In this essay, I want to explore the question of Nourishment in relation to Service. The central question will be, “How should we care for ourselves, and how should we care for others? How are these related? In short, what is the gold standard for Christian ministry? How do we address the controversy surrounding “self care” as a secular practice?

This is an important question for Christian women, many of whom see all of life as a form of ministry – serving others and loving others as Jesus has loved us. I had a friend who grew up in a homeschool family and heard the message of “dying to self” all her life. She saw herself as a keeper of the home even before marriage, and finally, when she got married and began to have children, believed it was very important for her to keep serving and sacrificing all the time. 

“Self-care is such a selfish, worldly, concept”, she would say, “You shouldn’t need to ignore your messy house and crying children to sit down with chocolate somewhere to rest. The Bible calls you to die to self.”

So many young women have imbibed this message, the conclusion being that if you are overwhelmed and exhausted, you need to push yourself more. Even when she was pregnant, she would ask online friends for motivation to keep doing the work she believed she needed to do.

“Maybe your body is telling you that you need rest,” I said.

She forced herself to get up and ended up absolutely drained and feeling sick at the end of the day, all because she believed that serving at the point of  exhaustion was the kind of death to self, death to the flesh, that Jesus required.

Defining “The Flesh”

There are two different “deaths” we think about in the Christian life: the death to the old self in baptism, followed by newness of life (Romans 6). Then, there is martyrdom – when your life is stolen from you because of your faith. Christ said, “Take up your cross and follow me”, which can be related to both of these. Firstly, we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection and are born again into His Kingdom. Secondly, there is a very real risk that we will be hated and persecuted as Jesus’s followers, especially if we are faithful to His gospel of peace.

There is a third aspect of “taking up your cross”.  I’ve written about this previously, but the essence of this concept is that  we are called to live a martyred life, to “deny ourselves daily” as Jesus commanded (Mark 8:34-35). This is absolutely something we need to think about seriously as followers of Jesus, and something that is a consistent message across the Scriptures. Yet, when it comes down to practice, many Christians end up like the young mother I described, thinking that “denying the flesh” means to deny themselves rest. Self-abgenation, self-flagellation, suffering, torture, and torment then become the gold standard of Christian living, the examples we laud, memorialize, and set up on a pedestal.

This doesn’t add up. Something is missing in this picture. What about Psalm 23, where the Good Shepherd leads us to safe, quiet, pastors of rest, restores our soul, and prepares a feast for us? What about Jesus’s gentle invitation to the weary and over-burdened, telling us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light? There seems to be an underlying disdain and hatred for the body that we have inherited from Grecian asceticism and Gnosticism. In fact, Paul strongly criticizes such an attitude in Colossians 2 and 3, saying, telling Christians that “false humility”, “harsh treatment” (in the NKJV, “neglect”) of the body may indeed have an “appearance of wisdom” but completely lack value in restraining the indulgence of the flesh. In fact, asceticism and indulgence are two sides of the same worldly coin. Christians should therefore set their  mind on things above, not on the things of this world (Colossians 3:1).

You may have heard Christian women talk about how self-care is carnal and selfish. In an Crosswalk article directed towards women, Lydia Brownback writes,

Self-care has become a thing. The trend got traction by appealing to necessity—you can’t care for others if you don’t first care for yourself. So before we can love our husband and children or care for the needs of the hurting or exercise our spiritual gifts, we must tend to our physical, psychological, and emotional selves. Certainly, it’s wise to be good self-stewards, but the way in which it’s trending often runs counter to the stewardship advocated by Jesus: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). In light of Jesus’s teaching, some of what comprises today’s self-care trend is more along the lines of plain old self-indulgence.

There are three things that she is saying here:

  1. By Jesus’s standards, taring for your “physical, psychological, and emotional selves” is in fact “self-indulgence”
  2. The care you should steward your body with is to “lose your life”.
  3. The idea that “you can’t care for others if you don’t first care for yourself” is wrong.

I think there are two things going on here: an extreme is created between “care”, which really is about gentleness, responsibility, nourishment, and meeting your own needs, and our calling to service and ministry. This is an inverse relationship we see across the Christian world: the less you care for yourself, the better you are at ministering to and caring for others. Secondly, “care”, which again is about your basic “physical, psychological, and emotional” needs, is put in the category of indulgence largely because of, I suspect, a faulty understanding of the self and of the human body, one that associates the body itself with the evil “flesh” we see discussed in Scripture.

How should we relate to the body’s needs? How should we relate to our earthly selves and earthly lives? Is martyrdom the life we should be living?

Perhaps, if I may suggest, the relationship we should have with our body should be defined by our Creator. God created us. God called our bodies good. God created the material, physical, world, and called it good. We need to relinquish this resentment of the body and of the material world as if it presents a barrier to the spiritual world, to spiritual growth and to Christian ministry. This is an old Grecian, ascetic idea: if you deprive the flesh, then your competing, spiritual, being will thrive. Fasting, for example, helps you break off dependency to the physical and material, allowing you to soar to new, spiritual, heights. Depriving yourself of sleep in order to pray, read the Bible, and worship is the kind of discipline that makes you a spiritual giant. You have to work against the body, because the physical and spiritual are in conflict. Indulging the flesh makes your spirit weak. Even spiritual joy and rest are seen as otherworldly rather than practical: the kind of rest you really need is the euphoric feelings you get from a spiritual source, through worship. Instead of sitting down, pick up your Bible, discipline yourself, spend time with God, and then you will experience a breakthrough and divine power to fuel a life of service.

The Creator put the first Man and first Woman in a garden. There, they lived in abundance. They had responsibilities, but they also had rest. They had every kind of nourishment beyond what they needed. We see a Father who wants us to be nourished, and who indeed made our bodies need nourishment and rest. So, why do we end up with the idea that rest and care are fleshly and indulgent, that we steward our body best when we don’t  look out for our “physical”, “psychological”, and “emotional” needs but instead, focus on losing and sacrificing ourselves?

Instead of viewing all material and physical reality as inherently corrupt or anti-spiritual, which contradicts a Biblical view of Creation, we study what the Scripture really says about lust. There are several key passages we can turn to.

  • In John 8:42-44, Jesus tells the crowd who opposes him, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth”. These desires include hatred, violence, and murder.
  • In John 10:9-15, Jesus contrasts his sacrificial love for his sheep with the way of the “thief”, who  “comes only to steal and kill and destroy”. This archetype of evil correlates to that of John 8 because it reflects a violent, evil, desire to do harm and to create chaos and destruction.
  • Good and evil are contrasted in 1 John 2:9-11, with “darkness” being the way of hatred and “love” and brotherhood being the way of “light”.
  • 1 John 2:15-17 describes lust as being the opposite of love. Lust consists of the  “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” inimical to the “love of the Father”.
  • In the epistle of James, love is contrasted with the way of partiality and favoritism  (James 2:1-13). God is angry with those who exploit the poor, and live in “luxury”, “self-indulgence”, and “murder” (James 2:4-6; James 5:1-6). James 3:13-18 describes a contrast between the heavenly, peaceable, way of “wisdom from above” and the “selfish ambition” of “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom. 

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3).

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:13-16)

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:12-14)

The gospel is thus one in which we are saved from the way of lust to the way of love, from the way of selfish, violent, consuming, lustful, indulgence. This is so clear in the many contexts in which the New Testament describes the flesh. James 4:1-3, for example, describes how sinful desires cause human beings to kill, covet, quarrel, and fight in order to live in pleasure. Galatians 5 contrasts the “biting” and “devouring” each other violently and abusively with serving and loving one another as well as manifesting the fruit of the spirit. The “deeds of darkness” are contrasted with living in the light (Romans 13:12-14), in the context of love being the ultimate fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).

Love and Nourishment

The “tortured love” model is one in which caring for ourselves and caring for others exists in an inverse relationship – they are in competition. The conclusion, then, is that the more we put ourselves through to care for others, the  more that care, ministry, or service is effective. The greater the torture, the greater the love.

We often judge the quality of service by extent of the sacrifice or suffering – but is that necessarily true? Take breastfeeding, for example. Are babies better nourished if breastfeeding is an agonizing, torturous process? No doubt, we should appreciate any sacrifices a mother makes for her child. But, what happens if we make pain the “gold standard” of breastfeeding? What if we say, “She’s only a good mother because of the pain she puts herself through”, and, in saying so, we don’t try to make breastfeeding less painful? Shouldn’t we want to provide the resources, care, support for mothers so that breastfeeding is as positive an experience as possible? If anything, caring for a baby is a celebration of nourishment and nurturing – both of which mothers also need.

When we make “tortured love” the gold standard, we set martyrdom and suffering up as the very best kind of service possible. This makes it so that those you love and serve will then feel that pressure to live up to that kind of gold standard too. They will internalize the way they see you treat your bodies, your needs, and your family, and they themselves will start to aim towards deprivation and neglect as a sign of true spiritual discipline and commitment. At the end of the day, what they will experience and what gets replicated is the torture, not the love. This is not loving our neighbors, even if love is a part of the process. What stands out, what marks and characterizes this kind of community life and Christian life is self-imposed suffering.

Think of this like hosting a dinner. Do your guests enjoy the food better if you injured yourself making the meal, or if you starved yourself unnecessarily in order to feed them, then refused to sit down at eat? I’m sure they would appreciate and value any necessary sacrifices you make, but there comes a point when the suffering is manufactured, and it doesn’t have to be that way. There will be times when we will be like the widow of Zarapheth feeding Elijah, and there will be other times (far more other times, in fact), when we joyfully put together a feast and celebrate whatever simple or lavish feast it is together with our guests. Otherwise, they will feel like they need to torment themselves in order to be good hosts too.

I think we need a new gold standard, the gold standard being that we should not idealize a state of being overworked, tortured, starving, and deprived as we love others. Others are not loved better the more we suffer. It is entirely possible to serve from a place of spiritual and emotional abundance, where we are thriving and nourished.

Doctors and emergency response workers in crisis situations come to a point of realization that they cannot meet all the needs. Going into the field with altruistic motives, they reach this crisis point where their ability is superseded by the abundant need. The choice is between working themselves to death, or sickness, or realizing that sustainability and long-term service is going to require drawing healthy boundaries and taking the time they need to eat, sleep, and rest.

Take the example of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. Jesus gently and carefully took the time to do something for his disciples that was a necessary part of a first century personal care routine. In doing so, he was not only teaching a spiritual lesson but showing us how much He cares even for our muddy, stinky, feet. It was not a waste of time, but an illustration of His gentle, shepherdly concern for even the smallest part of our welfare.

Christians should be known for celebrating and valuing life (not death), beauty (not ugliness), abundance (not deprivation), satisfaction (not starvation), and wholeness (not brokenness). Our mission is to do God’s good and beautiful work, and in going about this work, we should set a  standard of self-nourishment and communal nurturing that we desire for ourselves and others.

Passages about martyrdom are often taken out of context to characterize all of our Christian life, such as in the article quoted above. However, we need to realize that martyrdom actually makes God angry. God doesn’t love it or relish it. If God loved it, God would reward and praise those who killed Christians rather than, well, what we see in the book of Revelations. We won’t save more people the more martyred we are and the more violent our deaths. God sees the death of His saints as precious and though God redeems each tragedy and makes good and beauty come of it, but God doesn’t orchestrate martyrdom as a theatrical spectacle like Caesar would stage killings at his Coliseum for his own imperial glory.

Revelations was written by suffering people imagining a world where their suffering comes to an end. Now, martyrdom is part of the brokenness of this age, but it is not our mission. Our mission is beauty, a beauty that comes from a place of having a rooted identity, from wisdom and maturity, and from wanting to enact what is good and loving in community. Community indicates reciprocity, a space where all are loved, fed, and cared for. If we view caring for our own spiritual, physical, and emotional needs as indulgent and selfish, then why even bother caring for someone else? Aren’t those needs, like for shelter, food, and clothing, ultimately “fleshly”? Are we serving them so they can ultimately deny themselves these needs and torture themselves on behalf of others, too? This attitude can make us callous, uncaring, and harsh.

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.  Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.  (Philippians 2:3-4, NKJV)

In this passage in Philippians, selfishness and pride are contrasted with caring for others. There is this bubble that we can retreat to that we become ignorant about the suffering of others, consumed only by our own ambition to rise above others.  Christians should not live this kind of life, but neither does this passage say that we can only and best serve other’s needs by absolutely neglecting all of our own. Thus, rejection of the flesh means a rejection of this kind of selfish, imperial way of living in which we harm others, whether by complacency or by intent. Loving your neighbor as yourself means extending that love for yourself outwards, inviting others in. Justice, the same word as righteousness in both Hebrew and Greek Scripture, is the desire for things to be made right by God’s standards. Even the smallest just deed shines like a light in an unjust world.

Does God desire that those who have food starve themselves to death that the starving may eat, or that we all eat at a table together, that we feast and are whole and satisfied? Thus, while we reject consumerism and selfish excess, our idea of wholeness and satisfaction must change to reflect the Kingdom. This must mean rejecting the kind of privilege that comes from unrighteous gain, stealing from others and getting rich at their expense. Our appetites must shift from insatiable, violent, consumption to that of satisfaction in simplicity. “More with less”, as the Mennonite saying goes.

Does the Christian life also call us to be ready to make sacrifices at great cost? Absolutely. Those moments will come, especially when you cannot allow yourself to live in safety while others flee for their lives or live in luxury while others starve. The story of Corrie, Betsie, and Casper Ten Boom in The Hiding Place is one such example. But, these circumstances often come about because of evil in the world, not because we are on the lookout for ways to attain some special level of achievement or because we idealize suffering and death. Of course, we already come into the Christian life knowing that because this world is under the sway of the Evil One, our choice could cost us everything. God will give His children grace when such a time comes, and God sovereignly makes good come of what the world means for harm.

Martyrdom is not the ultimate exemplar of the Christian life, community is. Jesus did not say that the world will know we are His disciples by our deaths, but by our lives. Community is the place where we eat and drink with one another and share our lives with one another. Love means a fundamental recognition of value and sacredness in life itself, in human beings (and that includes ourselves). A misplaced theology of suffering creates internalized, self-destructive, guilt and condemnation when one is burned out and exhausted by an unhealthy “gold standard” of Christian service. The question here is, actually, one of wisdom.

Wisdom and Community

Despite rarely having time to read anything apart from my all-consuming graduate research project,  I found time over the summer to read one book, Dorcas Smucker’s “Coming Home to Roost”. One of the most relatable things about Aunt Dorcas is how she gets crabby when she’s around people too much (despite how much she enjoys it), and how she needs to retreat to her writing cabin to regain some measure of sanity. It’s not only incredibly practical, it shows wisdom in her self-awareness after years of ministry, parenting, writing, and speaking. She didn’t lose herself, as many younger women think they must do. There’s a balance between being stretched out of one’s comfort zone and challenged to grow in new ways on one hand, and recognizing how she ticks on the other and what she needs to recuperate.

We don’t have much on the calendar for this coming week, either. I am starting to ask God who I’m supposed to call, write to, invite over, or meet for coffee. Certain people are coming to mind, women who aren’t visibly needy, but they show up in my thoughts with a quiet nudge. Yes, her. She needs someone to talk to. 

That is also a benefit of staying home: you have something to give to others, room in your soul for another, space in your mind for listening – instead of cringing when the phone rings or feeling overwhelmed at another email to answer. (p.140).

Wisdom tells us that we are more present with others when we aren’t at the end of our rope, mentally exhausted. We probably have more grace for others and their needs if we aren’t neglecting our own and setting unhealthy standards of productivity and achievement. Saying no to a ministry opportunity, big or small, isn’t wrong: it is, in fact, perhaps precisely what we need the wisdom to do.

The reason I neglected the hedge was because my summer, especially August, was just far too much. 

I love having people around me, but I also desperately need time alone. I need action and things to do – they give me goals and purpose. But if there’s too much going on, the connections in my brain start shorting out. Wires unplug and sparks zap as I try to think ahead to the next meal or Sunday’s lesson I need to teach. It quickly feels like too much. Can I trust God for the quantities He sends (pp.118-119).

I felt like a hub of a rapidly-turning wheel. It was all blessed and wonderful, but it was all just very much. I thought a day with no one talking to me would be just about right, but we have three daughters in the house now, and they have the most fascinating conversations that I hate to miss… People say the ridiculous phrase, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” as though it’s actually a Bible verse that will make it all better. 

I suppose it’s easier than coming alongside someone who is wrestling with the reality that she dearly loves all the people in her life but doesn’t have the energy to keep up with them all. Or someone who can’t ask for help, or who feels guilty for being overwhelmed when the tsunami of stuff in her life is positive – sunshine, family, writing cabins, and grapes from the vines – rather than sickness and loss and disaster. (p.120-121).

Mrs. Smucker’s book came to mind as I thought through an article by a much younger woman.  She was a young mom with twin infants recovering from sickness herself, whose husband was busy at work and who had multiple hosting and cooking responsibilities from the church. In that article, she literally and figuratively beats herself up for feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and sad. She instructs other young women like herself to treat mental and physical exhaustion as a “feeling” that she needs to pray and surrender to God, as selfishness she needs to repent of.  You’re simply not grateful enough, committed enough, spiritual enough.

By God’s wonderful grace, I have been learning strategies to combat the bombardment of self-pity, frustration, and destructive thinking patterns.

… If, after acknowledging your feelings and praying, you still do not want to give up the miserable feelings, check your heart for selfishness. Read Philippians 2:1-18. Meditate on Jesus’s selflessness and list ways you could improve in your service and commitments. No matter how unselfish you are, there is always a need to become more like Jesus.

A good antidote for selfishness is gratitude… We live in a culture of entitlement… Living in gratitude helps us to overcome those negative feelings when we have responsibilities that are difficult to accept.

… Some days we can only fully rely on God for strength to embrace the unexpected or difficult responsibilities that come out of our commitments- days where we must stop all we are doing and pray desperate prayers, commiting the day to Him and desiring to accomplish His purpose in us. Remember, the commitments that you did make, you made for a good reason. If we accept with joy the work that comes to us from those commitments, God is honored.

This message spreads from woman to woman, setting up a gold standard of self-negation and self-abnegation as the highest ideal. Elisabeth Elliot, for example, defined the very essence of womanhood (distinct from manhood) as “making yourself nothing”, living in surrender and sacrifice as “only a vessel”, emptying yourself into “utter and unconditional self-giving”. Given that around one in four adults struggle with their mental health and that feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness are pervasive, we really do need to stop and think about the Christian cliches we often repeat and pass around without hesitation: cliches that may be harmful and hurtful rather than reflective of God’s gentleness, mercy, and love.

I was inspired to write this article partly because of a podcast by Leslie Ludy, in which she calls women to obey the Scriptural command to focus on pleasing others. She decries any sort of boundary as selfishness. She teaches that if you become burned out in service, it is because you have spiritually failed, because you are “relying on your own strength” and need to spend more time “at the feet of Jesus”. The solution to exhaustion is guilt and an effort-driven, disciplined, spiritual life.

There are seminars, there are messages floating around on social media, with the idea or the goal of freeing all of us, especially all of us who are women, from this constant pressure to please other people. And the message goes something like this: If you’ve been to the desires and the expectations of others, you will only end up burned out and you’ll become a martyr. And there’s this Implication that we need to protect ourselves from that kind of burn out. And so we need to tell these other people who want things from us to get in their place and get out of her face and back off and kind of draw protective little bubbles around our lives so that we don’t end up bending over backwards for other people.  The conclusion is that we should just focus on being ourselves and doing our own thing and let other people just sort of deal with that…  I do think that this trendy message that is constantly saying, don’t try to please people. Can sometimes become an excuse to just live selfishly and let go of any desire or need or purposeful effort to serve other people. 

If you take a closer look at the story, you see that it was not Martha serving that was actually the problem, it was her heart attitude… Martha was attempting to carry burdens and tasks and serve other people in her own strength, she wanted to do something good and valuable, but she was completely relying on her, own abilities to pull it off. Whereas Mary understood that all strength for any task and he thinks you would ever need, could be found at the feet of Jesus. When we try to accomplish great things for God, such as serving other people without his enabling power, it’s sort of like trying to swim across the entire ocean. In the midst of a violent storm. It’s simply impossible, striving and self efforts and trying to serve in our own strength will drain us physically and emotionally like nothing else… And in our modern era of Christianity it is easy to blame serving others. That’s what Martha was doing. She was blaming the job that she had of serving and she was blaming Mary… 

She goes on to describe  how she was over-scrupulous at an earlier point in her ministry, retreating to what she condemns as a “self-protective bubble” in which she believed that “if I served or gave too much to others, I would be on the fast track to exhaustion and burnout” that included making sure she went to bed “every night by 9” and making sure to have some “me time”.

I was afraid that if I was giving and serving and pouring out in ministry, then I would be completely drained trying to give and serve and pour out for a family as well, serving and investing into the lives of other people actually became a threat to every area of my life.

But later as I began to really mature in my Christian walk, I started to see a different pattern in scripture than the one that I was believing when we look at the example of Christ and study with a Bible, has to say about becoming his hands and his feet to this Lost World. We begin to realize that serving others is actually not what leads to exhaustion and burnout, instead burnout comes from serving and doing good things for the wrong reasons.

And in the wrong Spirit, when we fail to take time, to sit at Jesus’s feet in His word like Mary, then we rush around like Martha doing good things in our own strength and becoming more and more stressed out every moment. It’s only when we yield our lives completely to him that we experience his enabling grace, giving us strength to do what we could never do on our own. He alone can equip us to serve and give and love without burnout. And when we wait upon him for strength as Mary did that’s when our strength is renewed, like the eagles. That’s when we can run and not grow weary and walk and not faint. And that’s the secret to living a joyfully poured out life, rather than a self-protective one. 

… [Lillian Trasher] would let God take her, and stretch her beyond what she can handle in her own strength, and then through his grace and his strength working through her,  she was able to accomplish the Impossible. And it really is the Impossible Life each of us is called to. 

This kind of unhealthy obsession with self-protection, as she describes it, is one extreme. However, she makes this assertion that truly serving for the right reasons will never lead to exhaustion or burnout. If you are burned out, then you simply have been doing something wrong. We are called to a level of superhuman achievement as Christians, to live in a way that is, in her words, “impossible”. And we must achieve this by seeking God until we receive this supernatural power to live supernaturally. The idea is that if God calls us to an humanly unachievable level of sacrifice on a daily basis, as an everyday reality, then God also calls us to immerse ourselves in spiritual disciplines until we get the energy or power to do so.  Can you imagine the pressure a young mom might feel to be “superhuman” in what she sets out to do, unrealistic in goals and in squeezing as much as she can into her week out of “love for Jesus”?

I encourage you to look at this clear command from Romans, 15:2 and 3. It says, “each of us is to please his neighbor for his good”… Now, the phrase please his neighbor in Greek actually means to strive to please, to accommodate oneself to the opinions, desires and interests of others. That sounds a lot like pleasing other people to me. And God is saying, this is a good thing to do and Philippians. 2:4 tells us, “Let each of you, not only look out for his own interests but also for the interests of others”. So we need to understand that pleasing other people serving other people and sacrificially giving two other people when it’s done in the right spirit and for the right reasons and with the right source of strength, it is not a sin and rather it is a crucial part of the Christian life. Of course, if our motives for serving and pleasing other people are for selfish gain like attention, approval and human praise, then people-pleasing can become a sin as it says in. Ephesians 6:6 through 7… this is very likely would have the wrong motives that Martha was struggling with when she was distracted with much serving. She was seeking the favor of man, rather than the smile of heaven.

Where the text says nothing, Leslie Ludy interjects with all kinds of accusations. Martha must have been selfishly trying to gain attention and praise! People who are burned out clearly are driven by the “wrong motives”. Instead, she asserts that the “clear command” of Scripture is to “strive to please” others and accommodate ourselves to them. This leaves Christian women, especially those who are burned out by the demands of others, feeling like it is the Lord Himself who wants her to live up to their expectations. She must draw no boundaries based on her priorities. She must, never, think of herself and her ability to meet those demands, nor her need for sleep, rest, or nourishment.

The question is, where does the Sabbath come in? If Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, then what does He command? If we think of self-care as self-nourishment, then we realize that it is something we can and should do to the glory of God and the blessing of others. Unlike in the Christian milleau, the Jewish attitude is one in which the body and its care are sacred. Eating non-kosher food in a survival situation is considered a mitzvah (obedience to God’s commandment). Sabbath rest, celebratory feasting, and exuberant weddings show an enjoyment of good things in life. In fact, taking care of one’s body is believed to contribute to one’s emotional and spiritual health. “Beloved is humankind”, the Talmud says, “as they were created in the image of God.” The self is important and precious, and Proverbs 11:17 is translated as saying, “The merciful man does good to his own soul”.

LORD, my heart is not haughty, 

Nor my eyes lofty.

Neither do I concern myself with great matters,

Nor with things too profound for me.

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,

Like a weaned child with his mother;

Like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 133:1-2)

Rest does not necessarily mean only “spiritual disciplines”. If you’re mentally exhausted and deprived of sleep, if you are performing cognitive labor (planning, organizing, managing, parenting) all day and all night, then the last thing you need is to take on more guilt by blaming your lack of Bible study or what is traditionally considered quiet time. Psalm 133 describes a place of absolute calm and quietness, a place where your soul is refreshed. While authors at Crosswalk and the Gospel Coalition condemn simple restful practices like watching the sun set and coloring Bible verse pages as silly and mindless, the reality is that God created our minds to need cognitive breaks in order to function and in order to care for the people around us.

We don’t function well when we are stressed, nor is spiritual bypassing something God requires us to do. Sheila Gregoire, Rebecca Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky describe spiritual bypassing, writing:

There’s a term for using religious language to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions: spiritual bypassing. Psycho-therapist John Welwood, who coined the term, describes spiritual bypassing as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” Instead of truly listening to a person’s pain, we provide distance from unresolved feelings using God-language.

The solution to this individualistic, performative, condemning, and superhuman kind of spiritual standard is community. We need to truly care about one another and be able to say, “I can see you’re overwhelmed, and it isn’t because you’re doing something wrong. How can I help?”. Maybe we weren’t meant to face all of life’s challenges alone! This very idea is antithetical to the meaning of church. 

I truly believe that serving according to our individual gifting is naturally joyful and life-giving, and that we were made to love. That’s how God wired us, because we’re wired to be like Him. Nevertheless, we need some good old wisdom sometimes to know when we need to work, and when we need to rest. There are times to serve, and times when we need to graciously accept love and service from others.

Loving one another means cultivating a healthy, non-condemning approach to meeting our own and each other’s “physical, psychological, and emotional” needs. Any destructive, ascetic, or competitive culture needs to be overcome together. Instead of making one another feel like we aren’t accomplishing as much as the next woman, or that we’re somehow deficient for feeling exhausted, we need to give ourselves, and others, grace.

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