Christian, This is Why You are Exhausted

Picture a man, maybe even a strong man, sitting atop a giant, safari-sized elephant.



In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath popularized a metaphor originally created by psychologist Johnathan Haidt. He argued that humans have two sides, the emotional/irrational side (the elephant) and the rational/analytic side (the rider).

The rider tries his best to direct the elephant, but you can imagine what happens when the elephant wants something different than the rider. Here is how they describe it in Switch:

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.”

“Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider.  You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.”

I think this is incredibly spot on and fascinating, especially when applied to faith.

Much of Christian teaching and preaching has focused on whipping the rider into shape.

“Do better! Try harder! Keep that elephant in line! Pull the reins!”

But the elephant–he still does what he wants. No matter how much the rider beats and whips and cajoles.

Because he’s an elephant. And he’s hungry.

And there are profiteers lining the streets offering food for sale that’s not really food.

But he’s hungry, so he bites anyway.

“No! Don’t do that!” the rider yells.

“Stay away from that!” the preacher scolds.

“Just be strong and stop it,” the friend exhorts.

But the elephant keeps wandering away. Because, again, he’s an elephant. And how much does that elephant feel a scrawny man’s heels digging into his hide? Especially when he’s hungry…

There are countless scores of people in churches all over this wide world who feel like they’ve been trying to steer an elephant for months/years/decades, and LET ME TELL YOU they are EXHAUSTED. They are so tired, of yelling, of pulling, of scratching and clawing. So now they just hang on for dear life, weary to the bones, praying that the elephant won’t do too much damage in it’s search of comfort, approval, control or power. They’ve long given up hope of directing him in any sort of meaningful way.

Christian, if you are exhausted in your pursuit of growth, this is likely part of the reason why. Elephants are hard to steer.

The reason all of these exhausted riders exist is because of a grave misunderstanding about the gospel. You see, these riders think that the gospel message is only for the rider, not the elephant. They think the gospel is limited to making strong riders who can actually control their elephants. A list of do’s and don’ts and should’s and shouldn’ts and tactics and techniques to steering your elephant.

What these exhausted riders fail to see is that the gospel is for the elephant too. It’s not just for the mind, it’s for our desires and affections.

Jesus is not interested in training an army of capable riders who can self-righteously control the beasts they ride on.

No, Jesus holds out food–true food–for the elephant.

Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    hear, that your soul may live;

-Isaiah 55:1-3a

Jesus looks directly at our desires, wills and affections and says “Why are you chasing that? You think that’s going to fulfill you? Friend, you are sorely misinformed. Incline your ear and come to me instead.” He would know, because if He made us, He made our hungers too.

Jesus calls the roots of us not to be less committed to pursuing our own joy, but more committed to pursuing our own joy in Him. This is the essence of Christian Hedonism–that God takes our joy very seriously and calls us to do the same by ruthlessly seeking after the only One who truly offers it. He takes an old affection and replaces it with a new and stronger affection.

I had a friend who was going through our Recovery ministry last fall, when, upon explaining this idea of a new affection to him, asked: “So you’re telling me that Jesus is offering to take away my tangible affection for a bottle of liquor and replace that with an intangible affection for the peace and contentment I can have while sitting still and not needing a bottle of liquor?”

And I said, “Yes–exactly.” He thought that was crazy, but by the end of the cycle he said “I get it now.”

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

The tragic part of all this is that so many of our pulpits and writers and would-be-disciples are focused on producing riders who can control their elephants through gripped white knuckles. They are doling out bondage and exhaustion instead of standing with Jesus and pleading, “Why?”

Why do you chase after that which is not food?

Why do you spend your money for that which does not satisfy?


Come to Me, all you hungry elephants, and I will give you food that satisfies your hunger.

Come to Me, all you exhausted riders, and I will give you rest. 

That’s the good news of the gospel. As silly as it may sound, “You are an elephant and Jesus has all the peanuts” is so much more freeing than “Keep that elephant in line, rider!”

Churches and preachers and disciples, let’s put down our guides for how to be a more effective rider and stand with Jesus while He rings the dinner bell for our deepest affections and desires.


Add yours →

  1. This train of thought seems very misleading. Where in scripture do you get a concept such as Christian hedonism? It seems as though Brandon saying that the Christian life isn’t a practice of disciple and self control. Or as if love and affection for Christ doesn’t result in a war of the will or a battle of spirit verses flesh. Or that if you are truly saved you will no longer face temptation but merely fall in a blinding love for Christ never to lust again. But that’s not true. The faith has always taught us to beat our bodies into submission (1cor. 9:27) To resist temptation and to flee from it(Gen 39). The gospel is about sacrifice. Jesus teaches its value is worth dismembering our bodies to attain it (Matthew 5:30). He tells us to abandon house and home for it (Luke 14:26). We are told to fast and pray which is a spiritual discipline involving intentional denial of basic needs to obtain wisdom and healing. Isaiah is telling people to thirst and hunger for something that truly satisfies: the life found in Christ which is made complete by participating in his life death and resurrection. That is accomplished by submitting your whole self to a way of life that is actually quite hard. It doesn’t become easy simply because you have a deeper emotional response to the idea of Christ. It gets easier when your life becomes in tune with the patterns of the Christian life taught by Christ and his apostles. Not easy in the sense of lack of effort, quite the opposite in fact. Repentance is work. And as often as we need to repent we are working out our salvation through fear and trembling. So if this article or pattern of thought does fit inline with both scripture and the teachings of the early church, how does it play out in the real world? How can the gospel help the man and the elephant? Other than to make them both aware of their need for healing.

    • I am not saying that there is not self-denial and putting desires to death in the Christian life. There certainly is that. But the key is that we are denying surface desires to fulfill deeper desires, and that’s where Christian hedonism comes in–we want the deeper desire for peace, so we trust Jesus to provide that for us instead of the bottom of a liquor bottle, etc. It’s still pursuing pleasure, just a deeper and more fulfilling pleasure than the surface things we grab onto for dear life.
      And the idea is all over the Bible. Isaiah 55:1-3. Psalm 16:4,11. Psalm 107:9. John 6. Matt 13:44. Psalm 63:1-8.

      And I literally teach Luke 9:23 along with these verses in Recovery:)

      Hope California is treating you guys well.

  2. Exactly…you did not say anything about self denial or repentance. You implied that if we simply realize that Jesus is better than sin then we won’t want to sin and life will be easier. Also Hedonism is a belief that self indulgent sensuality is the key life. To suggest that as Christians we should become self indulgent in Christ isn’t quite the same as the idea of denying our selfishness to become like Christ. Yes you could argue that being selfless will bring peace and joy, which is a form of pleasure, but I don’t think the phrase Christian Hedonist really paints a realistic picture of the Christian life. So let’s look to these verses that speak of finding our basic needs met in Christ. Christ taught us that He fills our hungers through his body and blood and thus we take part in communion. And when we take communion we are reminded of this truth, that we rely on him for fulfillment. The early church understood this and they practiced it regularly because it’s true and it keeps us reminded/focused on that truth. But they also believed that before you could participate in communion you had to have recently confessed your sins, because they understood that confessing also frees you from the burden of sin. So a combination of confessing and ingesting the bread of life you are letting go of your burdens and filling yourself with the peace that comes with life in Christ. So instead of Christ holding the peanuts he is the peanuts. But knowing that doesn’t make the war between flesh and spirit easy or relaxed. I often wrestle with what Christ said about his yoke being easy and his burden being light. I know that Christ is better than the distractions and the surface level indulgences, but if I really believed it, my actions would be different. So by believing it I am denying my flesh and I am taking action against something deep within in me. In this action that was sparked by faith, I find peace. By the way are you considering Luke 9:23 exhausting?

    But maybe we are just on two different pages. Who are you really talking to? Are you trying to explain to the unsaved that to find salvation you don’t have to work very hard, you just need to look at this thing from a whole different angle; an angle that will provide pleasure beyond your wildest dreams? Or are you trying to explain to those who have been baptized but have become confused on how to pursue holiness?
    Either way if you look at those who have established the church and those who have glorified Christ through their lives, you will see a pattern of people who deny life’s pleasures and are dedicated to the betterment of others. More often than not these people are even killed for the faith. And the scriptures tell us that they will even lay their crowns (rewards) down at the feet of Jesus. So how does the concept of hedonism fit into all of this. I don’t think its that God is glorified by our satisfaction in him, but that God is glorified when we glorify Him no matter what. That in the face of death we glorify him, that we seek out the betterment of others, that in every instance we put on Christ and deny the elephant.
    So what does it mean to be an effective rider anyway? Love God with your mind body and soul. Love your neighbor. Deny your self. Confess. Repent. Fast. Serve. Pray. Take Communion. Meet together regularly. Feed the Hungry. Take care of widows and orphans. Are you really suggesting that we should stop participating in these things so that we can find rest and peace in Christ? Or are you saying we should realize that just because the elephant exists and sometimes gets it’s way, doesn’t mean these things aren’t working?

    And California is great. Thanks for asking.

    • David, to be honest I’m very confused because you are saying lots of things I did not argue nor address in the post. Of course I’m not saying we should stop doing hard things like caring for orphans or feeding the hungry. In fact, those things are exactly what we’ll do as we deny our surface desires for comfort to fulfill our deeper desires of finding satisfaction in Christ. And even being martyred for the faith would be seeking the deeper pleasure of being united with Christ in his death over the surface desire of comfort. The key that you seem to be misunderstanding is that when you choose the hard thing (self-denial of a comfort or pleasure), you can think of it as actually pursuing a deeper pleasure (peace, contentment, unity with Christ, etc.), not simply denying pleasure.

      I don’t think we really disagree, so I’ll just stop there.

      • So in short, is your original post simply saying “if we just realized that there is a great reward after all this hard exhausting work, it wouldn’t seem so exhausting?”

        • That’s part of it. Also that even the self-denial and daily dying to ourselves is a pleasure and joy in itself (so not just that we get pleasure at the end in heaven).

          • Well the more I read this post the less I am convinced that it makes any sense. Again I may just not get the analogy; the driver and the elephant represent the spirit and the flesh correct? The spirit is trying to do the right thing and the elephant is trying to satisfy the desires of the flesh? If so, then you seem to be telling people that you can’t convince the elephant sin is bad so quit trying so hard, just enjoy how good God is and eventually the elephant will just starve itself. Is this correct so far? So here is the conflict; how can you do that without starving the elephant? After all you are the elephant. How is living a disciplined life the same as being self righteous? You really seem to be contradicting yourself. How can you condemn the people who are exhausted for fighting the good fight and those whom cheer them on and then say that it’s also necessary? For those who are truly living a sacrificial life for the sake of righteousness it seems like their suffering will soon turn to joy for sure, but why go so far as to tell them they are doing it wrong because it is in fact very difficult? After all we can’t serve two masters. Also, Consider the sermon on the Mount; we see a consistent cause and effect ; action = reward. But those actions are not always easy and sometimes lead to death. So for those who suffer are you really trying to convince them they just don’t get it; that Jesus doesn’t want them to be so self righteous? Or should you rather encourage them that their suffering will lead to reward (not necessarily in this life). I’m not saying that God doesn’t give peace and joy to those who trust in Him, but we need to paint a clear picture not just a pretty one.

            • David, at this point I am beyond confused. Let’s talk in some other format if you want to continue the conversation. I think you have read in a lot of things I did not intend. And no, I was not thinking of the elephant as the Spirit and the rider as the flesh.

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