Following Jesus and Maintaining Your Mental Health

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

So after years of teaching myself to say “no,” I've been experimenting with “yes” again. I know, I know. I've read Cloud and Townsend.  I am aware that it is important to maintain boundaries in one’s life. I know that I can’t do it all, and that if I spread myself too thin trying to meet everyone else’s needs, I’ll be drained of emotional energy, rendered incapable of giving and receiving love, devoid of all sense of self, etc.

And yet, “yes” is becoming more and more of an option these days.

It all started when I confidently announced to friends and family that I would like to be referred to as a “follower of Jesus Christ” instead of an “evangelical Christian.” (I think perhaps I’d been watching election-year poll results at the time.) This was all well and good until I started re-reading the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. (I figured that if I was going to say I followed Jesus, I ought to adhere to His teachings.) Well, as it turns out, His teachings are nuts.

Jesus, who clearly never read a self-help book, said this:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

It seems to me that Jesus not only advocates saying “yes,” he advocates saying, “yes, and what else can I do?”

This poses a particular challenge to my husband and me. Because we both work from home, it is often assumed that we are either a) unemployed and poor, or b) rich and bored. People under the impression that we suffer from option “a” generally leave us alone and pray we will find respectable occupations. Those under the impression that we enjoy the perks of option “b” ask us for stuff. Sometimes it’s time. Sometimes it’s money.

Now, I am absolutely convinced that saying “yes” to everything can be unhealthy. I’ve seen families torn apart because of over-commitments to ministries. I’ve seen godly people lose their spark and personality and love for the Lord because they tried to keep everyone happy. I’ve experienced first-hand the emotional exhaustion that accompanies unwarranted guilt and pressure, and I know what it is like to need some alone time to re-charge and re-focus.

But I am also convinced that Jesus calls us to live radically set-apart lives, that we are to be known throughout the world by our love for one another and for our care of the poor and suffering. This, I believe, involves a lot more than simply being nice and playing by the rules.  It involves opening our homes, giving liberally, meeting needs, sharing our things, doing favors, making sacrifices, listening, helping, cooking, cleaning, praying, hugging, and maybe even saying “yes” when we don’t really want to.

So how do we reconcile these two positions?

I have a hard time with this, especially after years of fine-tuning my ability to make priorities, stand up for myself, and say “no” when something requires more time, money, or emotional energy than I feel I have to give. For example, I find it pretty easy to send money to India, where I know indigenous missionaries living on about two dollars a day. It’s much more difficult, however, for me to say “yes” when I am asked to support ministries I’m not so crazy about, or missionaries that might not share my values or priorities. I’m happy to write articles and give presentations about the HIV/AIDS crisis, but I hesitate when asked to do menial tasks like feed my neighbor’s dog or babysit for a few hours.  I struggle to say “yes” when friends need help recovering from irresponsible decisions. I struggle to say “yes” when I know my sacrifice will go unappreciated. I struggle to say “yes” when a task doesn’t line up with my gifts or interests. I have a hard time giving when I suspect that I won’t get anything in return.

I am reminded of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. He’s such a pushover!  When Homer asks to borrow a lawnmower or hedge trimmer or bike, Ned gives without hesitancy, knowing there’s a really good chance he’ll never get his stuff back.  Some have complained about how Christians are portrayed on the show, but I think that Ned (like all the characters) represents the best and the worst of his type. When it comes to neighborliness and giving without expecting a return, Ned (imperfectly) represents the teachings of Jesus.

Of course, who can forget the episode where Ned finally goes crazy and leaves town? So how do we give like Ned without suppressing like Ned?

I used to think that it was all a matter of balance, that I could follow Jesus and maintain a comfortable emotional lifestyle at the same time. I’m not so sure anymore. Jesus wasn’t necessarily into the whole balance thing. He got crucified on a cross, you know. And He asks that we be willing to suffer the same fate, which isn’t exactly a commitment to fortifying our personal boundaries.

Giving isn’t really giving unless there is some sacrifice involved. Perhaps following Jesus requires a willingness to be uncomfortable now and then, to say “yes, what else can I do?” even when it violates our sense of well-being.

What do you think? Is it possible to maintain boundaries and still follow Jesus? How do you decide when to say “yes” and when to say “no”?

[P.S. I’m running behind again, and will post our next book club discussion on Wednesday. ]

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