Lessons from Elijah: Identity
I recently posted a blog on Elijah, burnout, and how important it is for us to spend extended time alone with God. If he needed to slow down and spend some long, extended time in the desert alone with God, how much more do we need to do the same in the 21st century!
But as I meditate on the story of Elijah, I see there is more to this ubiquitous issue of burnout than just spending time alone with God. Believe me, I have spent many hours and now many years searching my own heart and evaluating what went wrong in my life that caused me to hit the wall like I did. I am often asked questions like ‘what caused you to burnout?’ and ‘ what can we do to prevent burnout?’
I had a breakthrough insight recently. It has to do with ‘identity.’ I see it in Elijah, but my eyes were really opened to this idea through Paul David Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling. This recent book is an important and essential read for all pastors, people in ministry, and followers of Christ. I was convicted page after page, and had so many ‘aha’ moments I lost count.
Tripp is talking about the numerous and often burdensome responsibilities of the pastor when he makes this statement:
All of these concerns can become seductive pastoral idolatries, and when they do, you may think that you are serving God, but your heart is ruled by something to which you have attached your pastoral identity and inner sense of well-being….you do ministry in the hopes of getting horizontally what you have already been given vertically. In ways in which you are unaware, you are asking ministry acclaim, success, reputation, etc., to be your own personal messiah. (p202)
Ouch. Nailed. Yep, that’s me. My identity and significance in life was completely wrapped up in the concept of ‘pastor’ but I didn’t realize it until I finally resigned the pastorate, and lost my identity. I honestly (although I did know better theologically) wondered what in the world I would pray about now. Can I even pray as a non-pastor? Why would I read my Bible now? As these questions coursed through my soul, I was brought painfully face-to-face with the reality that I was guilty of ministry idolatry.
Tripp goes on:
So you will never find in your ministry the rest of heart that every human being seeks. And when you look there, it only ends in anxiety, frustration, hurt, disappointment, anger, and bitterness and may ultimately lead you to question the goodness of God. I am convinced that what we often call “ministry burnout” (a term I don’t think is particularly helpful) is often the result of pastors’ seeking in their ministry what cannot be found there, and because it can’t be found there they end up weary and discouraged. (p203)
Wow. Guilty. There it is. Perhaps not the final answer to my quest of why I burned out, but a huge step closer. He nails it here: I was seeking for identity, reputation, significance, etc. in the pastorate. But that was idolatry, and it could never truly give me rest. So after 18 years of trying, and not succeeding, the weariness and discouragement got the best of me, and I had to regroup. Of course I know that my identity is found in Christ alone, as a child of His, and not in any role or task or ministry that I do. But it is still a struggle to assimilate that truth deeply into my soul and make it part of my daily sense of identity.
Back to Elijah. In 1 Kings 19, God questions Elijah. Part of Elijah’s answer is in verse 10:
“I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left…”
In other words, nobody has it together in ministry quite like I do. I am the prophet to end all prophets. I am the only one left who loves you and serves you. My identity is wrapped up in being a prophet. A few verses earlier, Elijah was basically suicidal over this state of affairs. Classic ministry burnout based on the faulty notion that his identity was in ministry, not in Christ alone.
We must get our eyes back on Jesus. We will never find rest and identity and satisfaction in anything but Him. Not in ministry, not in the pastorate, not in our jobs, not in our family, not in our success…nothing but Christ alone. To do so is to invite weariness, discouragement, burnout. Search your heart to see if the seeds of this error are planted and starting to sprout. Study Elijah. Read the book Dangerous Calling. Save yourself from ministry burnout.