The Integrated Christian: Nurturing Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health

Work Life BalanceOver the past few months I’ve overworked myself into a slight state of depression, which is something I’ve done several times over the past 30 + years. By depression I mean the mental and emotional exhaustion I bring on myself when I’m overloaded for too long with too many projects (maybe burnout is a better word). Being overworked for extended periods leads to chronic stress, fatigue, frustration, irritability, recurring migraines, and a strong desire to withdraw from social activities (i.e., isolate) to avoid added stress and potential conflict. Much of this is my own doing, and I’m still learning my limitations and when to say “no” to the requests of others (this can take a while to learn).[1] Sometimes I see my crash coming, like a fall in slow motion, and can intervene in order to mitigate the mental and emotional damage. The prescription for phase one of my recovery is to make time for rest and eat a meal (I learned this from the angel of the LORD and how he treated Elijah when he was dealing with mental and emotional exhaustion; see 1 Ki 19:1-7). Afterwards, I reorganize and lighten my workload and give myself a few weeks to recover. Lastly, I try to abide by biblical principles of creating and maintaining my work/rest balance. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “we should not mistake worn nerves, physical weakness or depression for unspirituality. Many times, sleep is more needed than prayer, and physical recreation than heart searching” (Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual, p. 67).

Concerning the work/rest balance, Solomon wrote, “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:6). In this statement, Solomon is giving a comparison of one thing being better than the other. He’s telling us it’s better to have a healthy amount of rest (one hand full) and have enjoyment than to be constantly working (two fists full) and be consumed with never-ending pursuits that are meaningless, like chasing after wind. What Solomon sets forth in Ecclesiastes 4:6 is a picture of the integrated person who balances work and rest. This is not always easy to accomplish, especially when we live in a society that glorifies and promotes an unhealthy and often relentless pursuit of success, wealth, and social status. Concerning the words of Solomon, Matthew Henry wrote, “Moderate pains and moderate gains will do best. A man may have but a handful of the world, and yet may enjoy it and himself with a great deal of quietness, with content of mind, peace of conscience, and the love and good-will of his neighbors, while many that have both their hands full, have more than heart could wish, and have a great deal of travail and vexation with it.” (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, p. 1037).

The Bible addresses the necessity of rest. God, who designed our brains and bodies, desires that we perform optimally, and has given the ideal standard for work and rest. In the Mosaic Law, God mandated regular physical rest for His people. God said, “Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves” (Ex 23:12; cf. Ex 34:21). Rest was for everyone, even animals, whom God cares for greatly. However, it’s possible to go too far with rest, which can be harmful as well. Solomon wrote, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, then your poverty will come as a robber and your want like an armed man” (Prov 24:33-34). Again, there must be balance and consistency in practice in order to avoid self-harm.

One should take breaks as needed, spending time alone with God in prayer. In the Gospel of Luke we learn that Jesus “would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16 NAS). The NET Bible states, “Jesus Himself frequently withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16 NET). It’s interesting that Jesus withdrew from other people and ministry on a regular basis to a secluded place where He would commune with His Father. I’m sure the time away from the hustle and bustle of crowds was nice too. On one occasion, Jesus instructed His disciples, saying, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31a). Mark then tells us, “For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat” (Mark 6:31b). Making time for rest is a necessity for those who work hard, perhaps especially for those who work hard in ministry, considering they face conflicts on two fronts, one physical and the other spiritual. As Christians, we are both physical and spiritual beings, and these work together like a hand in a glove. Imbalance in one area greatly impacts the other. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “It is a serious thing to remove the element of relaxation and play from any life. We cannot be normal physically, mentally or spiritually if we neglect the vital factor in human life. God has provided that our joy shall be full.” (Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual, p. 61).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] During my years of schooling, I had to work a full-time job through my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees. I personally enjoy work and am thankful for it. For decades I lacked wisdom in a few areas, most notably: 1) understanding and identifying when my stress levels were peaking for too long (a journey of self-discovery), and 2) learning to restructure my life and make time for rest. Failure to manage my workload caused me to burn out on a few occasions. Furthermore, not everyone gave good advice. I once had a doctoral professor say, “You can rest when you’re dead.” That’s really dumb advice, and those who follow it will pay a price physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. Finding that work-rest balance was not easy, and Lord knows I failed more times than I’d like to admit. Failure to make time for rest resulted in my being overly stressed, and on three occasions I developed shingles, which was my body telling me I was overworked. Sadly, I had continued to ignore the warning signs of stress.