Usually, when we think of ministering to others, it is out of the overflow of our lives. What usually motivates us is the abundance of joy in the Lord and a desire to be used by him to bless others in need. But what happens when we feel physically tired, emotionally drained, and spiritually dry?
Too often we find ourselves feeling guilty—for not ministering more, or praying more, or studying the Bible more. That guilt can quickly turn to shame and a poor self-image. We often
believe the lies we tell ourselves as we compare our good works with others’ and come up short.
During his TED Talk, “Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid,” Dr. Guy Winch, psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid, explains what happens to most people when conflicted. “We all start thinking of all our faults and all our shortcomings, what we wish we were, what we wish we weren’t. We call ourselves names. Maybe not as harshly, but we all do it. And it’s interesting that we do, because our self-esteem is already hurting. Why would we want to go and damage it even further? We wouldn’t make a physical injury worse on purpose. You wouldn’t get a cut on your arm and decide, ‘Oh! I know—I’m going to take a knife and see how much deeper I can make it.’”
As a church, we seldom teach that we should prioritize our psychological health. Caring for ourselves emotionally is often viewed as laziness. Self-care mistakenly labels a person as shutdown, or worse, self-absorbed.
What does this concept of self-care mean anyway? Simply put, it involves staying mindful of our well-being. In school, my teachers called it paying attention to the discussions in class. As an adult, self-management and personal care is part of our emotional intelligence.
There is a difference between living a well-balanced, healthy life and practicing spiritual disciplines. A well-balanced life develops practices that don’t necessarily involve God. Reading, napping, and eating healthily are all good disciplines.
Spiritual formation, on the other hand, develops the pursuing of God. For believers, framing good soul-care practices often overlap with our spiritual formation. Attending to our limitations and needs is stewarding and caring for God’s creation, our human body. It is for that reason, we should respect and take care of how God designed us.
When I counsel Christians who feel stressed out and exhausted, our discussions often lead to self-care and what it means to depend upon the Lord for his perspectives in life. I remind them God has provided everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3), yet we live our lives, many times, as if it’s not enough.
See the Warning Signs
When it comes to navigating our lives, God created us with indicators. Merely ignoring warning signs is clear evidence of the many distractions in our lives. Why would we ever, for example,
ignore a red warning light on the dash of our car indicating a need for oil? Or why would we ignore the flashing lights of a state trooper behind our car suggesting we have broken the law by speeding?
God gave us feelings to tell us about our needs and wants. Too often, we ignore our emotions, just to go through the motions. We tend to focus on our thinking mode rather than our feeling mode of awareness. We do because we should—not because it meets a specific need or want.
When our wants fall outside our ability to fulfill them appropriately, that is when we feel the most vulnerable. We frequently ignore our feelings and spiral downward emotionally by heaping even more discouragement or rejection upon ourselves. And so we get distracted from seeking to satisfy these desires in godly ways.
Often, my clients think they have to stay productive with time, energy, and efforts. So, with that mind-set, they set themselves up for exhaustion—physically, mentally, and spiritually weary. Why are people so surprised when they feel tired and cannot go on or that the idea of burnout, as they often tell themselves, could never happen to them?
And yet, we observe domestic violence, road rage, and countless stories in our newspapers every day of people who live on edge and explode emotionally or physically in all sorts of violent ways. It seems a significant shift needs to occur in our thinking.
Slowing down means accomplishing less—being less productive in some ways—but it also means staying healthy in other ways. Our goal should involve a balanced life. In general, we often hear these words but rarely take any action steps toward that goal. Instead of focusing on productivity, perhaps we should consider how our activities and relationships affect our emotional well-being overall.
Listen to Caution
I remember counseling a married couple who complained about the many problems in their marriage. As it turned out, they had agreed to dedicate their time to their children’s sports teams and various church activities every night of the week. Stress was a significant problem. In the name of providing extra activities for their three kids and remaining committed to their church, they inadvertently started destroying their marital bond.
Not only did their marriage suffer, but so did their work performance in their jobs. They needed two incomes to live in their upscale home and maintain their luxury lifestyle. Many would look at this family on the outside and think that they had aquired the American dream. But underneath all this activity, their marriage was falling apart. Divorce rapidly grew into an option for this couple.
Too often, as a counselor, I see adults and couples who live in burnout mode in their twenties and thirties. In fact, they believe the lie that tells them if they don’t keep going, they’ll never get it.
No wonder people feel stressed and emotionally and spiritually spent. Many refuse to pay attention and see the warning signs. Why? Because our culture teaches that the external indicators, such as position, power, and financial statements, build the person. They provide self-esteem. Never mind the internal realities such as integrity, honesty, and personal responsibility.
Once, my wife, Amy, and I rented a car in Italy and found ourselves lost in Florence, two blocks away from the hotel we had booked. For over an hour, with a map, we could not figure out how to drive that last two blocks to our hotel. Frustration increased, tempers flared, and suddenly our wonderful dream vacation turned into a nightmare. So we decided to stop. We parked the car, walked to the hotel, and asked for help.
We had assumed we could drive to the hotel and park the car there. We thought we could read the map and figure it out on our own. After all, we knew the location of the hotel was nearby. It was only when when we abandoned all of our assumptions that we realized we needed help. We knew we couldn’t keep driving around in circles in a large and confusing foreign city. And yet, this is precisely what many couples in conflict with stressed-out family members think. If we keep going, we will eventually figure it all out.
As Christians, many of us seek spiritual refreshment by doing and striving instead of looking to God, his Spirit, and the truth of his Word. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:38). We need to remember that as God’s children, we have the Spirit that wells up within each of us and gives us satisfying spiritual refreshment.
Made for More
A meaningful life accepts that we are God’s creation made for so much more. We forget we do not have to earn value and worth by what we do—no! We already have it. Understanding what it means to live as his—created in his image—allows us the freedom to choose how we will live our lives for the kingdom of God.
So if our worth and value dwell on our identity in Christ and not on what we do thus, we demonstrate our love for the Lord because he first loved us, not so that he will love us. And this is precisely tied to self-care.
Perhaps one way to think about these issues is to develop a sense of awareness that constant stress and anxiety is a symptom or a result. Changes need to occur, and that starts with prayer, seeking after the Lord.
Balance in our lives leads to good stewardship of the realization that we belong to him. We need to keep telling ourselves, “It’s not all in our mind—don’t shake it off!” Respond by asking, “Lord, what do I need to say no to and what areas of self-care do I need to make a priority today?”