Have you ever driven your car when the “low fuel” light came on? I have. Certain feelings start showing up. I become stressed. My palms become sweaty. Tension rises like a thermometer on a hot, sultry, August afternoon. I worry. If my bride Nancy is riding in the passenger seat, all those emotions are multiplied by 100. Driving, which is something I usually enjoy, becomes drudgery. I stop noticing the beautiful landscape alongside the road. My only focus is on the needle and on how many miles I’ve gone since the warning light came on. I am running on empty.
Spiritually, we occasionally run on empty too. During those times, we have no energy to engage in serving others. We find no enjoyment in reading the Bible. We have little peace and contentment. Our empty spiritual tank is an invitation to disaster; like a car out of gas, we cough and sputter and pull over to the shoulder, out of service, unable to go any farther.
I know what I am talking about. When I began my pastoral ministry forty years ago, I was very unwise concerning this issue. I remember the first time I hit the wall of burnout. It was about four years into my first appointment. I had been burning the candle at both ends for forty-eight months. Hardly a day off, and vacations were scheduled in a way that would allow me to be home in time for my Sunday services.
My wake-up call came when I showed up for a steering committee meeting for a huge evangelistic crusade that was going to be held at the high school stadium. It was a Billy Graham type event. I walked into the restaurant dressed in a business suit and carrying my briefcase. The waitress told me I could sit anywhere I wanted. I told her I was there for a meeting with ministers. She said there was no group of ministers scheduled for that day, but a large group of ministers met the day before. I swallowed my pride, went to my car, and before I pulled out of the parking lot, I laid my head on the steering wheel and wept. I knew something was seriously wrong. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was unable to focus. I needed a change. It was at that moment I realized that sometimes, the best thing I can do for the people I want to serve is to take care of me. I also learned the hard way that people who are always available are usually not worth much when they are. They are empty suits, Zombies, acting out a scene from the Night of the Living Dead.
I made a significant paradigm shift that day. Scheduling and guarding at least one day a week off became a calendar event. Friday nights became the weekly date night for me and my bride. Sabbath became more than an ancient religious concept, it became a modern non-negotiable for me. I don’t think I ever hit that wall again, well, at least not that hard.
Spiritual burnout and emptiness are one of the most serious threats to Christian health. We can overcome spiritual emptiness by adhering to some basic soul and body fueling and maintenance practices:
Receive spiritual nourishment. The method doesn’t matter, just find what works. Listen to a recorded sermon from a favorite speaker; read a book that draws you into deep places spiritually; find new and creative ways to receive the Word of God; listen to your favorite worship mix. There’s really no end to the options and possibilities.
Engage your spiritual gifts in service. While this may seem counterintuitive, hibernating and cocooning is not what you want to do when you’ve hit the wall of burnout. God pours energy and fresh life into people who put themselves out there to serve others even when they feel they have little or nothing to offer.
Avoid overcommitment. It’s not a sin to say no. Pace yourself. You cannot be all things to all people all the time. One of the best books I’ve read in the last twenty years is Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. In it the reader learns that it really is OK to say no when it’s the right answer.
Replenish your physical and spiritual resources. Do not avoid corporate worship! Enter into the sanctuary with an expectant heart and listening ear. Soak in the living water of the Word. Be refreshed by the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit. There have been many times when I have entered a church service less than enthused, but never once have I left regretting that I was there.
The Christian life is not like a quarter-mile drag race. It is more like a cross-country road race. Think marathon, not sprint. And to survive for the long haul, we need to constantly and consistently engage in those activities that keep the body, mind, and soul fueled and running in top condition.
No more running on empty!
“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” Psalm 63:1