"If my spiritual life were my real life, I would be in a coma right now." The pain in my own voice surprised me, but the confession was long overdue.
For months I had felt restless at church, uninspired in my quiet time, annoyed by worship songs, completely disconnected from God. I still loved Him deeply, but He felt too far away to reach and I was exhausted from trying.
I was doing all the right things. I fellowshipped with other believers, I tithed and prayed and read my bible. And when that failed, I listened to sermons while I worked; I worshipped on my own time. I just did more.
If you've found yourself soul-tired like me, you know that doing more doesn't fix it. We cannot work our way to God. I had worn myself out believing I could.
This is a story about how I went from being burnt-out on faith to finding the fire again. And though I talk about things I did, and things you can do too, this is not a To Do list.
In fact, I had to give up doing. I had to relinquish control. I had to admit that I couldn't determine the outcome. All I could decide was the posture of my heart and the direction of my eyes.
There was a time when I read through the Bible every three months. That may sound hard to believe; it's hard for me to believe, too. But I have it written out: My 90-day Bible Reading Plan. I love the Bible, and I loved this drinking-from-the-fire-hose approach to it. That is . . . until I didn't. One day, I just couldn't pick it up again.
Of course, I didn't start off reading 15 chapters a day. I started reading 3 chapters of Psalms. And then I added 1 chapter of Proverbs. In a sermon, I heard that if you read 10 chapters a day you can read the whole New Testament in a month. Slowly, I added and added.
I've taken this approach to an unfortunate amount of my faith walk. Recommend a book? I will read it. Start a Bible study? I will join it. Why pray for 1 hour when I can pray for 2? Why fast for 1 day when I can fast for 40? (Answer: I really can't fast for 40.)
It's no wonder I was worn out! All of these things have an important part to play in faith practice. But I was practicing my faith forgetting that I'd been given a Coach.
Right after the author of Hebrews tells us there is a race set before us (an endurance race, mind you, not a sprint), he says to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith." And to do this "so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Hebrews 12:1-3).
It's not enough to just do all the things. And sometimes it's too much. We only know what is right for us in each season by fixing our eyes on Jesus, and following as he leads us. Maybe he is calling you to come and rest a while. Or maybe the daily bread you have eaten for years has grown stale, and he is calling you to a deeper faith practice.
“If you stay on the spiritual journey long enough, the practices that sustained your faith will fall short. When this happens, it can be very disillusioning. But if we stay on the journey, we find out that this is actually an invitation to go deeper with God.”
- Father Thomas Keating, quoted from Mindful Silence by Phileena Heuertz.
Read any article on self-care you won't get very far without encountering the one word that so much of it seems to hinge on: "No." Say no to toxic friendships, say no to busy work, say no to taking on that extra shift. Say no to the things you don't want in your life so you can say a wholehearted "Yes!" to the things you do.
Spiritual self-care is no different. We must also learn to say no. No to the obvious drains on our spiritual energy, like fear, stress, and anxiety. And no to less obvious ones, like inadequacy, disappointment, and offence.
Peter says to "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). This seems so gentle, but it's not. Cast means "to throw (something) forcefully in a specified direction." Literally: throw your worries at Jesus. Forcefully.
For me, it helped to actually picture myself doing this. Thought: We might not make rent this month. Emily (in her mind): Throwing her rent check at Jesus. Thought: That girl is so skinny, why am I so not skinny? Emily: Throwing her
belly fat envy at Jesus.
The way I interpret 2 Corinthians 10:9 is that we are to capture each thought, drag it out into the light, and compare it to the knowledge we have of God (remember, Paul is talking about warfare here). Anxiety doesn't hold up well against the knowledge of God. Neither does bitterness, resentment, comparison, self-condemnation, outrage, ill-humour, cynicism, self-reliance . . . the list goes on. If it doesn't belong in my head, I say "no."
One of my biggest sources of burnout was easy answers. I think it's a huge mistake of modern Christianity that we hurry to answer hard questions -- with ultimately insufficient answers.
In the book of Job, Job's friends fill 37 chapters with their explanations for his suffering. Explanations that had a lot of sense to them, but made God very angry.
When God finally speaks the chapter heading in my bible says, "The Lord Answers Job." But actually, God never tells Job why his children died, or why he lost everything, or why his wife was a word we won't mention (ahem).
Instead, God tells Job who He is. These are some of the most beautiful chapters of scripture to me, as God describes Himself as the one who keeps the "storehouses of snow," and knows when the mountain goats give birth. After it all, Job responds, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you" (Job 42:5).
Richard Rohr writes,
"My scientist friends have come up with things like 'principles of uncertainty' and dark holes. They're willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. but many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of 'faith'! How strange that the very word 'faith' has come to mean its exact opposite.”
Faith is a living mystery. For me, finding my faith again meant finding a dwelling place in what centuries of Christians have called "The Cloud of Unknowing." There are some questions God does not answer and there are some answers that we cannot understand in this life. And then, there are some questions for which God Himself is the only sufficient answer.
At the end of 2012, I came down with a bad case of chikungunya. I couldn't walk. I could barely see. My life ground to a halt. It was one of those rare times when I was living alone, and so for days on end, I lay in a shuttered apartment, by myself.
It was one of the best things that could have happened to me.
It had been an incredible year in many ways -- and in others, a very, very hard one. I was reeling from losses and aching with a broken heart. If I had not also had swollen eyes and swollen joints, I would have pushed through it and the wound would have festered like an unhealing fracture. Instead, I had to be still. I had to be with God. I had to feel Him hold me, closer than a mother holds a child in her arms -- like a mother holds the child in her womb. And I had to grieve.
Most of us are not that lucky. Life is messy. Humanity is painful. Our lives crumble in our hands, we lose friends, homes and jobs, love fades, dreams die. And the world keeps spinning 1000 miles an hour.
Fast forward to 2016. My heart was breaking again. But I had a 40-hour work week. I was studying for my certification in nutritional consulting. I moved twice that year. I couldn't stop to breathe much less grieve. So I didn't. But pain that goes unlamented doesn't just go away. It metastasises. Two years later, when I found myself wondering why my heart felt like it had scabbed over, I realised -- it had.
A wise creator friend recently wrote to me,
"You're a plant that's been languishing, now you need to give yourself the water and soil and light that you need to really grow. And one of those nutrients for you is open space -- both physically and spiritually."
She was talking about creativity, but it struck me how much spirituality and creativity have in common. To create we need dedicated time and space, but we also need time outside the studio, time for fun, time for silence, time in nature and a space where we can just be. Spiritual healing is the same. It requires time (sometimes great swaths of it) set aside for being.
It also requires intentionality. When I plan to meet with a friend, we usually have two things decided in advance: a time and a place. It would be hard to make it happen without that. Yet often, I expect that God will meet with me without a time or a place.
Because a "place" is hard to find living with three people in a two bedroom, I create a place by getting up a little early to have the house to myself in the quiet of the morning, before the sun rises. For you a place might be a walk, or a favourite nook in a cafe, or bundling up to sit on the balcony in winter.
I hesitate to put this point in because we've all heard the tirades against social media and I think we all know where we stand.
If I were to sum up what I believe is the opposite of the social media mindset, I couldn't say it better than 2 Corinthians 4:18,
"So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
The "pics or it didn't happen" culture is so caustic to our spiritual selves because the deepest reality we can know is an invisible one. We worship a God "who is unseen," and who "sees what is done in secret" (Matthew 6:4, 7, 18). Which means those are the most important things we do. The things that happen in secret are the real things.
If we have no value for an invisible life, we will have no value for a soulful life. For me the most important part of finding my soul again was keeping secrets, letting myself go unnoticed, doing things no one would ever know about, learning to be invisible.
Jesus asks us, "what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?" (Mark 8:36).
The irony of my realisation at the beginning of this story "If my spiritual life were my real life, I would be in a coma right now" it that our spiritual life is our real life. As easy as it is to forget, our souls are our eternal selves. Taking care of them is worth our while because we will have them much longer than we will have the homes, or the lives, or the bodies we now live in. Soul-care is the only real self-care.
Photo by Mariam Soliman on Unsplash
Thank you for writing this Emily. I really needed to read this right now.
Loved reading this! Thank you Emily for being so honest!