When my husband and I lived and worked overseas, we often heard people (especially older missionaries) say, “Well, I’d rather burn out than rust out.” The context was nearly always a situation that was requiring a colleague to push harder than seemed healthy. The advice was simple: it’s better to burn yourself out until there’s nothing left than to sit around and do nothing for God, rusting out from a lack of use.
Whenever this phrase came up, my husband and I would lock eyes, the panic thinly veiled on our faces. The people saying this were our bosses, our leaders, our mentors. But, the question that rose up in each of us was: Can we have Option C? The anxiety grew for me when I saw in practical fact that for most of the people I was working with, there really were only two options, and many people overseas were choosing Option A.
I am not sure in my years of living overseas if I ever heard the term “self-care.” I certainly didn’t practice it regularly or well. I felt guilty taking Sabbaths and wasn’t even sure what a 24 hour period of rest would look like for me. When I would block off a Sabbath, inevitably a special meeting was called. Exercise, due to heat and the cultural context where I lived, didn’t feel very feasible. So, rather than finding a workable solution, I walked laps inside my own home until I felt dizzy–hating my home and the exercise. Growing as a person, embracing new hobbies and habits, reading books that had nothing to do with ministry but everything to do with my own soul? None of these made the list of things to do. For years. Without meaning to, I found myself living out Option A.
God started doing something new for us in 2011. A friend at a conference recommended a book that changed our lives (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero). At the same conference, we heard Timothy Tennent, the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, speak. I got pregnant with our second son. We started telling some of the truth about how tired we were and how unsustainable our lives were. We began dreaming again about what we wanted our lives to look like.
We didn’t expect to, but we found ourselves having our second son in the States, rather than in East Africa (looking back, I’m so grateful). In another unexpected turn of events, we found ourselves in seminary.
Four years later, God is teaching us his Option C. We find ourselves living in a community that values honesty and authenticity, that talks about developing a theology of the body and making formative decisions, that values holiness in daily life while making space to explore the depths of brokenness we had discovered within and coming to Christ for healing. Not all expressions of Christianity end with a choice between burning out or rusting out.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned about self-care in my four years in this community include:
God is not looking for people willing to burn themselves out for him.
He has good works prepared for each of us to do; it’s our job to know him and listen to him so we can discern what those works are. The plan God has for us isn’t easy, and it doesn’t allow us to sidestep suffering; some of us will suffer to the point of death, as the Bible witnesses. But it is perfectly tailored to us as individuals, and his presence with us during trials and hardships carries us through.
Caring for myself is not rusting out.
Just as a Sabbath happens once every seven days and is surrounded by days of hard, appropriate work, self-care happens in the midst of a full life. Self-care isn’t lazy and has never meant mindlessly sitting on the couch doing nothing (keyword: mindlessly!). Caring for oneself requires thought, planning and discernment. Good self-care means that finances and relationships with family members and work are all in order so that time off, time away, isn’t done irresponsibly. Self-care takes effort.
My plan for self-care isn’t yours, and vice versa.
It isn’t an accident that the first two lessons I mentioned about self-care include discernment. Some leisure activities that my husband actively engages in for self-care drain me, and leave my soul frayed. In learning to know my own soul, at different seasons of life, I learn what I need and don’t need. After reading textbook upon textbook, my husband needs to lose himself in a good story on the Sabbath, and he chooses audio books and novels that help him enter into a new world. I read quickly and can tend to “over-read” in the same way some people overeat. Silence is a more appropriate form of self-care for me on a regular basis than one more novel.
Self-care involves others.
This is a new lesson for me. I’ve been a member and a leader of plenty of small groups. I’ve had accountability partners and prayer partners. Yet if I’m honest, those relationships had more to do with cognitive growth in spiritual matters than the care of my soul. I’m only now learning the place of spiritual friends and spiritual guides in my self-care. A spiritual director, a pastor, a spiritual friend, a group of peers seeking spiritual maturity: all of these people figure in to my self-care equation. Some of them are directly involved and others act as sounding boards when I’m struggling to find the balance. Some of them tell me the hard truth when I err into burning out or rusting out; some are alongside me to encourage me. My self-care is not planned for or carried out in a vacuum.
Self-care is worth the effort.
That panic I felt when people would mention burning out or rusting out doesn’t bother me anymore. I know God hasn’t given those of us in his family an either/or choice: either serve God to the point of self-destruction or do nothing. Instead, the invitation from Him is much better: serve God, and do so while respecting all those involved—yourself and those to whom you are ministering. Learning how to implement the care of my own soul and body has been a hard-won lesson in my life. I haven’t learned it perfectly and still wrestle with the best way to make room for self-care while doing the good work God has given me to do.
What about you? How have you learned to care for yourself? What lessons have you learned along the way?
Elizabeth Peterson is a regular contributor to the Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Elizabeth!
Image attribution: Lucy Claxton and Rose Horridge / Thinkstock