s question comes in the context of a chapter that compares the impotence of idols (verses 18-20) to the power of the Almighty God (verses 21-23).
Isaiah continues, explaining that, unlike human beings who are prone to fatigue, God never tires. Not only does God never tire, but “He gives power to the weak” (verse 29).
“They shall run and not be weary”
This wonderful, comforting chapter ends with a stirring image: “But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (verse 31).
If you feel worn down, frustrated, exhausted or burned-out, take some time to remember—but not like the Israelites in the wilderness, who remembered their leeks and garlic in Egypt. Take some time to remember the high points of your Christian walk.
Remember how you felt as you turned to God. Remember what He has done in your life. And remember what He has in store for you!
For further study, see “Dealing With Compassion Fatigue” and “5 Ways to Refresh Yourself When You Don’t Have Time.”