Leadership Lifter : Emotional Burnout

by Rick Warren


With today’s high pressure lifestyle it’s easy to run out of emotional energy and experience burnout.  This is not a new problem, or unique to you. It is a problem that is as old as mankind, and it is a warning light that something is out of balance in your life. 

Look at the example of Elijah found in 1 Kings 19:1-8.  Elijah was a great man of God.  He had just had a very high spiritual experience atop Mt. Carmel. Yet with every mountaintop there is inevitably a valley, a low.  When Elijah faced his low and became depressed, he ran off to the other side of the mountain and hid under a tree, then later hid in a cave and said, “God, I’m so depressed I want You to kill me.” 

What causes that kind of burnout?  How do you go from that kind of high to that kind of low? A number of things:

  1. Fear causes it.  Verse 3, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.”  Fear can cause burnout.
  2. Resentment can cause burnout.  In verse 4 he said, “I’m fed up.  Lord, I’ve had enough.  I don’t want any more.”
  3. Low self esteem.  He said, “I’m no better than my ancestors.”  He was comparing himself.  He said, “I’m no good.”
  4. Anger can cause burnout.  In verse 10 he complains to God. “God, I’ve been serving you yet none of these people want to follow your will.”
  5. Loneliness. 
  6. Worry.  “Now they’re trying to kill me too.” 

Elijah was an emotional disaster at this point in his life.  He had fear, resentment, low self esteem, anger, loneliness and worry.  Do you think that would cause depression?  I think so. 

How do people get themselves in such an emotional mess?  The answer is faulty thinking.  The Bible points out the problems associated with faulty thinking. Psalm 13:2 tells us, “ How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”  The problem is, when we’re at an emotional low, we are more vulnerable to this type of thinking and we typically make four common mistakes.  


Verse 4 tells us, “… he prayed that he might die, `I’ve had enough, Lord!'” He said, “I’ve had enough, Lord.  I’m wasting my life.  I’m fed up.  It’s no use trying.  I’m going to give up.”  This is what I call emotional reasoning.  Emotional reasoning says, “If I feel it, it must be so.”  I feel like a failure, therefore I am a failure.  I don’t feel close to God, therefore I must not be close to God.  I feel like a lousy husband, therefore I am a lousy husband. The fact is, feelings are not always facts. 


When we are emotionally drained, we start comparing ourselves. This is what Elijah did.  He said in verse 4b, “Take my life.  I am no better than my ancestors!”  He starts comparing himself to his family tree.  

The Bible warns against this over and over again.  It says, “Do not compare!”  When you start comparing yourself to other people you are setting yourself up for depression.  Everybody is different.  Everybody is unique.  Only you can be you.  If you don’t be you, who’s going to be you?  

When you get to heaven, God is not going to say, “How come you weren’t more like Billy Graham?” or “How come you weren’t more like Moses?” or “How come you weren’t more like….?”  

He’s going to say, “How come you weren’t more like you?”  That’s who He made you to be.  

We get emotionally burnt out because we start comparing ourselves to others.  When we compare ourselves, we compare our weaknesses with other people’s strengths.  We ignore the fact that they have weaknesses that we may be strong in.  We make comparisons that get us into all kinds of trouble. 

We try to motivate ourselves through criticism.  We compare ourselves and then say, “I should be able to read my Bible like that person” or “I should be a better Christian like that person” or “I should witness like that person”.  We get into trouble when we say, I should, I must, or I ought to. The moment you start using the word “should” in your vocabulary, you are guaranteeing procrastination.  It is human nature that we resist what is forced upon us.  

How do you get motivated to do those things you know are important in life?  You change the language from “should” to “want”.  Paul didn’t say, “I should be all things through Christ who strengthens me.  He said, “I can be all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That changes the motivation. The motivation must come from your heart, not from a comparison to others. 

We also tend to label.  We give ourselves harmful names. Instead of saying things like, “I made a mistake” we say, “I’m a failure.”  Instead of saying, “I tripped” we say, “I’m a klutz”. Instead of saying, “I overate” we say, “I’m a pig”.  We label ourselves. 

Labeling only reinforces negative characteristics.  If you were to say to me, “Rick, you are a lazy person.”  Then I’d say, “Yeah, just watch how lazy I can be!” I would tend to perform up (or down) to your expectation.  If I were to say to you, “You are always a late person.”  You’d say, “Yeah, just watch!  Watch how late I can be!”  Labeling only reinforces the negative. 

But if somebody says to you, “You could be a great Christian. You could be a great mother. You could be a dynamic father.” Then all of a sudden you get excited, and you begin to visualize the potential.  You begin to see yourself in a new light.  You start moving toward that positive focus.  


Elijah took blame onto his shoulders that did not belong there.  Verse 10 tells us, “I have been zealous for God…”  He’s been preaching and praying and doing all these dynamic things that a prophet is supposed to do but, “They have rejected your covenant and broken down your altars and put your prophets to death with a sword.”  

In his depression, Elijah blames himself for failing to convert the entire nation of Israel.  He takes this big load upon his shoulders and says, “It’s all my fault.  I’ve been working like crazy and yet nobody’s changed.”  He took it personally.  That’s a heavy responsibility. 

When you start trying to assume responsibility for other people you’re going to get depressed.  You can be responsible to someone without being responsible for someone.  When you take responsibility for someone, you are in essence taking it away from them, and there is a danger they will never learn to take responsibility for themselves.  

This is what Elijah did.  He said the whole world hasn’t converted, therefore it’s my fault.  You’re not responsible for other people’s response.  When I first became a Christian, every time I shared my faith with somebody — witnessed to them — and they didn’t accept Christ, I thought I had failed.  What did I do wrong?  They didn’t become a Christian?  Then I realized that in planting seeds, some of it’s going to fall on hard ground.  No matter how you plant it, some of it’s not going to sprout.  We blame ourselves for things that aren’t our fault. You can influence people but you cannot control them.  They have a free will.  


 We blow it out of proportion.  All of a sudden “everything’s going wrong!”  Elijah says in the last part of verse 10, “… I’m the only one left!  And now they’re trying to kill me, too, Lord.”  This guy is having one giant pity party.  He’s having a great time feeling sorry for himself.  “Everybody’s against me! Everybody hates me.  Nobody loves me.  I’m going to go eat worms!”  

The fact is there was only one person who was fighting him.  That was the queen — Jezebel.  She had gotten jealous of Elijah’s popularity and power in the nation.  So the queen of the nation sent him a messenger and said, “If you don’t get out of the country, I’m going to have you killed within a few hours.” Elijah ran across the desert, hid in a cave and had his pity party.  There was only one person against him.  Through the mask of his depression, though, he feels, “Everybody’s against me!”  

If he had really thought it out, if Elijah had not listened to his feelings but looked at the facts instead, he would have thought, “Jezebel sent a messenger to warn me that she was going to kill me.”  If Jezebel had really intended to kill him, she wouldn’t have sent a messenger to warn him.  She would have just sent a hit man.  Why warn him?  Just go knock him off!  

But Jezebel was clever enough to know that if she killed Elijah that would only make matters worse.  That would make him a martyr.  Pretty soon he’d be a hero in the nation and might even cause a revolt among the people.  On top of that, Jezebel worried about what God would do to her if she touched God’s man.  So instead, she just thought, “I won’t kill him.  I’ll just embarrass him.”  So she threatened him and let him run away.  And then he runs off to be remembered as a coward.  One minute he’s the hero and the next minute he’s a zero. 

Have you noticed when you are depressed everything seems to go wrong?  Not just the thing you are depressed about, but everything goes wrong.  It is like the guy who fell asleep. While he slept, someone rubbed limburger cheese on his mustache. When he woke up he started running around and sniffing, running around and sniffing.  People thought he was going crazy.  They said, “What’s the matter?”  He said, “The whole world stinks!”  

That’s the way it is with our attitudes.  Anytime you say the whole world stinks, check your own nose!  Check your own attitude.  The whole world does not stink.  There is a lot of good going on in the world.  But when we have a bad attitude, we get this pessimistic outlook that everything is going to the dogs.  

Elijah said, “I’m the only one,” and God said, “No, you’re not.  I have reserved 7000 in Israel who haven’t bowed their knees to Baal.  There are 7000 people in this nation that haven’t followed this false god, this idol.  They’re still true to Me.  They’re still faithful.  They’re living the right way.  You’re not the only one.  There’s 7000 people.”  

But that’s typical.  When your life becomes filled with fear, resentment, low self esteem, anger, loneliness, and worry, you are headed for burnout.  Then, if you focus on your feelings, and you compare yourself to others, and you accept responsibility for everybody else, and you exaggerate the negative, you’re only going to make matters worse.  

Next month we will look at how the Bible tells us to resist burnout and climb out of this hole of despair.

Rick Warren is the senior pastor of Saddleback Church and the best-selling author of many books, including The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life.

4 Responses to Leadership Lifter : Emotional Burnout


    thank ou for the insght. your messages encourage me a grerat deal.

  2. Pam Burchill says:

    Thanks for this article…it was really helpful! You have a great way of teaching that is easy to understand and very on point! I’ve been burned out lately and this article helped me to understand why! I am now trusting God to empower me to have a hopeful, positive attitude and to walk by faith instead of by feelings. Thanks! God bless you!

  3. I dearly appreciate the work you are doing and have been doing in the church for over 20 years now. Your article was helpful as we are going through a time of crisis here at Central Phoenix Church of God. Please pray for us as we continue to try to minister under God’s direction. We have tried to reach out to our community by making personal visits to people who are new to addresses in about a 4 mile radius of the church. We have not been able to get them to come to church here. Some of our leadership is experiencing burnout like you describe. Your message is helpful. Pray for us as we will run out of resources by years end if we cannot get help or if we don’t start to grow. Our prayers for you as you lead the charge in these days. Thanks for the encouragement from your article. Pastor Rick DeWard Central Phoenix Church of God 5536 N. 6th St. Phoenix, AZ 85012

  4. Lise Knox says:

    Thanks! Could you put me on a distribution list for your Leadership Lifters please?
    Thank you

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