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Is Self-Care Un-Christian?

2 months ago written by
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Of all the people in the Bible — Jesus aside — who is your favorite?

Mine has changed over the years. As a child, I loved the boldness of Queen Esther and Miriam, the sister of Moses, and “Zacchaeus” was always fun to say too. But as I grew up and started working in full-time missions, I gravitated to revering Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers.

As a budding anti-trafficking advocate, I was naturally drawn to Joseph’s story because he is one of the first documented cases of human trafficking in the Bible. But it wasn’t Joseph’s enslavement alone that probed my intrigue. It was the way he remained faithful to God in spite of it.

To me, Joseph was the quintessential model for missionaries. Could there be a better embodiment of devotion than someone so committed to serving God that even slavery and imprisonment couldn’t deter him? To never give up on advancing God’s kingdom, even when he had good reason?

From my first step onto the mission field in rural Mexico at 21 years old, Joseph was exactly the kind of shining example I aspired to imitate. And as a young, starry-eyed missionary with astronomical expectations of myself, it backfired miserably.

Identifying that the hallmark of Joseph’s story was adversity, I came to believe that serving only counts if you’re suffering. So, when life in Mexico wasn’t “hard enough,” I moved to Cambodia to work as an anti-trafficking program manager in a precarious slum, where the only infrastructure was a series of casinos. I pledged myself to a draconian routine of working 16-hour days, seven days a week out of fear that anything less would raise questions of my spiritual integrity and commitment to the cause. After all, if Joseph never took it easy, then neither should I.

Unfortunately, this mentality had debilitating effects on my work and health. Because I didn’t know what it was like to be sold into slavery, I interpreted “carrying my cross” to mean finding the heaviest, thorniest, most cumbersome cross I could find. I believed I had to suffer in order to understand the suffering of the people I served. Splinters and pain weren’t byproducts according to my theological interpretation — they were the objective. After all, to be Christian is to suffer, and to serve is to be met by tribulations … right?

As it turns out, my triumphalized approach to missions left me running on empty, which wasn’t making the world around me a better place. If anything, it made things worse. The more I tried to lug around the most burdensome cross I could find, the less energy I had to serve, the less capacity I had to love. I was too drained from trying to carry other people’s burdens, too mechanized to feel connected to the cause, too depressed to have hope for the very people I was trying to help.

Striving to be a Joseph wasn’t working for me. But what was my alternative?

Is There Room for Self-Care in Ministry?

Many churches and faith-based charities preach a gospel of martyrdom. Some fetishize suffering, as if it were the standard by which we should measure our performance as Christians, as if salvation is something to be earned through relentless labor. Much like my approach in Cambodia, some churches may unconsciously promote actively seeking out austere circumstances to prove allegiance to God.

Secular culture bolsters this doctrine of self-sacrifice by glorifying busyness. From our schools to our workplaces to our relationships, we focus on “doing” not “being.” We introduce ourselves to new acquaintances by telling them what we do for a living. When a friend asks how we’ve been, we answer, “Oh, been busy.” And when we sense we’re not doing enough, we’re consumed with guilt.

When we do take time off work, we still feel the need to pack as much activity in to our precious days off to “make the most out of it.” You probably know of the feeling of needing a vacation to recover from your vacation, don’t you? Even when it’s an appropriate time for it, we still demonize rest.

This sensationalized narrative has grave consequences, especially for those at the frontlines of missions and justice work. We commission our missionaries to be saviors, sending them out into the broken places of the world with a convoluted sense of self-righteousness and an unrealistic standard to live by—and then we’re shocked when they burn out or even turn away from their faith.

When we misinterpret service as martyrdom, those of us who are called to serve those living at the margins are led to believe that “self-care” is a double curse: two four-letter words conjoined by a vile hyphen. We are convinced our vocation is incompatible with such trite affairs as rest and recreation. We consider joy and service to be mutual exclusives.

This was certainly my experience early on in my anti-trafficking career. Working for sanctimonious organizations that glorified selflessness to an unhealthy extent, I concluded that anything distracting even a fraction of my attention from full-time service must be “selfish.” Taking 15-minute lunch breaks wasn’t worth the scornful stares and guilt-inducing comments from veteran co-workers. Militant supervisors boasting about going three years without any time off left me feeling that vacations weren’t an option. It’s simply not what good, committed Christian justice workers do.

It took me a few years of wading through the quagmire of self-immolating justice organizations to realize what a catch-22 we were creating. The faith-based nonprofits I worked for would constantly preach that good stewardship is about managing financial resources well, without acknowledging that stewardship also encompasses good management of our well-being. This distorted viewpoint gradually became confusing to me. How can taking care of ourselves be antithetical to Christianity? How can making an idol out of work be holy?

All of us want to leave a legacy of loyalty: as a Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers; a Paul, who was shipwrecked and persecuted; or a Daniel, who was thrown into the lion’s den — all of whom continued fervently to serve God. There’s a reason why we grew up studying these people in Sunday school, why our churches love to spotlight them: they’re excellent examples of obedience to God despite enormous political, economic, social and spiritual barriers.

But there’s a danger of putting these people on pedestals if it means creating a one-sided story of what it means to follow Jesus. When we send the message that practicing self-compassion is un-Christian, we are ignoring some very critical biblical values.

Martyrdom Is a Trust Issue

At the outset of my journey in missions, I treated boundaries as if they were a deterrent to connecting with the people I came to serve. I expected my clients to be open about their pain, yet I tried to outrun my own vulnerability at all costs. I held space for them to speak their needs, but refused to allow myself to confess my own. I was convinced of a hypocritical paradox: that it’s noble to give help but weakness to receive it.

When I finally hit the point of burnout while serving in Cambodia, you’d think I would’ve learned my lesson. Admitting to myself that I needed help was a big step for me, but I still couldn’t admit it to God or others. Instead, I protected my pride by trying to heal on my own. Rather than inviting God and my community into my brokenness, I continued to hide behind my veneer of tenacity in determination to “save myself.” I became more and more isolated, turning further from the very things that would bring me healing.

There’s a deeper problem behind denying our finiteness. Ultimately, it’s about believing that God may be big enough to solve other people’s problems, but not ours. It’s a breakdown of trust.

And yet, throughout the Bible, God continually reminds hurting and doubtful people of God’s benevolence, power and love: that God is always with us (Joshua 1:9), that God will never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6), that God will strengthen and help us (Isaiah 41:10), that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:39).

Perhaps nowhere else in the Bible does God more bluntly remind us who’s really in charge than in God’s encounter with Job. “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion’s belt?” God facetiously asks of Job, “Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the bear with its cubs? … Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?” (Job 38:31–32, 34–35).

We expect too much of ourselves. We think we’re supposed to have all the answers. We’re convinced we’re supposed to defy human limits. And yet it was God who ordered the seasons, who framed the earth with mountains and the skies with stars. It was God who stitched our bones together and put breath in our lungs, who defined justice and brought love into the world. And it still is God on whom we depend for direction, endurance and renewal.

Believing we have to do it alone is more than a faith and trust issue. It’s also a worthiness issue. We might believe God is powerful enough to heal us, but we fear we aren’t worth it.

I’ve seen this consistently in my work with the Set Free Movement, where I’ve met survivors of human trafficking from Illinois to Greece to the Philippines. Each survivor’s experience is unique, but a common theme weaves itself into their stories. In most cases, they’ve come to the tragic conclusion that they are unworthy. They tell themselves that because they’ve done bad things, they are bad. Some even turned from an opportunity to leave their exploiters because they had lost all sense of their value. They live in paralyzing shame.

Few of us know what it’s like to be trafficked, but all of us know what it’s like to confuse sin or weakness with worthlessness. We derive our value not from being children of God, but from our productivity and performance. We equate our mistakes with failure, not “doing enough” with not being “good enough.” And in doing so, we break God’s heart.

A Well-Watered Garden

When I hear pastors preaching from Isaiah 58, most often they focus on the first half of the chapter: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).

They are right to preach that message. In fact, we need more churches who understand that seeking justice is indivisible from being a follower of Jesus. But we can’t only talk about the seeking justice part — the action part, the part where we’re in control, where we’re getting the job done.

We need to meditate on the being part, where God takes care of us: “The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

I’d always heard that God wanted me to suffer. Seldom had I heard that God wanted me to thrive, to be whole. When I read this last half of Isaiah 58, I see that God isn’t necessarily asking me to sacrifice my health or serve to the point of depletion. God is asking me to help others while pointing out that I need to keep the Sabbath, that I need replenishing to sustain my service, and that God will do that replenishing for me.

Rest, play and joy are not only OK in the Christian faith and in service — they are necessary in order to balance the weight of our work. Rest is holy. Didn’t Jesus retreat to the wilderness to pray and find peace? Didn’t the Creator of the universe rest on the seventh day? Aren’t we reminded that God’s yoke is easy, that God’s burden is light (Matthew 11:30). That just as much as there is a time to work and serve, there is a time to rest (Ecclesiastes 3)?

A New Model

These days, if you asked me who my favorite person in the Bible would be today, I’ll still tell you I admire the characteristics of people like Joseph or Paul or Daniel. But today, I’d probably choose Elijah.

The miracles God performed through Elijah were impressive. (Come on; when was the last time you brought down fire from the sky?) But the most profound part of Elijah’s story is what happened after his grandiose performances: when he fled. When he collapsed in a state of exhaustion. When he couldn’t take care of his own needs, so God had to send ravens and angels to feed him.

Elijah wasn’t a failure or the token example of missions gone wrong. He shows the humanness of engaging in ministry. He is a reminder that all of us were created with limits — not to demoralize or incapacitate us but to turn us toward the One who created us.

Katie Bergman is the director of operations and communications for the Set Free Movement, a Free Methodist nonprofit organization intervening in human trafficking. She is the author of “When Justice Just Is” and co-author of “Urban Shalom: Restoring Hope and Justice to Communities Affected by Modern Slavery.” Between travels, she lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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[Feature] · God · L + L October 2017 · Magazine

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