What Are the Best Emotional Health Practices?

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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

Ask Mission Central: Question Thirteen

“What practices have you adopted that have given you the most bang for your buck in your emotional health?”


—Kate
Chicago, IL


Answer

It pays to get intentional about emotional health. Just as spiritual disciplines allow us to participate in how the Holy Spirit is shaping our character, emotional health practices help us receive God’s care for us as creatures who feel. We possess a beautiful, dynamic range of emotional capacities—and with that depth comes a corresponding depth of need. When we take our emotions seriously, we come closer to the mark of living the life God intends for us, allowing him to minister to our places of need with his love.


Dallas Willard once said that if he had to choose just one spiritual discipline, it would be Bible memorization. If I had to choose just one practice for emotional health, it would be the Sabbath. Thankfully, we don’t have to choose! So, we’ll do a two-part post to answer this question with our top seven practices for emotional health. Today, we’ll start with Sabbath and Thankfulness. Then in a couple weeks for Part 2, we’ll talk about Sleep, Exercise, Anxiety-Hacking, Counseling, and Hopeful Suffering. (Yes, suffering made our list for emotional health helps. Counterintuitive, I know.) Regardless of where you’re at in your personal emotional health, I hope that one or more of these practices can help you participate in God’s care for you as a whole person.


Sabbath

Keeping the Sabbath is making a comeback. Take a look at this chart from the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which measures the prevalence of phrases used in books over time:


Writers are referencing “Sabbath rest” more than they have since the end of the nineteenth century. Now, take a look at this chart, for the word “busy”:


Although we can’t assume that correlation is causation here, one can’t help but wonder if the rising interest in “Sabbath rest” is a kind of spiritual response to the busyness that is often lionized in our culture.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God practices Sabbath himself, resting after the work of creation. He also commands a Sabbath rest for his people as part of the Torah given to Moses. At that time, the Sabbath code was corporate, shockingly strict, and mandated. When we think about how to apply Sabbath to our lives today, we’re making a leap across time, space, and culture, and, most significantly, a leap to the way God’s covenant is now mediated by Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. Like other parts of the Torah, the Sabbath is part of God’s wisdom that may take a different form on this side of Jesus’ coming. The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival . . . or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Collossians 2:16-17 NIV). Rather than viewing verses like these as a reason to disregard Sabbath, we can embrace them as an indication of how Sabbath helps us today. The “shadow” of Sabbath points to the reality of Christ.


There’s a story from the book of Exodus that serves as a “shadow” like this, demonstrating how Sabbath experientially reinforces God’s provision. When the people of Israel are in the desert after escaping bondage in Egypt, God miraculously sends “bread from heaven” for them called manna (Exodus 16:4). A quirk of the miracle is that the manna is always only good for one day—except on Fridays, when the Israelites can gather two days’ worth and keep a Sabbath rest without gathering it the next day. The Israelites have to trust that God will make the manna last—that things will work out even if they rest. Some of them don’t. They are slow to learn this trust.


Now that we have Christ, who calls himself the “bread from heaven” (John 6:32), we have a permanent provision: Not bread to fill our stomachs that lasts for a day, but bread that fills our whole being with God’s life, which lasts forever. Jesus’ constant teaching was that his Father would meet our needs, both temporal and eternal. But even with this promise of provision, I find myself slow to learn to trust. I can feel like everything is really up to me, that God’s provision is insufficient without my ever-watchful effort. And if everything is really up to me, I can’t set boundaries with my work. No rest is sacred if the necessities of work dictate I put in another hour or another busy weekend. Although work is good, that kind of slavish commitment compounds my anxieties while eroding joy and gratitude. It saps me of the energy I need to love other people in ways other than work, like listening to a friend or playing with my friends’ kids. It also removes the opportunity to prayerfully reflect on my day, causing my awareness of God to recede to the corners of my experience.


The truth is that carrying that weight around is my choice. In terms of brute necessity, I have the economic privilege of taking a day off work. I was recently chatting with my friend Gloria, whose husband works five days a week with a cleaning service and four days a week at a pizzeria, with no full day off. As an immigrant family who are just trying to make ends meet, they would be ill-served by anyone guilting them about breaking the Sabbath. But their situation serves as a reminder that spiritual matters and social justice are intertwined. I want to work for a society in which everyone can put food on the table and take a Sabbath rest.


For me it’s a different story. If I find myself working seven days a week, it’s the result of an inner compulsion rather than any objective necessity. So, even though I don’t have a corporate, culture-wide rest imposed on me, I can creatively respond to my temptation to distrust God’s provision by practicing Sabbath as a discipline. There are two sides to Sabbath: ceasing from normal work, and celebrating life with God and the relationships he provides. For me, that looks like setting aside one day a week where I neither work my day job nor accomplish anything for Mission Central. Instead, I spend a little time paying attention to my relationship with God and a lot of time enjoying an unhurried day with people that matter to me.


I didn’t used to do this. A pastor challenged me to take a more robust view of Sabbath as a needed corrective to my tendency to overwork, and I took it to heart. Now, several years on the other side of this weekly practice, I can say it has significantly changed my relationship with work. I have less of that feeling of everything weighing me down until it is accomplished. My thoughts don’t tend toward the despair of “How long can I keep going like this?” like they used to. Instead, in the middle of the stressful week, I always have a light at the end of the tunnel: Sabbath is coming! A day of true rest and renewal is at most only six days away at any time. Most importantly, I have felt the grip of the lie that it’s all on me loosen from my heart, while my conviction grows that all will be well as my Father cares for me and mine.


Granted, I don’t have kids. My friends who are parents of young children experience Sabbath differently, as the stresses of keeping little human beings alive and well-loved don’t take the day off. But many parents are creatively embracing Sabbath in a way that still makes a difference. Even with the inevitable work of parenting continuing on Sabbath, the reality of Christ’s provision is available to all of us. He wants to teach all of us the lesson that our ultimate well-being is secured by his love, not by how much we work, as important as our work is. Practicing spiritual disciplines like Sabbath in a way that fits our circumstances is part of how we collaborate with him in teaching our hearts to trust him—and part of how we enjoy the provision he gives.


Stepping into Sabbath rest takes ingenuity, but it can start simple. Just answer these questions:

  • One day a week, what can I do to cease from my normal work?
  • That same day, what can I do to celebrate life with God and others?

Thankfulness

I like to think of thankfulness as the booster rocket of the spiritual life. It’s an easy practice to begin, and it helps launch us into the rest of the spiritual disciplines. It’s also one of the better-researched disciplines, with many social scientists looking at it through the lens of emotional health.


For example, studies have shown that a regular practice of writing what one is thankful for increases emotional resilience in the face of difficulty, reducing anxiety and even improving sleep. Thankfulness also increases happiness. Psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman once ran a study in which participants wrote a letter of gratitude to someone who had made a difference in their early life, and whom they had never “properly thanked.” Upon delivering the letter, “participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. . . with benefits lasting for a month.” 


Seligman’s study resonates with me because of a recent, similar experience: I found my fourth grade teacher on Facebook. Mrs. Bostrom had been hugely influential in my formation as a Christian, particularly when it came to reading the Bible. When I graduated from seminary this spring, she liked the post, and I thought to leave a comment telling her how much her teaching had meant to me. Even just remembering that exchange now, I’m sighing a contented sigh. Educators often receive so little thanks for life-changing influence. We students are usually like the nine lepers who didn’t come back to thank Jesus for healing them!


When we do turn back in gratitude, it completes the circle of meaning. The appropriate response to a gift of love is an expression of thanks. St. Thomas Aquinas writes about gratitude as a kind of “moral debt” that we need to pay. If we don’t pay it, we leave a spiritual obligation unfulfilled. But it’s not just a moral duty that motivates us—even if we were looking just to our own self-interest, saying “thank you” would be in order. When we voice our thanks, it does us good. God wires us to thrive through thankfulness.


Philosophers and theologians like Aquinas frame thankfulness as a virtue. That means it’s not just an action we perform, but rather a disposition of life that, Lord willing, increases over time and shapes our responses to our experiences more and more readily. Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). That daily petition is completed by daily gratitude for the daily bread God does supply, tracing the pattern on our hearts until the thankfulness comes easy, like the fit of a well-worn pair of shoes.


This view of thankfulness is complemented by contemporary brain research. Our brains are plastic, so our behavior, including thankfulness-oriented behavior, changes them over time. A study by brain scientist Joshua Brown and psychologist Joel Wong suggests that “simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.” A response of gratitude that takes some measure of effort today will become automatic a few months from now, as the neural pathway is strengthened by repetition.


That’s good news for both our spiritual maturity and our emotional health. As we put thankfulness into practice, it makes it easier for us to do the spiritual good of paying our “moral debt” to those who have helped us. At the exact same time, we benefit from how God structured us to experience more happiness and resilience when we are grateful. Significant spiritual and emotional change is available; we just have to take on the discipline of being thankful, which is fun anyway!


There are many ways we can engage the practice of thankfulness. Here are three ideas:

  • Journal each night, with five bullet points that start with the words “Thank you,” addressed to God, naming specific blessings from that day. Keep it up even, and especially, if the day was difficult. There’s no grace too small to give thanks for! 
  • Put Dr. Seligman’s study into practice: Who is someone that you know helped you in a significant way when you were young, but might not know you still remember it? Write a letter to them, and deliver it.
  • When interacting with waiters, cash register attendants, Uber drivers, and anyone else in the service industries, make a point to look them in the eye when you say “Thank you,” and mean it.

We’ll continue our investigation of practices for emotional health in Part 2. Until then, take the chance to experiment with Sabbath rest and gratitude. Both will make a difference.



Photo from Pegah on Pexels

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