I nearly didn’t write this piece this week – I just didn’t have the energy or motivation… Just as well I did, though, as I needed to take heed of what it is saying.
The second chapter of the book we are following in this short series, Pablo Martinez’ Take care of yourself (Hendrickson) talks about what he refers to as the empty pool syndrome, what happens when, over time, the energy we give out is not compensated by an equivalent input.
Not all roles require the same amount of emotional, spiritual, physical or mental output, but some require a lot of self-giving. What about the roles you take on? How much self-giving do you do? Remember the story of Jesus and the needy woman who touched his cloak from the crowd? “Someone has touched me. I know that power has gone out from me,” he said. (Luke 8:46) In ministry of any kind “no real lasting good can be done without the outgoing of power” said Oswald Sanders in his book, Spiritual Leadership.
So, if we want to have sufficient energy to sustain our ministry and our engagement with people, whatever form it may take, we need to ensure that our output is balanced by an equivalent input, otherwise we will end up empty (burnt out).
“The Lord will guide you always. He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:11) Notice the order in this wonderful verse – first we have to be well-watered, then we will be able to be a spring of water for others to be refreshed by. So why are we often so stupid to think that we are omnipotent and capable of running on empty? How stupid we are, how arrogant!
How do I know when the pool is becoming empty? How will I recognise when the garden is not getting the water it needs?
This is a good question to ask ourselves regularly because, as we know, prevention is better and much easier than cure. We need to spot the warning signs as soon as possible so we can take action in good time. So what are the signals to look out for?
Martinez uses the examples of Moses and Elijah to help us understand. How marvellous that God, through the Bible, provides these giants of the faith as examples of those who experienced exhaustion! James describes them as “of like nature with ourselves” (James 5:17) and Elijah as “an example of suffering and patience” for us to learn from. (James 5:10)
Why did they become so exhausted?
In the case of Moses it was years of dealing with “stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9:6, 13) who spent a lot of time whinging and complaining to their leader. “I cannot carry all these people by myself, the burden is too heavy for me,” he cried out to God. (Numbers 11:14)
Elijah, showing great courage and determination in his victory over the prophets of Baal, then “crashed”, fleeing in terror, exhausted and worn down. (1 Kings 19:1-18)
Here are the warning signals Martinez describes, which progress one to the other as our condition worsens if left unheeded – a reminder, once again, that we are better to deal with exhaustion as it starts rather than letting it take hold.
- Irritability and impatience, hypersensitivity, harsh words especially to those living with you, feeling easily hurt, responding too quickly and rudely, inability to relax – all these are signs that you are over tired. A change in your character that lasts more than a few days should be taken as a warning.
Ah…just a minute…I think I recognise a lot of this… How about you?
Think back to our two Biblical examples. Moses, despite being referred to as the most meek of men (Numbers 12:3), once struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God had told him to and on another occasion he smashed the tablets of the law into pieces when he saw the people’s idolatry. As well as displaying anger, Moses also became resentful and bitter, blaming others, including God. “Why have you brought this trouble on me? What have I done to displease you, that you dump these people on me? If this is how you are going to treat me, go right ahead and finish me off right now!” (Numbers 11:11, 15 – my paraphrase.) Meanwhile, Elijah went off, desperate to get away from everyone and go into isolation (1 Kings 19:3-4).
- Sleep problems and problems with thinking, such as struggling to make decisions, racing thoughts or inability to concentrate, are signs that your mind and body are under stress. So are changes in appetite or not eating properly.
Note God’s response to this situation in Elijah. “The angel of the Lord came…and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ ” (1 Kings 19:7) God knows what we need, even when it is as simple as a good meal or a good night’s sleep (1 Kings 19:5, 6).
- Low energy, apathy, fatigue, lack of motivation for everyday tasks and work, inability to look forward to events or experience pleasure, lack of enthusiasm for future projects – these are all serious signs of exhaustion. Nothing seems worth it and a sort of Ecclesiastes spirit permeates your attitude – “Everything is meaningless. It’s all chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11) “I give up. I can’t go on…” All these are signs that things are serious and depression may set in.
- Distorted thoughts, pessimism and hopelessness. Serious exhaustion is dangerous. If it is allowed to get to this late stage then it affects even our ways of thinking. The way we start to perceive reality is altered. Again, look at the examples of Elijah and Moses – they started to think that everything they had ever done was worthless, they began to blame God, they wanted to die. “I am no better than my ancesters,” said Elijah (1 Kings 19:4).
The less energy we have, the more harshly we will judge ourselves, creating a sense of failure which leads to a feeling of guilt which leads to depression and a loss of hope. Oh, how our minds tangle us and cause us to stumble in the confusion brought on by exhaustion.
No wonder people sometimes give up a fruitful work or ministry – they have become exhausted and can no longer “see the wood for the trees”. Their thinking has become distorted.
If you ever feel like giving up, remember Moses and Elijah, and take heart. Even those greats of the faith struggled with exhaustion – their thinking got skewed, their feeling of self-worth left them, but God was able to pick them up and sustain them for the work ahead. He can do the same for you.
God knows what we need. And what we need is to take heed of his guidance, take the rest and recuperation he offers and take proper care of ourselves, just as he wants us to.
God provided food and rest for Elijah and a helper (Elisha) to shoulder the ministry alongside him. God provided Moses with a team of helpers so that he could go forward with renewed strength and finish the project he had been assigned. Notice, too, that Moses did not get to complete the whole project, only that part which he had been given responsibility for. The entry into the promised land was assigned to another (Joshua). We need do only that which we are asked by God to do and he will ask of us only that of which we are capable.
The empty pool syndrome, like most crises, can be both a danger and an opportunity. It may destroy your ministry, but it may instead strengthen it and/or send it in a new direction. Better by far to learn from the experience as early as possible and allow it to strengthen you and your ministry. So keep a look out for those warning signals and be ready to respond to them.
Questions to ponder:
- Why do we find it so difficult to put good advice regarding rest and recuperation into practice? Are there any specific issues that hinder you from caring for your garden/refilling your pool? How can you address them now before they cause you lasting harm?
- What weak points are there in your own life? Where do you make yourself vulnerable to weariness? What corrective steps can you take to ensure appropriate rest, recovery and renewal?
- Do you go to God with your tiredness and all its accompanying issues? Do you cry out before him like Moses and Elijah? God will not tell you off for being weak. Rather he will give you his strength. Look at his commitment to your health and well-being:
Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.
Matthew 11:28–30 (NLT)
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation.
2 Thessalonians 3:16 (NLT)
Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.
Isaiah 40:31 (NASB)