Fatigue is extreme exhaustion, usually resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness. We all experience fatigue at times; it is part of life. God created our bodies to store enough energy to get us through the day. But we then need to rest in order to recharge. This cycle of work and sleep is necessary to function at our best. When this cycle is interrupted or out of balance, fatigue results.
Several people in the Bible experienced fatigue at different times and for different reasons, and we can learn from them.
1. David’s men. First Samuel 30 tells of a time in David’s life when the Philistines had captured the wives and children of all his men. The men were so overwhelmed with grief that they “wept aloud until they had no more strength to weep” (verse 4). Then six hundred of them pursued the captors. After a while, two hundred of them “were too exhausted to cross the valley” (verse 10). We can imagine why. They had experienced emotional shock and sorrow, followed by physical exertion in pursuit of their enemies. They finally wore out.
One cause of fatigue is the combination of emotional intensity and physical exertion. The depletion of emotional and physical strength can lead to illness if we don’t rest both our bodies and our minds. David’s response to the fatigue of his men was to allow them to rest but still include them in the celebration of success. He did not see their fatigue as a sign of weakness or cowardice but as a true condition that prevented them from keeping up with the troops. He honored their contribution of staying behind with the supplies, recognizing that, in their weakened state, it was the best they had to offer (1 Samuel 30:21–24).
2. Esau. Genesis 25:29 says, “Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.” The familiar story of Esau giving up his birthright can also teach us something about fatigue. Esau had been out hunting and probably without food for a couple of days. The combination of physical exhaustion and extreme hunger can create mind-altering fatigue. Our bodies cannot function as they should, and our minds are clouded by the desperate need for food and rest. Esau’s colossal mistake was that he chose to make a life-altering decision while he was mentally and physically depleted.
When we are fatigued, we need to be aware of our own limitations and not press forward with major decisions that we later regret. Part of living wisely is recognizing our human weaknesses and compensating for them so that they do not control us. Deferring decisions until we have regained our strength is a wise practice in dealing with fatigue.
3. Epaphroditus. In Philippians 2:25–30, Paul commends his friend Epaphroditus to the Philippian church, commenting that this man had worked himself into exhaustion for the cause of Christ. We are not told what type of illness Epaphroditus had or why his work wore him out, but we can draw some likely conclusions. Anyone who has labored in ministry can understand Epaphroditus’ condition. In fact, God may have included the mention of Epaphroditus as a warning of what can happen when we don’t balance work and rest.
The needs in ministry are so great that God’s servants can easily become consumed by them, to the neglect of their own health and needs. Satan sidles alongside a laboring servant and suggests that to slack off any would be selfish. Our enemy points to the unfinished work and hints that we alone can get it done. This attitude has sometimes been called the “Messiah complex,” for good reason. Those in ministry begin to feel that no one else has the passion and calling that they have, and, if they don’t do everything, nothing will be done right.
Epaphroditus is a lesson for those who serve the Lord that the work is not ours; it is God’s (1 Corinthians 3:7). He wants us to do our best but “remembers that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). Sometimes giving our lives for the cause of Christ is easier than maintaining our lives for His cause. Wisdom reminds us to pace ourselves, admit when we cannot take on any more, and acknowledge the fact that rest is an important part of staying in ministry for the duration.
Fatigue will hit all of us at times, which is one reason the Bible speaks so much about resting in the Lord (Deuteronomy 5:13–14; Matthew 11:28–29; Psalm 37:7). In our busy world, rest does not always come easily. We often have to teach ourselves to rest in body, mind, and spirit. Learning to rest our souls keeps us healthy and keeps fatigue out of our lives.