I used to stuff and starve. I’d stuff myself with food, and then deprive myself of it. Or I’d fast in preparation for a big meal. I didn’t want those binges showing up on my body.
Unfortunately, stuffing and starving doesn’t work for weight control in the long run (or so I remember reading somewhere). It’s also not very comfortable. I was always ravenously hungry or painfully full, never moderately hungry or pleasantly satisfied. I was stuck in a cycle of feast or famine.
I used to do the same thing with sleep. When my high school homework kept me up late, I’d sleep in on the weekends. My physics teacher Mr. Carmichael told me the engineering students at the university I was planning to attend also studied late into the weeknights and then tried to catch up on the weekends.
But, he said, the science showed that this approach doesn’t work. Habitually depriving ourselves of sleep and then sleeping in on the weekends doesn’t give us quality rest. Our bodies aren’t made for that rhythm. (Though of course his wisdom did nothing to prevent me from succumbing to it again in college.)
I think I used to stuff and starve in my relationship with God, too. I’d subsist on crumbs from Sunday morning services and on pre-digested meals from Bible class. Then I’d spiritually pig out at conferences and camps.
Stuff and starve. Feast and famine. It’s not a healthy cycle, whether it’s food, sleep, or our relationship with God. It’s taken me years to learn how to pace myself in these things. How to eat when I’m hungry and (mostly) stop when I’m full. How to (mostly) get up early to meet with God and how to (mostly) go to bed on time. My rhythms aren’t perfect by any means, but they’re much healthier than before.
I remember hearing in pre-field training that a break needs to be at least two weeks long in order to be effective. You need that much time to decompress from the stress of cross-cultural living, they said. But it left me wondering, just how reasonable is that expectation? Can everyone get away for that long? And how badly might my mental, emotional, and spiritual health deteriorate in between those long rests?
I personally cope much better when I have shorter, more frequent breaks. I don’t have to freak out if I miss a regularly scheduled exercise session or early morning devotional. My times of refreshing are no longer scarce; I know I can pick them up again tomorrow. This is the art of pressing on in our rhythms, of forgetting yesterday’s failed rhythms.
I’m not saying an extended period of rest is bad – far from it! In the Old Testament God commanded His people to observe a Sabbath year every seven years and the year of Jubilee every fifty. But He also commanded a weekly Sabbath, and we humans need shorter, more evenly-spaced feeds of both God and food.
So we plan our daily and weekly rhythms of work and rest. We can also add monthly and quarterly rhythms to the mix. For example, our family needs a ministry and cultural break about every three months, and we take a few days outside the city to rest, unplug from work, and play together as a family.
We’ve discovered that if we don’t take a weekend away every quarter, if we try to stretch it longer than that, then we start disliking our host culture. And if we wait too long, all the stress of daily life that I’ve been stuffing down over the past several months tends to explode all over my family as soon as we reach our destination. So we’re diligent in taking that quarterly respite.
This year I began a rhythm I learned about in Wayne Cordeiro’s book Leading on Empty. It’s called a “personal retreat day,” and it involves going away by yourself for a half to a full day and meeting God in nature, in prayer and journaling, in His Word, and in other good books. Personal retreats don’t have to be all that frequent – maybe just a few times a year – but I’ve found they renew my hunger for living and working overseas and provide some space for the junk to start filtering out of my soul.
As much as I love my rhythms, I have to admit they sometimes get off-kilter. For instance, I stayed up much too late to write this. And, I’m currently visiting my passport country — something we all know can disrupt our soul care. But here’s the thing about rhythms: they don’t have to be rigid. We can always start again tomorrow when mercies are new.
So if your rhythm is flagging and your soul is suffering, take heart. You can always start again. God will be right there waiting to commune with you. He’s not mad about waiting. So let’s not beat ourselves up when our rhythms aren’t perfect; they will never be.
Instead, let’s resolve to let the dawn reset our rhythms. Let’s choose not to stuff and starve. Let’s choose not to oscillate wildly between feast and famine. Let’s commit together to regular rest and renewal — for ourselves, for our families, and for the ones we serve.
What rhythms are you pressing into?