I Was the Big, Dead Tree
By Tim Harlow
When I was a youth pastor, one of my favorite stories to reenact at church camp was from 1 Kings 18 when Elijah and the priests of Baal had a god-duel. The trick was to have someone with a roll of toilet paper soaked in lighter fluid in a nearby tree. At the right moment, he would light the toilet paper and let it slide down a wire into the altar—it was a great effect!
I’m sure the real thing was even better. I can’t imagine how great Elijah must have felt knowing he was on the winning side and God was really God. Interestingly, the next Elijah story is almost as good.
“The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel” (1 Kings 18:46).
And Ahab was in a chariot! God gave Elijah supernatural fire from Heaven and then the power to run faster than a horse!
Which is why it’s so surprising to find him depressed a few days later.
“I have had enough, Lord” (1 Kings 19:4).
I know that Jezebel was threatening him and all of that. But wouldn’t you think God’s fire from Heaven and his superhero running ability would be enough to keep him going? How could he be so depressed in the middle of all that God was doing?
It was a great question—until it became my reality. The first years at Parkview were about turning the church around. I had a lot of enemies, made a lot of mistakes, did a lot of second-guessing, and ministry was difficult. Eight to 10 years of beating my head against the wall gave me a new appreciation for why Jonah ran away from Nineveh. Whale guts had to be better.
But by 2003, things had turned around; the church was growing; we had relocated and were already running four services each weekend in the new building. The power of God was all around us! It was the best time of ministry in my life! And that’s when I crashed.
It didn’t make any sense, but all of a sudden, one day—literally overnight—I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I’d gone from enjoying the most blessed ministry imaginable to burnout in a matter of a few days.
It just so “God-happened” that I was scheduled the next week to go on an outdoor trip with some other preachers and a counselor friend named John Walker. One morning while I was out in God’s nature trying to make sense of it all, I asked God what was wrong.
I immediately looked up and had a divine moment. I saw two trees. One tree was large—but dying—in the early August heat. It was growing out of an outcropping of rocks and didn’t look like it was going to make it through the summer. The other tree was smaller—but it was away from the rocks—at a lower elevation closer to water. And it was green and thriving.
God asked, “Which tree are you?”
I said, “Duh!” (Sometimes that’s the best response to God.) I was the dying tree, too big for its weak root system; too far from the source of nourishment.
I hadn’t neglected the disciplines. I wasn’t physically out of balance. I hadn’t fallen into any sin or addiction. I was just busy working for God. And I was cooked.
Running on Empty
I found a book called Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers by Fil Anderson.
Anderson said so many things that rang true:
• “I could talk easily with others about Jesus, but I knew nothing about how to sit still long enough for Jesus to talk to me.”
• “I was so desperately in need of the recognition that my job provided but completely unprepared for the weight of the expectations that were placed on me.”
• “My incessant activity had worn me down to the point that I was too tired to rescue myself.”
• “Most troubling was the discomfort I experienced whenever I wasn’t busy.”
Yes, that was my problem. I had perfected busyness but failed miserably at stillness.
Not surprisingly, Elijah found the same thing.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire” (1 Kings 19:11, 12).
Elijah looked for God in all the noise. He must have thought, God is surely in the fire. He’d seen that before (with the toilet paper and all).
“And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). The New Revised Standard Version calls it, “a sound of sheer silence.” That’s where God was. In the stillness.
The Greatest Enemy
When John Ortberg moved to Willow Creek to join the teaching team, he said, “I called Dallas Willard and asked him the question, ‘What do I need to do to be healthy spiritually? What do I need to do to guard my heart?’ And there was a long pause and I’ll never forget these words that he said to me, ‘You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.’”1
He said, “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.”
I guess that’s why God gave us the fourth commandment (which most of us ignore). But the work of God is not born anew in us simply by taking a day off. I was taking a day off when I killed my heart.
Please listen to me. It’s very possible to be taking days off, and having a quiet time, and working out, and going through all of the motions of looking like a good, balanced Christian—and still kill the work of God in your heart.
And it also doesn’t matter if times are good or bad in ministry. The crazy thing was I didn’t burn out during the hard years of ministry when the congregation was divisive and leadership was unsupportive. Like Elijah, I had enough when God was working miracles.
Learning to Trust
Burnout can happen either way. Because it happens when we start to believe God needs us. Sabbath was not about a day off. It wasn’t about rest. It wasn’t even about worship; it’s the same principle as tithe. It’s about trust. Can you imagine the reaction in an agrarian (non-Wal-Mart) culture when God’s people were told to take every seventh YEAR off?
You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in (Leviticus 25:20-22).
Oh seriously? God doesn’t need me? Listen to me—burnout is about deciding who is going to run the universe. Write that down. In my God moment, I saw that my tree was dying because I was ahead of God. I started believing God needed me to plan the next tornado, earthquake, and firestorm.
I’m a little slow, but I’ve finally come to realize God didn’t create me so I could run his church for him. He created me so I would “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27). And that changes everything. To quote Louis Giglio, “if God’s name is I Am, that means my name is I Am Not.”
“The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:25, 26).
I’m not exactly a poster child for transcendent tranquility. I’ll always be Type A, but I know my limits and I know my God. He is able to do immeasurably more than I can ask or imagine.
And I am able to do immeasurably less—unless the power is from the still, small voice.
1John Ortberg, “Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry,” www.christianitytoday.com, 4 July 2002.
Tim Harlow serves as senior pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.