It actually happened to me once. When I was a student at UCLA, I spent the night at my sister’s house in Manhattan Beach. I got up super early to make my shift stocking shelves at the Ralph’s grocery store in Century City before going to class. Driving north on the surprisingly traffic-free 405, a Jackson Browne song was blasting on the radio when the big event took place: I ran out of gas to the tune of, “Running on Empty.”
“Running on empty, running blind, looking into the sun but I’m running behind.”—Jackson Browne
Running on empty is something I’ve done a lot of in my life. One of my college friends told me it took him a while to face the fact that if he was going to ride in my car he needed to accept that I didn’t mind running out of gas. I asked him how many times have I run out of gas with him in the car? He said, “Let’s just say more than once.”
I’ve been financially challenged, paying my way through college, graduate school, starting churches, having kids—for years I didn’t want to die with too much gas in the car, (That would be poor stewardship!) Pushing an old beater, or taking a walk with a gas can is good exercise.
Years ago I bought Lori a 1966 Mustang coupe for her birthday. It’s a great car, but we have never been able to get the gas gauge to work. I cannot tell you the number of times we ran out of gas in that car—AAA might have a record. It’s simple math, fill it up, add 150 miles and re-fuel before you hit that number on the odometer. We still managed to be running on empty and running blind.
We don’t drive that car anymore. Actually it’s for sale! (Make me an offer!) We’ve matured. I’ve grown to the point where I realize I don’t need the stress or the angst of running down the road on empty.
I still slip into running on empty in other ways though. Physically sometimes I push it too hard, travel too much, and sleep too little. Financially, we’ve set up our emergency fund so we’re not facing too much month with too little money too often. But it still happens every once in a while. Relationally I can get disconnected from friends, family, even my wife if I’m not intentional about it.
And spiritually, I think a lot of us end up running on empty.
Jackson Browne may have been on to it when he wrote:
Everyone I know, everywhere I go
People need some reason to believe
I don't know about anyone but me…
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
Are you running on empty?
Most of us really want to do what we were meant to do spiritually. We were made for a purpose. We were created to influence the people that God has strategically, sovereignly, even supernaturally put into our lives.
But a lot of us are just exhausted. Life gets crazy. Work, marriage, kids, kids’ activities, kid’s sports, there’s an election I’m trying to keep up on, extended family stuff, and if there is ever a crisis, or even a mini-crisis, we catch ourselves running on empty.
How can we keep from running out of gas?
One story from the life and teaching of Jesus gives us some insight. In Mark chapter 9 Jesus had just taken Peter, James and John up on a mountain where he was transfigured—this was a picture of heaven with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It was an incredible spiritual high, a vision of the future, a powerful moment. They came down the mountain and ran into powerlessness.
As they approached the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and some scribes arguing with them. The whole crowd was very surprised to see Jesus and ran to welcome him.
He asked the scribes, “What are you arguing about with them?” A man in the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you. He has a spirit that won’t let him talk. Whenever it brings on a seizure, it throws him to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes stiff. So I asked your disciples to drive the spirit out, but they didn’t have the power.”—Mark 9:14-18 (ISV)
Jesus’ disciples didn’t have the power. They were running on empty. And this obviously annoyed Jesus.
Jesus told them, “You unbelieving generation! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him to me!”—Mark 9:19 (ISV)
Jesus had just experienced heaven, and then he came to earth only to see his disciples in the midst of a failure.
So they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into convulsions. He fell on the ground and kept rolling around and foaming at the mouth. Then Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” He said, “Since he was a child. The spirit has often thrown him into fire and into water to destroy him. But if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us!” Jesus told him, “‘If you are able?’—Mark 9:20-23 (ISV)
Again Jesus seems perturbed, “If you are able?” Are you kidding me? It is almost as if he is saying, “Casting out demons is beginner work. My disciples should have been able to handle this kids’ stuff!”
Jesus told him, “‘If you are able?’ Everything is possible for the person who believes!”
With tears flowing, the child’s father at once cried out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”—Mark 9:23-24 (ISV)
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that won’t let him talk or hear—I command you to come out of him and never enter him again!” The spirit screamed, shook the child violently, and came out. The boy was like a corpse, and many said that he was dead. But Jesus took his hand and helped him up, and he stood up.—Mark 9:25-27
The disciples can’t perform the exorcism, so Jesus steps in and immediately cures the boy.
When Jesus came home, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive the spirit out?”—Mark 9:28
Great question: Why didn’t we have the power? Why were we so empty? How to we make sure this doesn’t happen again? Jesus gives a surprising answer:
He told them, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.”—Mark 9:14-29 (ISV)
Jesus concludes that the key to tapping into His power is prayer and fasting.
The way to never be empty is to empty ourselves. That is so counter-intuitive. We are never empty if we empty ourselves. We need to be prayed up and fasted up in order to be filled up.
Prayer is powerful.
The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.—James 5:16 (TMV)
Fasting is powerful.
Dan Allendar put it this way: “Fasting from any nourishment, activity, involvement or pursuit—for any season—sets the stage for God to appear. Fasting is not a tool to pry wisdom out of God's hands or to force needed insight about a decision. Fasting is not a tool for gaining discipline or developing piety (whatever that might be). Instead, fasting is the bulimic act of ridding ourselves of our fullness to attune our senses to the mysteries that swirl in and around us."
One prescription to fill up our spiritual tanks involves prayer and fasting.
I think we get tripped up on this. Many of us have been led to believe that we have to pray for an hour every day in order for it to count. So, we rarely pray. It seems like too much. But check this out. How long does The Lord’s prayer take? Maybe a minute…When Jesus was asked by his followers, “Teach us to pray…” he started with a one-minute prayer.
Pray for an hour if you’d like, pray all night sometimes. But start with a minute, or two or five.
What about fasting? How long should we fast? One of our roadblocks is the first example we think of is Jesus fasting forty days and forty nights. That’s beyond the reach of…everyone. And Jesus only did that one time that we know of. Twenty five times the Bible mentions fasting, and only once was it for forty days.
How about starting by fasting for a meal? Or dessert? Or a snack?
Our primary strategy for starting new churches comes from Acts 13:
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
We spot church planters, set them up for success, send them out and support them. And we’ve started over a hundred churches over the past few years all over North America.
The most important phrase in this passage is, “The Holy Spirit said…” That is really cool. God showed up.
But you can’t orchestrate that, right? You can’t arrange for the Holy Spirit to speak. Or maybe you can. This passage gives us a hint at what we can do to encourage the Holy Spirit to show up, and it gives us the hint twice: The people fasted and prayed.
This year I decided to get intentional about it. I’ve made a commitment, and I’m asking the people on our leadership team, advisory team, all the church planters and every supporter to fast and pray during one meal a week seeking the Holy Spirit to show up in our network.
One meal a week. Anybody can do that.
I ran out of gas to the song, “Running on Empty.” I was actually able to coast off of the freeway right into a gas station. I remember pumping the gas with a huge smile on my face.
When we run out of gas spiritually it isn’t always without consequences. Maybe others are counting on us—like the poor man coming to the disciples with his troubled son. If I’m out of gas it might mean bad news for myself and others, so I need to get and stay filled up.
The good news is, when we run out of gas spiritually God has a filling station that we can coast into no matter where we are. He’s available and he wants to fill us up.