“And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in…” Mind-blowing lyrics penned by Elton John illuminating the tragic life of Norma Jean snuffed out trying to maintain the silver screen image of Marilyn Monroe while unable to maintain her smoke screened life.
As a ministry wife, I can sympathize with the complexities of Norma Jean’s life, the pressures that come with maintaining a public image, to the neglect of your soul. The pressures of ministry are real and often lead to burnout. I have suffered the effects of walking on the ministry treadmill wondering why I’m running on empty and asking if I’ve lost touch with the strength and power of God’s Spirit? What should I do when the fire is gone? Is God okay if I fake-it-till-I-make-it? Early theologians often wrote about the ill effects and struggles of ministry burnout and the current statistics are downright frightening.
If I’m honest, ministry is hard and people can be ruthless. Often, ministry leaders go through seasons of discouragement, self-doubt, wanting to quit, isolation, loneliness, sadness, fear, depression, anxiety, pressures to preform, all while bearing the burden of responsibility. The work and pace never stops!
So, why do so many leaders burn out spiritually? How often as leaders can we admit to walking in our own strength? Do we ever try to maintain a smoke screened image for those who are watching our example? Sometimes I wonder if we, the experienced leaders, are those in the most danger. We spend countless hours pouring into others spiritual lives while risking and often succumbing to the neglect of our own.
Recently, while I sat on the balcony of my hotel room in Indian Wells, California, I gazed out at the purple-hued mountains, yellow-stained desert floor, and snowcapped peaks. A thought occurred to me, “It’s remarkably bone-dry out here, but this parched landscape is stunning.”
That day, my desolation felt restful, peace-filled, and tranquil. A desert oasis! Physically my desert escape found serenity, stillness and a spa that delivered immediate relief. It was a much-needed break in a stress-filled, busy season of life and ministry, but what about my spiritual well-being, who was going to massage that back into my life?
In Zechariah chapter 4, we read of God giving a vision to Zechariah. This would be the fifth of eight visions.
Zechariah 4:1-3 says, “Now the angel who talked with me came back and wakened me, as a man who is wakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, “What do you see?” So I said, “I am looking, and there is a lampstand of solid gold with a bowl on top of it, and on the stand seven lamps with seven pipes to the seven lamps. Two olive trees are by it, one at the right of the bowl and the other at its left.””
The vision explained:
Zechariah 4:6-7 So he answered and said to me: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘ Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the LORD of hosts.
‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!
And he shall bring forth the capstone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’”
Zerubbabel, the civic leader tasked to finish the project, had been working on the rebuilding of the temple for quite some time now but the work had stalled. Here, the Lord is declaring that no amount of human strength, zeal or strategy would help Zerubbabel rebuild the temple. It would only be completed by the work of God’s Spirit. The Spirit would distribute a never-ending, self-filling stream of oil to ensure a constant burning flame.
I was at my wick’s end that week in the desert; burned out! What’s interesting about a wick is it’s merely a strip of braided cotton through which liquid fuel is soaked up and delivered to the flame in a candle or lamp. The wick’s only job is to absorb or draw off the oil and as long as it does, it’s the oil that burns and not the wick itself. But when the oil is removed, the wick is consumed causing it to burn out. The wick doesn’t sustain the burning flame of the lampstand; it’s the oil!
His Holy Spirit sets and keeps us ablaze and able to undertake and complete His work. So, why is it so difficult then? It requires me to die to self and that’s never easy.
My revelation? I didn’t need to eliminate any God-intended ministry, as if somehow that might fan my flame. More time off would only refresh me physically and momentarily, and like Zerubbabel, possibly give the enemy victory over my work being stalled. I didn’t need to knuckle through it, as my lack was spiritual and not an issue of physical endurance. What I desperately needed and need everyday is to be filled with that which promises to sustain me to be faithful and complete the work He gives me. I needed to rest yes, but this rest would include laboring in prayer and kneeling at the feet of Jesus. My ever-thirsty soul would only be fully quenched not by human means, but by a Holy God. I needed to get out of God’s way (dying to self) and let Him work in me and through me. Only then can I proclaim the words of Zechariah 4:7- ‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth the capstone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’
When our labor is focused on prayer and the filling of God’s Spirit through the reading of God’s Word, His Spirit moves mountains and does the miraculous and our pressures come crumbling down like rubble in His sight.