An evangelistic opportunity
5 MINUTE READ
“People of Australia, on my way here I couldn’t help but notice that 4.8 million of you currently have a mental health or behavioural condition and that 46% of you will experience that at some time in your lives.1 That must be exhausting for you, but you seem unaware of the rest which Jesus offers. This is what I am going to proclaim to you…” (with apologies to the Apostle Paul! [Acts 17:22-23]).
The proclamation of the good news of Jesus has always been, and must always be, context sensitive. The incarnation demands such sensitivity, and it is also necessitated because human existence is inherently embedded in social, cultural, linguistic and historical contexts. When Paul presented Christ to the Epicureans and Stoics of Athens (Acts 17), he did so on the basis of his observation of their context. He found in Athens a cultural artifact, in that case a shrine, which he pressed into service as a starting point, and to some degree an organising motif, around which to present Christ. Were the Apostle Paul to visit Canberra, I don’t know if he would highlight mental ill-health as such a cultural artifact, but it occurs to me that it holds potential as a starting point, and as an organising principle, around which we could present Jesus.
As a counsellor, I hardly ever meet a client who doesn’t say how exhausted they are. They tell me they are “running on empty”, “tired all day long”, “don’t have the energy for (anything)”, “can’t remember the last time [they] got a decent night’s sleep”, and so forth. Mental ill-health and exhaustion go hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other. It takes huge amounts of energy to “push through the mental fog”, to filter the intrusive thoughts, to reassure yourself in the face of anxiety, to talk yourself down from a triggering event, and to fight the internal confusion – all of which quickly add up to exhaustion. Conversely, if I’m already run down, then it is likely that I will have less resilience and less resources with which to care for myself and my mental health.
“Mental ill-health and exhaustion go hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other.”
All of this is on top of the existing pressures in our society on sleep and rest. Some of these pressures are cultural factors such as fast-paced and competitive lifestyles; work conditions and shift-work; and leisure activities that intrude into healthy sleep practice (such as excessive alcohol consumption or computer gaming). Still other pressures on sleep/rest come from medical conditions such as obesity and apnoea.
It is not surprising then that we find ourselves surrounded by a plethora of interventions to help ease the epidemic of exhaustion. Broadly speaking, these interventions fall into categories reflecting the dominant worldviews of our culture. On the one hand, Australia is deeply indebted to the modern scientific worldview with its emphasis on data, diagnosis, and medicalised treatment (especially in relation to mental health and exhaustion, pharmaceutical interventions). Increasingly, however, interventions from other worldviews have found acceptance. These tend to focus on the mind/body relationship, and disciplines such as mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, yoga and tai-chi are seen as the paths to rest.
While wanting to leave room for each of these interventions in holistic approaches to mental health and exhaustion, my Christian faith and worldview suggest another vital dimension. In the narrative of scripture, rest is profoundly relational. Rest is something God does when he has brought order out of chaos in creation (Gen.2:2). Rest is something that characterises right relationship with God (Ex.16:11-30) and is even used as a metaphor for faith (Heb.4:9, cf John 6:28-29). Rest was enshrined in the fourth commandment at the establishment of the nation of Israel (Ex.20:11). Weekly and yearly cycles of rest mimicked the divine rest (Deut.5:14, Lev.25:4) and in the rest of the jubilee, relationships were restored (Lev.25:10-13). The prophets anticipated a time of rest and restoration (Is.14:7, Jer.31:2); the poets sang of lying down in green pastures and feasting in the presence of enemies (Ps.23:2,5). The relational dimensions of rest cannot be denied, as the lion and the lamb testify (Is.65:25).
The Gospels testify that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2 and parallels). And while that title may not be immediately transparent to us, he clearly moves the issue of rest away from legalism and reasserts its relational character. Jesus’ bold invitation is unselfconscious:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV)
Jesus holds out to his hearers, to the weary and burdened, a rest that is distinctively His. His gentle and humble-hearted character undergirds that rest and stands in stark contrast to the violent insurrectionists of first century Palestine and the pride-filled religious leaders of his day (and maybe ours too?). Jesus is not a threat to his hearers, nor condemning of them. They can find rest by walking with him.
Interestingly, this relational nature of rest has recently been emphasised in attachment-based psychotherapies. In John Bowlby’s theory,2 the human infant has an inbuilt survival mechanism which causes them to bond with their caregiver, thus maximising their chances of having their needs met. Disruption to the bond results in distress or separation anxiety. Subsequent elaboration and application of the theory to adults locates a safe harbour – the restful place – in emotionally accessible, responsive and engaged relationships.3
“Rest, in attachment terms, is satisfaction of needs; it is safety; it is the absence of distress…“
Rest, in attachment terms, is satisfaction of needs; it is safety; it is the absence of distress, and rest is achieved in the context of a secure relationship. In their 2007 review of the literature, Troxel, et al4 noted the existence of a bi-directional relationship between quality of sleep and marital quality. Not only does poor sleep adversely affect the relationship, but for better or for worse, the quality of the relationship also influences sleep. Similar relational dependencies have also been observed in other relevant domains such as emotional regulation in workplace conflict5 and even pain perception.6 Attachment theory then adds a degree of contemporary secular support to the distinctively Christian understanding that rest is relational.
Returning then to our Australian context and the epidemic of mental ill-health, we note the pervasive experience of exhaustion among people with mental health conditions, and we rejoice in Jesus’ invitation to rest in Him. This field does appear to be ripe for harvest (John 4:35), and if we are to send out workers into this field (Matt.9:37-38) we may find that the workers need clarity about Jesus’ offer of rest (derived from Matt.11:28-30):
- Rest is profoundly relational. It is not primarily physiological or even psychological. Humans rest in trusting, supportive, emotionally-available relationships.
- Jesus offers that rest to the weary and burdened, without reference to capacity or capability (or mental stability).
- Jesus does not offer a rest that is inactive or directionless (hence the references to yoke, burden and learning).
- Jesus’ offer is not that the cause/s of exhaustion will evaporate (although that may happen), but that there is refreshment, emotional co-regulation and deep connection in relationship with Him.
Perhaps in this way many in our land may come to believe as Dionysius and Damaris (Acts 17:34) did, or to testify with Saint Augustine of Hippo:
“Thou hast made us for thyself,
O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
– Confessions (Chapter 1)
Dr Richard Morrison Dr Richard Morrison is a counsellor/supervisor in private practice in Newcastle (and online – www.relationalcoaching.com.au). He pastored a Baptist church for over 20 years and has also worked in suicide prevention, aged care, disability services, project management and government. His PhD is in the mental health of men who retire early. He recently preached evangelistically on Matt.11:28-30 “Come to me, all you who are weary…” youtu.be/-jkcWHoajME
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- https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health, accessed 29 January 2022.
- Presented to the British Psychoanalytical Society in three papers, “The Nature of the Child’s Tie to His Mother” (1958), “ Separation Anxiety” (1959), and “Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood” (1960)
- Johnson, S., (2008), Hold Me Tight: seven conversations for a lifetime of love, Johnson, ISBN 978-0316113007.
- Troxel, W.M., Robles, T.F., Hall, M. and Buysse, D.J., Marital quality and the marital bed: Examining the covariation between relationship quality and sleep, Sleep Medicine Review. 11(5): 389–404 (2007). doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2007.05.002.
- Jung, Y., Sohn, Y.W. & Kim, M.Y. Emotion regulation and job stress: The mediating effect of relationship quality in the US and Korean samples. Current Psychology 39, 1106–1115 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-018-9997-1.
- Conan, J.A., Schaefer, H.S., & Davidson, R.J., Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat Psychological Science, 17, 1032-1039 (2006).