A couple of weeks ago I hosted my church community group for the first time. Perhaps overeager to be a good host due to my lack of experience, I kept puttering around, opening the door, taking coats, and making sure everyone had something to drink.
About half an hour into the evening, one of my friends said something to the effect of, “Daniel, people will get their own food and drink. Don’t feel like you have to do it for them — it’s not sustainable.” There was a good-natured, half-joking spirit in his statement, but I think he did mean it on some level.
A few days later, we met again as a group at the home of one our church elders. He had been preparing for our arrival when I showed up early, and, while he did not get overly involved in our business, he made sure everything was as it needed to be. And this was not an isolated case of his helpfulness. This man has leaped at the opportunity to serve his guests whenever I’ve been at his house.
The juxtaposition of my friend’s statement on the one hand and the elder’s actions on the other got me thinking about our current era of strong emphasis on sustainability and self-care. I think these are very important, but I am also concerned that perhaps they are being held up out of balance. Imagine a spectrum with “Fast Track to Burnout” on one end, “Laziness” on the other, and “Sustainability” in a hard-to-identify spot in the middle. It is my sense that our general cultural bent is currently toward laziness in the name of sustainability.
(Now for the part of the show where I quote a bunch of books I’ve never read!)
In his book Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, M.T. Anderson gives a fascinating insight into the connection between activity and survival during the city’s 900-day siege during WWII: “Strangely enough, doctors and nurses noted that activity actually prolonged life, when it should have shortened it. Those who lay down and tried to conserve energy often were the ones who trailed off and died first” (p. 302). In the face of one of the most difficult situations imaginable, it was not those who took the easier route who were more likely to survive; it was those who kept up their activity.
In a similar vein, David Whyte writes in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, “You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest? … The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” I was first introduced to this quote while listening to an episode of the Enneacast on self-care featuring Chuck DeGroat, and it has stuck with me ever since. To be completely honest, I don’t know exactly what it means (but as I was researching for this post, I found out that DeGroat has written a book about it). But at minimum, I think it must mean that shying away from service and bingeing on Netflix instead is not the way to ensure a fulfilling and sustainable lifestyle. Rather, in dedicating ourselves more fully to what God has called us to, we find joy and strength to carry on.
This post is not necessarily a call for a radical shift in how we live as much as it is an invitation to self-examination and possible re-centering. We all have natural tendencies, some toward workaholism, some toward avoiding work as much as possible. And in Jesus we see an example of the balance to which I believe God has called us.
Jesus was God; Jesus was a servant. He says of Himself that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). He washed His disciples’ feet, not in spite of His position of power, but because of it. The One who had the best possible excuse not to be troubled with serving others was the one who most consistently served.
Jesus did not always help everyone, though. Luke records how “great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:15b-16 ESV). I think it is key to note what Jesus’s source of self-care was — it was spending time with His Father. Building on Jesus’s statements in John 5:19 and 30, 8:28, and 12:49, Paul E. Miller writes that “if you know that you, like Jesus, can’t do life on your own, then prayer makes complete sense” (A Praying Life, p. 44). It is in spending time with our loving Father that the worries and wounds of life are heard, are held, are soothed.
So when do we take time for self-care and when do we extend ourselves to serve others? It is rarely, if ever, cut-and-dry. One time Jesus takes a boat to get away from the crowds, and they follow him on foot. When He arrives on the other side of the lake, He does not say “no, I can’t help right now, this is my ‘me time.'” Instead, “when he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14 ESV). This passage seems to echo the exhortation of the prophet Isaiah: “if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:10 NIV). This passage always gives me pause — am I truly spending myself on behalf of others, or am I merely helping when it is convenient for me? I can hear the words of Matt Chandler ringing in my ears: “We are to have our lives wrung out.”
So what is the point? Well, there are a couple key ones I want to reinforce:
- I could definitely be wrong, but it is my sense that our culture generally leans towards the pole of laziness rather than the pole of a truly unsustainable dedication to service.
- Burnout is real and is not good! Self-care is important, and sustainability is necessary.
- Our perception of what self-care is is skewed in many cases. We often substitute escapism and mind-numbing for true self-care. True self-care sometimes involves difficult self-examination. And prayer is essential for self-care, because the answer to the problems in me cannot be found in me.
- Jesus is our ultimate example of a sustainable servant who spent Himself on behalf of others and found His strength in His Father.
The final take-away: I would encourage you to take some time to look at your life and examine your natural tendencies. Do you take time to rest and pray, or are you always writing another email and finishing another report? Alternatively, are you overly zealous about conserving your energy, which perhaps manifests itself in hours of mind numbing on your phone or excessive sleeping? (True confessions: I am guilty of both!) Look into the resources in the links above — I will hopefully get around to all of them myself at some point! And ultimately, my encouragement is to look to Jesus, not so you can try to emulate Him through your own effort, but so that you can reach out to Him for help in living the abundant life He offers, a life of joyful service in full dependence on the Father.