It’s pretty common for Christian leaders to encourage believers to do more. They say we need to quicken our pace, dedicate more of our time, talents, money and efforts to serving the Lord in the local church and in evangelistic outreach at home and abroad.
I welcome this “don’t waste your life” message to up the pace, and I rejoice in its positive impact on thousands of Christians. Some of us, though, need to hear a different message:
“Slow your pace or you’ll never finish the race.”
As Brady Boyd warns in Addicted to Busy, “Ultimately, every problem I see in every person I know is a problem of moving too fast for too long in too many aspects of life.”
I’m not proposing that we put our feet up and opt out of life and Christian service. I’m talking about being sensitive to changes in ourselves and our circumstances and re-calibrating our pace to ensure personal sustainability.
Such pacing skills are in short supply among Christians, with the result that too many are crashing or fading fast before their race is over. It’s not just a “Christian” problem though; it’s also a culture problem. There are 225 million workdays lost every year in the United States due to stress; that’s a million people not working every working day.
“But I’m young, energetic and healthy. Why should I care about burnout and sustainability?” Every victim of burnout will tell you that unhealthy patterns of living and working that they learned in their youth caused their downfall later in life.
And if any group is in danger today, it’s the Millennial generation, whose stress levels are higher than the national average, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. Thirty-nine percent of Millennials say their stress has increased in the past year, and 52 percent say stress about work, money and relationships has kept them awake at night in the past month, with one in five clinically depressed or stressed out and needing medication.
In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I explore a number of ways in which we can build personal sustainability. Three of the most relevant for the younger generation are: improved sleep, a regular Sabbath and recovering our God-given identity.
According to the Institute of Medicine, just one week of sleeping fewer than six hours a night results in damaging changes to more than seven hundred genes, coronary narrowing and signs of brain tissue loss. The latter is partly because sleep activates the brain’s garbage disposal system, cleaning out toxins and waste products. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with increased risk of infection, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and infertility.
In short, sleeping is not a useless waste of time, but an essential biological need that prevents infection and helps us maintain healthy bodies. And it’s not just the body that benefits; sleep improves our brains, strengthens our resolve, elevates our emotions, improves our finances and enhances our spiritual lives too. Sleep is a gift from our gracious God to be received with gratitude and used for his glory and our good (Psalm 3:5; 4:8; 127:2).
Even secular sources are increasingly recognizing the need for a weekly Sabbath. The Atlantic’s article The Case for the Sabbath Even if You’re Not Religious argues for a Sabbath even if God has nothing to do with it by promoting the social, psychological and productivity benefits of a weekly day of rest. The Sabbath Manifesto was developed by “artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living.” They urge “one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, get outdoors and get with loved ones.
How much more beneficial is a weekly Sabbath if we put its maker at the center of it (Mark 2:27-28). As Jesus said, it’s a gift, not a threat. It’s a time for healing the body, the mind, the soul, and our relationships with God and others. It’s God’s way not just of providing us with margin but of providing us with a spiritual and eternal perspective on our lives.
Recovering Our Identity
Contrary to the warnings of the identity theft protection industry, Russian phishers, Nigerian widows and Chinese hackers are the least of our problems. We all face far more dangerous identity thieves that are far more difficult to detect. Pride, commercials, Hollywood, social media, parental pressure, success, disappointment, failure, the Devil, aging, bereavement, the Church and so on have been far more successful at stealing our identities than any online thieves.
They’re more dangerous because they steal the answer to the second most important question in the world: “Who am I?” (The first being “Who is God?”). Our answer to that question about our basic identity impacts everything in our lives: our self-image, our health, our spirituality, our ethics, our roles and relationships, our careers, and our view of the past, the present and the future. Answer it right, and we flourish.
Answer it wrong, and we wither.
One of the great aims of the apostle Paul was to help us recover and restore our God-given identities. Throughout his letters he teaches us how to re-define ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us. This includes taking our default self-descriptions and re-ordering them using God’s priorities, filling in gaps in our identity, prosecuting falsehoods, re-framing failure, accepting change, and anticipating our future heavenly identity. By doing so, we not only change our thoughts for the better, but our feelings, our words and our actions, too.
So while we’re all taking positive steps to ensure the planet’s sustainability, let’s also make progress on the personal sustainability front. There’s no point in securing the planet’s future if it’s at the expense of our own.