As lockdown drags on in Australia’s major cities many of us are feeling increasingly fatigued. Not just fatigued at the lockdown but fatigued physically and emotionally as well. A recent publication by the Australian Psychological Society has described “lockdown fatigue” as a state of spiritual and physical exhaustion brought about by the continued changes to our daily lives that have occurred in the two years since the pandemic began. Ironically at a time when we’re all doing less—when we work from home, and no longer go to our usual places of worship, fellowship and exercise—many of us are feeling more tired.
In a recent webinar, psychologist Dr Rebecca Lounder has offered insight into how what it means to care for our “weary souls” in a Christian context. She references an article by Lesley Allen from Fuller Seminary that talks about self-care in terms of the Biblical Hebrew word “shalom.” Many of us recognise this as the Hebrew word for greeting, but as Allen points out it has a much deeper meaning which encompasses “wholeness” or “completeness.” Saying “shalom” to someone invites both of you into a shared space of Biblical wholeness and peace. “Shalom” is a state of being that, as Dr Lounder describes, acknowledges that in the light of Christ we are all on a journey towards “well-being” and “personal maturity,” as individuals and as communities. “Shalom” recognises a Biblical need for “self-care” and “self-kindness” that will give rest to our weary souls.
As Dr Lounder acknowledges, “self-care” and “self-kindness” are very popular ideas right now, both in the psychological literature and in the broader culture. But Dr Lounder re-orients these ideas away from the selfishness and self-absorption that might characterise some of their secular varieties and understands them instead in terms of Biblical notions of fruitfulness in service. According to Dr Lounder, “self-care” and “self-kindness” are critical not simply because they help take care of the “temple” God has placed us in, but because they are a prerequisite for fruitfully serving others as well. Failure to pay attention to the needs of one’s mind is not only a failure of custodianship for one’s own body, which is a gift from God, but a failure to participate in the fruitful community of service that the Gospel beckons us into. Weary souls cannot love their neighbours as they ought.
Anyone who has spent time around ministers or others who devote large amounts of time to pastoral care will be familiar with the idea of “burnout.” Ironically and tragically, the push to serve more and more, to care for one’s flock better and better, can, if self-care and self-kindness are neglected, result in less fruitful ministry. If “self-care” is neglected, the reservoir from which one draws to care for others is depleted. Equally, in our family lives, neglect of “self-care,” or a lack of attention paid to one’s own spiritual and emotional needs in the service of others, can result in resentment, anger, and ultimately worse relationships with those we are trying to love. Christian communities must acknowledge the need for themselves and others to rest and participate in “self-care.” Husbands and kids, let mum have that “me-time”!
These contemporary insights into the importance of “self-care” have meaningful implications for the Christian church. Dr Lounder describes several useful strategies for “self-care” and “self-kindness.” These range from mental strategies for “self-affirmation” to practical matters like maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise. If we, as Dr Lounder encourages us to, no longer view “self-care” as synonymous with selfishness or self-absorption but instead as a necessary part of being fruitful servants in God’s kingdom, aspects of these strategies must surely be a component of ministry training. Spiritual burnout is an all-too-familiar problem in churches, not just for paid staff but for volunteers and all others who serve as well. If we are committed to making our churches places of fruitful service in the Lord, we should pay attention to these strategies of “self-care” and “self-kindness” since they are a way of loving others as well as ourselves.
Dr Lounder’s thinking on this topic also connects in important ways with broader biblical notions of rest, particularly the rest of God, and the weekly rest of the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness, and afterwards in what has become the tradition of the sabbath. The idea of sabbath rest is so familiar to us as modern Christians that we sometimes forget the strangeness of the fact that God rests on the seventh day of creation, in the book of Genesis. What does it mean for our omnipotent God to “rest”? Is God in some way “tired” from the work that he has done? Or perhaps the pause is simply a recognition of the goodness and importance of what he has done?
These are difficult questions to answer, but they shed light on Dr Lounder's conclusion that ultimately human beings are creatures made for rest and relationship as well as work. The need for rest and relationship is built into us, evidenced by Dr Lounder’s descriptions of the psychological research on the deleterious effect that the deprivation of these things has on human beings. God in his wisdom chose to rest on the seventh day of creation. Similarly, God in his wisdom ordained it that human beings would be made for rest, he made us with a need to rest our weary souls, and we ignore that need at our own risk.
Allen, L., 2021. Shalom As Wholeness: Some Biblical Implications. [online] Fuller Studio. Available at: <https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/shalom-as-wholeness-embracing-the-broad-biblical-message/> [Accessed 21 September 2021].
Lounder, R., 2021. AC Masterclass Webinar: Looking After a Weary Soul with Rebecca Lounder. [video] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1YNXIhAJ5Y&list=PLLjSyuetkdCj3kCK_eDUWccXJoA_Q6l2w&index=8> [Accessed 21 September 2021].
Australian Psychological Society, 2021. Managing lockdown fatigue. [ebook] Sydney: Australian Psychological Society. Available at: <https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/74e7a437-997c-4eea-a49c-30726ce94cf0/20aps-is-covid-19-public-lockdown-fatigue.pdf> [Accessed 21 September 2021].