July 1, 1997

 Pacing Yourself
Living Energetically
Within Your Limitations
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Once I faced a major challenge involving a conference my ministry was planning. Though I wrestled with how to solve this problem for weeks, there seemed to be no logical solution. Then our family went on vacation and spent a restful, refreshing week at the beach. On the morning of the last day I woke up with a clear answer to my problem in mind. The solution--which in time proved to be ideal--was so obvious and simple that it was remarkable I hadn't thought of it before.

How often it seems we get more done in life by doing less. Our minds work best when we're rested. And when we're relaxed, we give the Lord the best opportunity to get our ear. There is a normal gestation to our internal process of problem solving also which we must respect. It's sometimes surprising to find that our subconscious mind has been working on a problem and has an ideal solution, which given the right chance will emerge.

There is gestation in the events around us, too, which we too easily discount. While God gives us a certain ability to influence what happens, we can try too hard. A friend of mine likened God's arranging circumstances in our life to the piecing together of a master jigsaw puzzle. Certain pieces must first be put in place before others can be pressed in. He also confessed that he often tried to force a piece into place which didn't belong, to his own peril.

While Scripture has plenty to say against laziness, it warns even more strongly against the dangers of overwork. The most frequently repeated command in the Old Testament, in fact, is to honor the Sabbath. A primary reason we're to observe the Sabbath, of course, is to give undivided attention to worship. Yet Scripture also stresses our need for mental and physical renewal as a major purpose of the Sabbath as well. "Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest" (Ex 34:21, NIV).

While Jesus freed us from legalism in observing the Sabbath, the human needs underlying this principle remain.

The Burned-Out Prophet

Scripture also gives us a graphic picture of the problems that can come from overextending ourselves too greatly in the prophet Elijah. On one notable day, described in 1 Kings 18, Elijah pushes himself beyond all reasonable limits. He orchestrates an elaborate public challenge against four hundred prophets of Baal, then oversees their slaughter. Next he climbs to the top of Mt. Carmel and prays intensely for rain, and God grants his request. After this he runs twenty miles to the king's palace, certainly hoping to find King Ahab and Queen Jezebel contrite in the face of the day's extraordinary demonstrations of the power of God.

Instead, Jezebel is thoroughly unrepentant and sends a messenger to announce a threat on Elijah's life. When Elijah hears it, he completely falls apart. He leaves his servant behind and flees to the desert, where he asks God to take his life (1 Ki 19:-5).

Elijah's reaction to Jezebel's threat seems astonishing when we consider the courage he had shown in the face of much greater challenges that same day. Besides, Jezebel was almost certainly powerless to carry out her threat, for who in Israel would have been willing to lift a sword against Elijah at that time? If someone were willing to do it, she surely would have sent him to Elijah to kill him rather than just a messenger to taunt him. Had Elijah been thinking rationally, he would have quickly realized just how veiled Jezebel's threat was. By now, though, he was severely fatigued. In this state he was not able to think rationally or optimistically. Suddenly the master problem-solver was creating problems which didn't exist and falling into self-defeating behavior.

Most interesting, though, is how God brings healing to Elijah's exhaustion and burnout. He doesn't put the prophet through some elaborate spiritual regimen, as we might expect. Rather, he ministers to Elijah's physical and emotional needs. He gives him the ability to sleep restfully and sends an angel to prepare nourishing food for him. Within several days Elijah's strength revives, his motivation returns and he is thinking rationally again (1 Ki 19:5-9).

Steps for Pacing Yourself

Although Elijah's example is probably the most dramatic, it is merely one of many in Scripture which show the importance of pacing ourselves. Jesus' disciples, for instance, not only worshiped on the Sabbath but took the principle of rest seriously (Luke 23:56)

While the lessons we learn from these examples are time-worn, they are still ones we can scarcely remind ourselves of too frequently. We put ourselves in the best position to realize our potential for Christ when we live within our energy limits and respect the physical frame God has given us. By pacing ourselves sensibly, we are most likely to keep pace with the Lord and his intentions for our life--not straddling behind him, but not running ahead of him either. And we best enable ourselves to think clearly, to find answers to problems, and to see our life positively through the eyes of faith.

Learning to pace ourselves, though, presents a challenge of its own. Just how do we do it effectively? Let me suggest five steps which can help.

Learn to delegate whenever possible. Remember that if there is a genuine need to be met, God is infinitely more concerned about meeting it than you are. If you are not physically able to respond to it, he is quite capable of finding other means to meet it. He may be touching someone else's heart with a concern for this need. It may be that this person is more qualified to handle it than you are. It may be, too, that he or she would be greatly blessed to take on this responsibility--an opportunity that will only come if you take your hands off.

When faced with needs which would stretch us beyond our limits, we need to learn to look creatively and prayerfully for others who can help bear the burden. Even a mature leader like Moses did not at first appreciate this principle. He took every major decision of Israel upon himself. His father-in-law, Jethro, finally counseled him, "What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone" (Ex 18:17-18 NIV). Fortunately Moses listened to Jethro's counsel and delegated many tasks. Not only did the people of Israel receive better service after this, but those whom Moses chose to share his load surely experienced great fulfillment in using their gifts.

Respect your sleep needs. Each of us needs a certain regular amount of sleep. Too little sleep or too much leaves us fatigued. Most of us need seven to eight hours of sleep and within the same general period each day. Determine what your optimum sleep pattern is. Then plan backwards. Fit your responsibilities into the time remaining. If taking on a new responsibility would leave you with insufficient time for regular sleep, realize that God isn't likely laying this burden on you.

God has created each of us with a certain requirement for rest. We shouldn't be embarrassed to face this need and to plan our life accordingly.

Use your devotional time to plan your day. While a regular devotional time has many purposes, one of the most essential is time-planning. Unfortunately this is also one of the most neglected. We can fall into routines in our quiet-time which have little to do with gaining God's perspective on our day.

We should plan our devotional time with a sufficient period for being quiet before the Lord and seeking his direction for the day ahead of us. We should, in fact, give priority in our devotions to time-planning and leave the time remaining for other prayer and study concerns.

In praying through your day remember that there will be many needs that God will want you to meet but some which you should bypass. Remind yourself that the work is never done and that you'll need to make wise choices about how best to invest yourself. Make a schedule and follow it as closely as possible. By doing so you'll be better able to approach what you do with energy and to find the courage to say no when necessary.

Plan meals to be events. One of the great principles of balanced living in Scripture is so basic and simple that we can overlook it. Meals are one of God's precious gifts to us, for stress management, and to help us enjoy life.

Scripture extolls the value of enjoying our meal times. This is a major theme of Ecclesiastes. "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun" (Eccles 8:15 NIV; see also 2:24-25, 3:12-13, 9:7).

Meal times were taken seriously by Jesus and his disciples. They followed the traditional practice of "reclining at table"--enjoying a leisurely posture at supper gatherings, which could last for a considerable period. Even on the night of his betrayal Jesus enjoyed a relaxed meal with his disciples.

In our modern day of fast-food outlets and micro-wave ovens we've lost the sense of meals being times of celebration. Plan at least one meal daily as a special event to be enjoyed leisurely.

Plan exercise which you find enjoyable. Finally, something needs to be said about the importance of regular exercise. We find little mentioned directly about it in Scripture. Yet the lifestyle of people during all periods of biblical history required them to get plenty of exertion in a typical day whether they wanted it or not. Walking was a major form of transportation, and many daily tasks, like carrying water from a well, kept muscle tone strong. There was enough enforced exercise in daily life that the need for planned exercise just to stay fit would have been superfluous for many.

Much has been said in our own day about the need for regular exercise, and we are all aware of its importance for healthy living. The only point I want to add is that we should plan exercise which is enjoyable to us and fits our lifestyle. All exercise requires some discipline. Yet if it's basically fun to us, we'll more likely stick with it.

Assess your exercise needs, then feel great freedom to plan time in your schedule to meet them, even if this means reducing other commitments.

God, in uniquely designing our lives, has given us each a certain level of physical and emotional energy. If in response to his Spirit we manage it well and live within it, we can bear significant fruit for Christ. If out of envy or a poor self-image we try to push ourselves beyond it, we'll become vulnerable to burnout and fatigue. Paul tells us that our body is a temple of God's Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). We must not forget that a vital part of being spiritual is caring for this temple. Doing so is essential to experiencing Christ's motivation.

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