(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog.)
Perhaps it is time that I told this story. It is long overdue. It is a humbling one for me. I am hoping that it might encourage several others who may be going through what I experienced themselves.
About three years ago, in mid-July 2018, a few weeks after celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, I found myself under a dark cloud for several days where I crashed and burned. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I had not felt like this in a long time.
My title, “From Hero to Zero”, comes from a common phrase that was used while I was assigned as an Army Recruiter from 1991-1992. One month I exceeded my assigned mission to enlist two Soldiers by 50% when I recruited three new Soldiers. I was a hero, and got a nice coffee mug. A couple of months later, I was expected to put in three recruits, but came up empty. I was a zero. (Note: You may want to read an article I wrote a while ago on how God uses our failures at work.)
I will go into more details below of what I experienced and what led up to it. First, I need to tie my own story with a biblical account where a called, gifted, and powerful spiritual leader was hit with a deep depression immediately following a successful event where God showed up in a powerful way.
A hero prophet that crashed
The prophet Elijah, in 1 Kings 18:16-40, had an awesome day on Mount Carmel, battling 450 false prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah. With a supernatural boldness that could only have come from the Spirit of God, Elijah challenged King Ahab to assemble on Mount Carmel for a big showdown. He was going to set up an opportunity for Yahweh demonstrate that He alone is God. The prophets of Baal and Asherah could not get their god to bring fire from heaven, but God did.
Immediately following this amazing event, the highlight of Elijah’s career, in 1 Kings 19:3-4, we see Elijah, scared to death, running away from Jezebel. He felt completely burned out. He had nothing left to give. He walked alone in the wilderness, found a tree, sat under it, and wished he was dead.
A brief analysis of my own crash
What were the circumstances that led up to my own feelings of defeat after a resounding success?
Months of high levels of stress at work in preparation for our 100th anniversary, the usual summer turnover of leaders and staff, efforts to market my book, and the pressures of a new home improvement project to switch two rooms (see article on how to use our sanctified imagination), had began to take its toll on me.
My feelings of being overwhelmed came to a head one night as I was trying to put the finishing touches on the chair rail of what used to be our dining room but was converted into a cozy wee den. I was frustrated with the caulking. I tried to make a thin, straight line above the chair rail, but it wasn’t right. I had to wipe it away and start over multiple times. After about 20 minutes I lost it and gave up.
Like Elijah, I had clearly seen God come through for me in a mighty way over months and months of behind the scenes work in planning our major event. It was one of the biggest projects I had ever done. And yet, despite the overwhelming success, I ended up in a desert place, feeling fear and doubt.
A word for other workers who may experience crashes
I can think of several examples of hard workers who may experience an overwhelming emotional crash after completing a major victory. Each of them may be blessed with an incredible high that is immediately followed by the jarring reality of a mundane life that is supposed to get back to normal.
- The mother who just had her second child
- The gardener who just gathered her last bushel of heirloom tomatoes
- The Olympic athlete who is heading home with a gold and two bronze medals
- A cast of actors after the last performance of a play or wrapping up a series
- The pastor on Monday morning who preached three sermons on Sunday
- The advertising executive who just landed his biggest client
- The architect who just finishing up a multimillion-dollar construction project
- The elementary school speech therapist who just completed her tenth year
I was recently reminded of a verse that described the two extremes of work: the highs and the lows.
In Gen. 3:17-19, we see that despite the curse that God gave to Adam and Eve for their disobedience, they still get to eat the fruit of their labor. This is mentioned three times. Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor made a similar observation, indicating, “Work will be both frustrating and fulfilling.”
- Give credit to God for His blessings; rest in Him when new trials overshadow them
- Take naps as needed and eat well; allow your body to recharge (see 1 Kings 19:5-8)
- Remember God’s promise in Ps. 34:18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”
- Don’t jump from one major project to another one right away; create margin or white space; schedule some down time
- By faith, press on and keep showing up, even when it is hard (see 2 Thes. 3:13)
My final word of encouragement is this: There is an ebb and flow to life. That is the way God has designed it. From the high ground, you will always feel somewhat disappointed that your moment in the spotlight is over. At the top, it’s all downhill. You will have to deal with the pain of carrying on until the next harvest, the next major accomplishment, or the next milestone event. Remember that God will be present with you every step of the way as you head back to work and start over again.
About the author:
Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Seventy articles that he wrote have been posted or published 130 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.