SERIES: Exodus: Moses, God’s Man for the Hour
Burned Out or Poured Out? Turning the Rat Race into a Relay
SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus
Introduction: Please turn to Exodus 18. May I remind you that what we are about to read is not a myth spawned by an ancient people; it is not just great literature; nor is it the product of human ingenuity. This is the word of the Lord, and it is given to us that we might be taught, rebuked, corrected, and trained in righteousness. May it be so today as we read Exodus 18:
Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.
2 After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her 3 and her two sons. One son was named Gershom, for Moses said, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land”; 4 and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God. 6 Jethro had sent word to him, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.”
7 So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. 8 Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the Lord had saved them.
9 Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 He said, “Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”
24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.
27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.
“It’s better to burn out than rust out!” “What’s a candle for but to burn?” I can still remember a dedicated camp speaker trying to motivate a group of 150 fun-loving kids with such statements. And I heard similar things many times afterward in Bible College and Seminary. The alternative to burnout always seemed to be laziness and apathy. But is that true? Is burnout for God a good thing or a bad thing? Is burning out the only alternative to rusting out? Help to answer that question comes from a very unlikely source in Exodus 18, as Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, spared God’s great prophet and leader from almost certain burnout; we too can learn from his sound advice. But first I want us to consider the fact that …
Burnout is an increasingly recognized malady among Christian workers today.
What is it? Burnout is a term borrowed from the science of aerospace. It denotes a rocket, soaring upward, running out of fuel, and falling back to the earth. In one sense, the metaphor may be a bit self-congratulatory. To describe oneself as “burnt out” may imply that one is like a brilliant, upward moving rocket that tragically is spent and plunges downward, ignoring the fact that we may never have even left the launching pad. Be that as it may, the term seems to describe well a series of symptoms which occur frequently among a certain class of workers, including those in Christian ministry.
The term “burnout” has been used as a psychological diagnosis for less than 30 years. Recently, however, it has become a very commonly diagnosed syndrome, probably overly diagnosed. At the Trinity Seminary library this week I discovered over ten books on clergy burnout alone—all published within the past decade.
What is burnout? A definition might be helpful: “Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people-work’ of some kind. As emotional resources are depleted, workers feel they are no longer able to give of themselves at a psychological level.”[i] Among the most susceptible are those who don’t resolve frustrations and conflicts, and who are extremely dedicated and committed. Christian workers may be more susceptible than most precisely because their sense of responsibility is often high, and they have the added burden of trying to please God. Nearly every time I attend a ministerial conference, I hear about two or three pastors who have left the ministry because of burnout.
Why does it happen? My research shows that there are three primary reasons why Christian leaders—clergy or laity—burnout. First, there is a feeling of indispensability, a subtle sense that God can’t get along without them. They have been called to do His work, and if they don’t, it will not get done. That is untrue, of course, for the Scriptures go to some pains to teach us that while God desires to use us, His plan for the universe is in no way dependent upon us. Nevertheless, such feelings are common. Secondly, there is a sense of basic inadequacy. That may sound contradictory to the first, but it is actually complementary to it. Burnout victims are often people who lack self-esteem at the deepest roots of their personhood. That drives them to prove their effectiveness and adequacy by overwork and perfectionistic tendencies. Thirdly, there is a failure to consider and take care of the needs of the total man—spiritual, physical, and emotional. When these three tendencies are combined in the same person, as they often are, burnout is not only possible but nearly inevitable.
Burnout also affects lay volunteers in the church, and the causes include the following:
indefinite task descriptions
lack of job evaluation
unspecified terms of office
difficulty with delegating
Some of you can relate, can’t you? There are several factors in that list that I think we here at First Free could improve upon and thereby lessen the danger of burnout for our own people.
What are the symptoms? What are some of the warning signs of burnout that might cause us to sit up and take note either for ourselves or for someone we love? We have time to only mention these items:
emotional exhaustion and low energy levels
listlessness, sleepiness in the daytime, insomnia at night
paranoia, irritability, and worry
a change toward poor money management
a change toward sporadic work habits
loss of spiritual discipline
feelings of hopelessness
What are the results? I mention this to help us see that the problem we are talking about today is a serious problem with potentially severe consequences, like:
loss of ministry
shame and embarrassment
even death, either by suicide or by illness brought on by generally deteriorating health
Who are some who have experienced it? Robert Murray McCheyne graduated from Edinburgh University at age 14 and pastored a Presbyterian congregation of over 1,000 by the age of 23. He worked so hard his health finally broke. Before dying at age 29, he wrote, “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.” McCheyne judged that he had not been a wise steward of the life God had given him but had squandered it—not in riotous living but in riotous serving.
Peter Marshall is a well-known name to many of you. He served as the esteemed Chaplain of the United States Senate in the 1940’s and was well-known for pushing himself night and day for the cause of Christ. In March of 1946 he suffered a heart attack but went back to work with the same driving force he had always practiced, only to die of a second heart attack in 1949 at the age of 46. His widow, Catherine Marshall wrote, “In Peter’s case, I am certain that it was not God’s ideal will that he die of coronary occlusion at 46.” His driven lifestyle clearly contributed to his early demise.
Another example is J. B. Phillips, the brilliant Bible translator and author. The symptoms of burnout in his life are revealed in the following letter he wrote: “I can with difficulty endure the days, but I frankly dread the nights. The second part of almost every night of my life is shot through with such mental pain, fear and horror that I frequently have to wake myself up in order to restore some sort of balance.” How did he get to this point? The cause is revealed by his biographer:
“Phillips accepted a schedule for himself which measured up to his fantasy of a ‘terrific person’…. At first every invitation was accepted as a challenge, as a call from the Lord. But when invitations reached 300 a year that theory became ridiculous. Even under control, his was a massive programme of writing, speaking, conferences, broadcasts, visits to cities and towns in America and throughout Great Britain. From 1955 to 1961 he maintained this killing programme and at last, when he was 55, he cracked. As one doctor put it, he was ‘scooped out.’ He felt all his creative powers slipping away. Even Dr. Phillips himself recognized the symptoms of burnout. He wrote, “Most of my life I have worked hard, possibly too hard, so that I am now quite unable to relax.”[ii]
Now please understand that it is beyond dispute that God used people like Robert Murray McCheyne, Peter Marshall and J. B. Phillips in unusual ways. The question is whether the impact of their lives was improved or diminished by their burnout for God. I think it’s time for us to look at the Scriptures, for in Exodus 18 we have a clear example of a man of God who narrowly averted burnout. If we take seriously the solution by which he was spared, I believe we will have gone a long way toward preventing burnout in our own lives and helping those we love to prevent it in theirs. Exodus 18 makes it very clear to me that …
Moses was a prime candidate for total burnout.
Let me set the stage in this story. The Israelites have escaped Egypt and are about two months into their journey through the Sinai desert on their way to the Mountain of God, Mt. Sinai. God has met them at every point in their journey, meeting their enormous need for protection from the elements, for guidance, for food, for water, and for protection from their enemies. Chapter 18, however, offers a little vignette about what happens one day when Israel is camped near Sinai. Moses’ father-in-law comes to visit him, bringing Moses’ wife and two children, whom he has not seen for probably a year, and the remainder of the story revolves around this visit. The first thing that stands out to me is Moses’ single-mindedness.
His single-mindedness. Please turn back for just a moment to the last time Moses’ wife is mentioned—in chapter 4. Moses has just completed 40 personal years in the desert of Midian, just east of the Sinai Peninsula, where God has been preparing his heart for a great task. There he met a priest of Midian with 7 daughters, married one of them, and produced two sons. Later through a burning bush experience God commissioned him to return to the Egypt and lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. After arguing with God for some time he finally game in, asked Jethro for permission to leave, and, according to verse 20, “took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt.”
Then we considered the strange story of how God tried to kill Moses for not circumcising his son, and how his wife Zipporah spared Moses’ life by circumcising the child herself. And that’s the last we hear of Zipporah until she comes to visit Moses in chapter 18. Apparently sometime after the circumcision event, either Zipporah got homesick or Moses decided that the dangers and rigors of his task were too much for his family. At any rate he sent them back to her father’s place in Midian.
I suggest this willingness to be away from his family for an extended time to devote full attention to the task God called him to indicates incredible single-mindedness, but I do not say this was entirely good. Single-mindedness can get out of hand. While I don’t think we’re given enough evidence to make a certain evaluation in this case, it is my opinion that rarely, if ever, will God call us to do something that demands an inordinate amount of time away from the wife and children he has given us. No matter how much money you earn, fame you achieve, or even spiritual satisfaction you get, it is probably not worth the stress and strain that separation brings upon a family.
Notice something further about Moses’ single-mindedness. When his family finally arrives, it says in verse 7: “So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake.” Not a word is said here about Moses greeting his wife or taking a day off to be with her or playing with his children. I recognize the danger of any argument from silence, but one cannot help but marvel at and question the degree of his job commitment. The questions are heightened when we look at Moses’ schedule.
His schedule. Verse 13: “The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening.” In his capacity as judge, he is applying God’s will to the people’s lives. There’s not a more important assignment anyone could possibly have, but friends, this was a killer schedule, and the implication is that this was normal! He must have been running on pure adrenalin. Frankly, I both admire and pity Moses here. I admire the fact that he’s willing to spend himself in this way—most people wouldn’t devote half the effort—but I also pity him because what he is attempting is inhuman. Well, why did he do it? What were his motives?
His motives. I think one must do a bit of sacred psychoanalysis here and separate Moses’ conscious motives from the unconscious ones. His conscious motives were, I think, pure. He reveals something about them in verse 15, when he protests that he’s doing a spiritual task for spiritually needy people. I have no problem accepting that Moses really believed he was doing the right thing. But I also suspect there were some subconscious personal needs operating here. We’ve already seen that Moses had a strong sense of personal inadequacy, which caused him to decline God’s initial invitation to be the leader of the Israelites. Although he eventually accepted the assignment there’s no reason to suppose that his self-concept was immediately cured.
It is quite common for an insecure leader to become a driven person. After all, he dare not let people down because he needs and desperately desires their approval to affirm his personal worth. The long lines of people were undoubtedly a constant affirmation to Moses that he was needed and therefore valuable. I know the feeling. Even as pastor of considerably fewer than 2 million people, I’ve had days when my schedule was full, with one person after another calling or coming by to seek my counsel, and even though I was exhausted, there was something deliciously invigorating about being in demand. Such a situation sows the seeds of burnout. Well, thankfully there was one man with enough concern, boldness, and insight to rescue Moses before he hit the skids, namely his father-in-law.
Jethro rescued Moses before he hits the skids.
His concern may not have been entirely selfless. After all, he’s not only Moses’ father-in-law; he is also Moses’ wife’s father and the grandfather of Moses’ children. He can see what Moses’ single mindedness is doing to his daughter and grandchildren. Nevertheless, I believe, because of the light in which he is presented in this passage, that Jethro had a real interest in the welfare of Moses and the Israelites. He speaks sadly about how all of them are wearing themselves out—Moses by working too hard and the Israelites by standing in line. Concern rarely accomplishes anything, however, without boldness.
His boldness. He speaks up and says to Moses, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” Don’t underestimate the courage it took to say this. Would you go up to Charles Stanley or Chuck Swindoll or John MacArthur and say, “What you are doing is not good?” I doubt it. But you say, “I’m not their father-in-law.” True, but since when is it easier to talk to an in-law than it is to a perfect stranger about something you think is stupid? But there’s something even more important about Jethro. He was not only concerned and courageous enough to criticize; he also had a solution to offer. Don’t miss this point: rarely is it appropriate to criticize a brother unless you can offer him some help in solving the problem.
His insight involves several steps. He encourages Moses to continue to be the people’s representative before God because that’s the role God had given him. But he suggests a major change in how Moses fulfills that responsibility. Jethro counsels him to spend the bulk of his time teaching and applying the truth but advises him to turn the administration of disputes over to capable men—well qualified, please note—who would handle all but the hardest cases. Sounds a lot like the advice the Apostles gave to the church in Acts 6, doesn’t it? Listen:
“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Please do not overlook the fact that Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. That says something more important to me about the character of Moses than almost anything else I have seen in his life to this point. Powerful, esteemed, dedicated, and at this point the undisputed leader of over 2 million people, yet he listens to a Midianite priest! Insecure? Perhaps, but willing to be taught. No wonder God called him the meekest man who ever lived!
God’s will for us is not to burn out but rather to be poured out.
You may have gotten the impression through this message that hard work is sinful and that Christian leaders should look out for #1—take it easy, build plenty of leisure into life, and don’t take ministry too seriously. That’s not my point at all. I believe in hard work; in fact, virtually my entire adult life I have worked six full days a week. But I don’t work seven. Even God rested after working six days and He commands us to do the same. Nor do I think we should be looking out for #1; instead, we should be going hard after God, glorifying Him through our bodies, minds, and spirits. The question is, “How is God most glorified—by my burning the candle at both ends or by balanced living, taking time to enjoy God as well as serving Him?” I think you know the answer to that question.
Nowhere in the Bible will you find God encouraging His people to burn themselves out through overwork. But often you find Him urging His people to commit their lives completely to Him, being willing to do anything he requires, including sacrificing our very lives, if necessary.
The explanation of the difference. The difference between being burned out and being poured out is that the former is usually the result of dedication to our own agenda and allowing that agenda to control everything else. Being poured out is accepting God’s agenda and pursuing it in an obedient and balanced fashion.
The example of our Savior is extremely instructive here. Jesus spent 30 years preparing for three years of ministry. He died prematurely at the age of 35 or so, pouring his life out according to the will of His Father. But did he burn out? No way. Never do you get the impression from the life of Christ that He was even in a hurry, much less fretting or stewing. More in demand than any of us will ever be, He knew how to say “no” and often escaped the crowds by going off to a lonely place to be alone or to pray. If our only perfect example on this earth could say “no” to demands which were too great for His human body, dare any of us who follow Him be so arrogant as to presume that we are more indispensable than our Lord? Very quickly, I want to share three principles from this text.
Points to ponder:
God’s servants are not exempt from the penalties of breaking life’s natural laws. When you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, you receive eternal life, you become a part of God’s eternal family, you pass from death into life, you are sealed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and a hundred other marvelous things happen. But you don’t stop being human. And I’m not aware of a single law of nature you escape when you become a Christian. If you burn the candle at both ends, instead of being used by God, you will be used up.
Training and delegating is, in the long run, the most efficient way to get things done. It’s also God’s way. For years I lived with the utterly bankrupt notion that if I wanted something to be done right, I’d better do it myself. In the short run that may be true, occasionally. But in the long run it’s absolutely false. It will destroy us and, worse, it prevents us from realizing the joy that comes from training others to use their God-given talents together with us. It’s amazing how quickly a critic can be turned into a sympathizer and companion if asked to join the team. I like the way F. B. Meyer said it: “It is a great matter to be a good workman, one not needing to be ashamed; but it is a greater to be able to call out other workmen, and to set them at work.”[iii] I believe God wants us to turn the rat race into a relay.
We must not allow the tyranny of the urgent to keep us from doing the important. A thousand things scream at us that they need to be done, but only a few are really important. The most important is attending to our relationship with God. Millions of religious people are involved in a blizzard of activity, serving God (or so they think), but they have failed to consider Jesus’ statement that “no man comes unto the Father but by Me” (John 14:6), and they have never bowed their knee to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Even those of us who have, rarely take the time to sit at His feet and worship Him.
Martha was near burnout trying to get ready for the Lord’s visit, and when He arrived, she asked, “’Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ He answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better.’” The most important thing Jesus wants is worship. And let me tell you something—the person who takes time to worship, quality time to adore God and express thankfulness, will never suffer burnout.
One thing is needful, O my Father,
One thing is needful, O my God;
That I sit at Your feet and pour out my love,
This thing is needful, O my Lord!
I sit and worship You, my Father,
I sit and worship You, my God.
Lord, I sit at Your feet and pour out my love,
I sit and worship You, my King!
DATE: August 4, 1991
Tyranny of the urgent
[i] Charles Perry, Burnout: Why Me?, 15.
[ii] Citation lost.
[iii] F. B. Meyer, Moses, 112.