Four Way Faith
Part Six – In: Our Obligations to Ourselves
This post is part of a series introducing the concept of a Four Way Faith. A balanced and healthy life involved loving relationships in four directions; Up with God, In with Self, Out with Neighbours, and Down with Creation. Each has two elements – the gift of each relationship to us and our obligations to each relationship.
Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, sole, mind and strength and that the second is to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). We therefore need to understand that we are gift to be celebrated and cared and that we have obligations to ourselves. God has determined that we are worthy to be recipients of his love, so much so that Jesus died for us. Therefore, we need to accept, what is sometimes a hard truth, that we are loveable and can also love ourselves. As I’ve said before this isn’t about a proud and boastful sense of loving ourselves, but loving ourselves with the care and compassion we would encourage and want to express to others. If we can learn accept the premise that must love ourselves we need to consider how we do so, what are the obligations we have to ourselves, how do we learn to love ourselves?
A quick search online, in book shops, magazines or other media will provide you with a myriad of ideas and methods for self-love, self-care and self-appreciation. There are various plans and programmes, such as “30 ways to practice self love and be good to yourself”, “A Seven-Step Prescription for Self-Love” or “10 Tangible & Thought-Provoking Ways To Practice Self-Love” (these were literally the first three links in a google search that offered 2.8 billion results). Whilst writing I even received an email from a theatre ticket agency I am subscribed with advertising “A Buddhist Monk’s Guide to Happiness” with endorsements from the great and the good. Strategies for self-care come from health experts, different religions or beliefs and the associated rituals, exercise companies or personal trainers. There are adverts for clothes, drinks, food, make-up, apps for your phone or watch all claiming to help you become healthier mentally, physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. We are encouraged to believe that the need to care for ourselves is somehow new and that each person or organisations with a product to sell knows what is best for us.
There are of course helpful components of many of these strategies, products and techniques otherwise they would not be as popular or successful as they are. The Bible and Christian traditions are also filled with instructions and advice for how we care for, look after and love ourselves. I offer that the most significant gift that God has given is the Sabbath. Exodus 16 tells the story of the Israelites complaining as they are wondering in the wilderness, thinking it would be better to return to slavery. God interjects and provides the with food from heaven (manna), all they have to do is gather what they need and then it could be baked into bread. This was to be their practice for six days each week and on the seventh day the Israelites were instructed to rest Exodus 16:25 tells us that the Sabbath is “to the Lord” but we are also told, “See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 16:29-30)
We live in a culture in which we do not rest. Our culture prides itself on busy. We are encouraged to always be active with something. Churches are often the same, attempting to keep up with society or to counter the notion that churches are only open on Sunday mornings. It has become increasingly common to see churches advertising that they are a 24/7 church and to promote the activities they have taking place every day of the week. If we are not busy then we often fill our quiet spaces with noise; radio, TV, social media all find a way to keep our brains occupied and distract us from the silence or our own thoughts. As our society has succumbed to the idol of busy we are no more productive and we see annual increases in mental health problems and relationships breaking down. God’s pattern for his people was to work, to gather what food they needed each day and then he gifted them with a day of rest each week. God ensures they have the food they need for nourishment of their bodies, and this is important (we should be considerate of what we eat and drink), but he also gives them the Sabbath for rest.
As often happens with God’s instructions we humans like to have clear guidance about how they should be implemented. At the time Jesus was walking the earth the Pharisee’s were encouraging people to turn to scripture and follow God’s commandments. When Jesus explained why he spent time with those deemed ‘sinners’ he responded saying that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, suggesting that in many ways the Pharisee’s were on the right lines, they were seeking to follow the ways of God, not only in the Temple but in all areas of life. The issue was that they had missed the heart of God’s commands and became obsessed with rigid legalities. Matthew 12:1-14 tells of an occasion when Jesus and his disciples were in a field picking corn to eat on a Sabbath day. The Pharisees point out this is unlawful but Jesus highlights hypocrisy in their approach. He then enters a synagogue and challenges them further by healing a man with a ‘withered hand’. Jesus is not suggesting that the Sabbath is not important, but that we should not become legalistic in our approach to saying what is and isn’t permitted and judging one another. We can see at other times Jesus himself retreats to a quiet place (Matthew 14:23, 15:29; Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12) and makes space for his disciples to do the same (Matthew 14:22; Luke 9:28).
Traditional Christian practices include prayer, fasting, meditation, solitude, submission, confession and worship. In his book Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster writes of inward disciples, outward disciples and corporate disciples. Our predominant western Christian focus has been on encouraging the inward disciplines of pray and study, occasionally fasting is added, but we forget that meditation is a biblical and Christian tradition. As for outward disciples, too much emphasis is placed on service (and particularly service to a local church) and we have lost sight of submission, solitude and simplicity. Within our corporate (or gathered) disciplines we focus on worship and celebration seasonally, some denominations will major on guidance but we often lack confession.
I believe that if we were to discover, or rediscover these practices – to learn how to meditate, to fast, to make space for solitude (not forced isolation because of covid related restrictions or other factors), to learn simplicity – we would become healthier spiritually, emotionally, mentally and relationally. We would become healthier because we would learn how to simply be with ourselves, to listen to our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions and the Spirit. In discovering these practices of Sabbath, we learn to accept ourselves, to love ourselves and in doing so we will find our love for God, others and creation increases as well as our ability to accept the love of each of these.
I was recently introduced to a pattern of retreat that I find helpful as a guide; 30 minutes each day, half a day each week, a day per month and a week per year. This is not an exact science and will not work for all, but it gives a not prescriptive pattern and gives permission for taking 30 minutes each day to sit in the garden, go for a walk, meditate on words of scripture, to become mindful. It gives permission to turn off your phone, the TV, the radio, to fast from distractions and to have a few hours each week to be quiet your mind and allow yourself to be restored.
When we are not accustomed to caring for ourselves it can be hard to learn, just as when we are accustomed to fast food or junk food fruit and vegetables can seem alien, but we know they are good for us. 5-minutes of sitting in silence or even a 10-minute walk around the block can feel like an eternity and we want to check the clock, but with persistence it becomes our norm and we begin to feel the benefits. Writing for the Northumbria Community, Trevor Miller says “Retreat helps us get everything back in place, not a distorted view that is overblown or grotesquely out of synch (think of fairground mirrors) but a true reflection of what is.”
Why not try a mini-Sabbath to put everything in place? Allow 5 minutes each day for a month to grow to 30 minutes each day over 6 months and half an hour each week become a couple of hours. There are study guides, meditations, methods and practices we can learn from, ancient wisdom and modern techniques but we are obliged to care for ourselves. In loving ourselves follow the will of God and our relationships and faith will deepen.