The Minister and His Relaxation
The subject of the minister and his relaxation is a sub-division of the subject of the minister's self-discipline. It is an aspect of the mental and physical hard work associated with a faithful Christian ministry. Interestingly, Charles Bridges deals with the subject under the heading 'Want of Christian Self-denial'. He wisely states:
Far be it from the writer to advocate ascetic austerity ... He would not forget that we are men as well as ministers; servants and not slaves ... And let him not suppose that his Master requires labour when both his body and spirits demand rest. A wise management of diversion will tend rather to strengthen than to enervate the tone of his spiritual character and the power of his ministry.1
This aspect of self-discipline is sometimes overlooked. A Russian proverb advises, 'Mix work with leisure and you'll never go mad.' But what we need is clear biblical principles to guide us. In Preaching and Preachers Dr Lloyd-Jones makes the point that we are all individuals. 'Jack Sprat', he reminds us, 'could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean.' 2 We are all different and what suits one temperament will not suit another. Former Premier Edward Heath complained recently that the present Prime Minister is 'stale and repetitive because she rarely takes time off'. Prime Ministers differ and so do gospel ministers. In spite of this we do not then say, 'Let every man do what is right in his own eyes.' Rather we turn to the Scriptures for a theology of mental and physical relaxation. The fine tuning for the individual can be done once the basic principles have been laid down. We can discern at least three important principles.
1. The Importance of the Body
To despise the body is Greek, not Christian. Paul does emphasise the spiritual. Godliness has value for all things; but not to the exclusion of the corporeal. Physical training is of some value (1 Timothy 4:8). We must never forget: 'The body is ... for the Lord and the Lord for the body.' 'Do you not know', Paul asks the Corinthians, 'that your bodies are members of Christ himself ... a temple of the Holy Spirit?' 'You are not your own; you were bought at a price, therefore honour God with your body' (1 Corinthians 6:13, 15, 19, 20). 'Present your bodies as living sacrifices', he says in Romans 12:1.
This is very important for the Christian minister for at least three reasons.
In his essay in a book Preaching, R. C. Sproul argues that if a man is to 'survive the rigours of effective preaching' he must be physically strong. He estimates that half an hour's preaching can use up as much energy as eight hours' manual labour (if done properly!). Dr Billy Graham was cautioned against the dangers of physical exhaustion due to preaching. Paul is a biblical example of a preacher who, despite many other weaknesses, must have been physically strong to endure all he did. In the light of this, Sproul took up jogging.3
In another essay in the same volume, Gwyn Walters adds,
The self-image and self-confidence of preachers will vary (unless the grace and Spirit of God intervene) in terms of how they feel bodily. They are helped if they feel they can convey that they are disciplining their body through diet, exercise and rest, and look and feel healthy with radiant colour and absence of pain, weakness and fatigue. A clear conscience regarding gluttony, overindulgence, lethargy and laziness as they affect physical appearance also helps. 4
Ministers also need to pay attention to their bodies because of the sedentary nature of much of their task. In seeking to isolate some of the factors that lead to ministerial depression, David Kingdon notes,
If we would feed our people with the finest of wheat we must spend long hours in our studies. The result is that we can, if we neglect regular exercise, become sluggish and peculiarly liable to attacks of depression. An allied problem can be 'workaholism'. 'There is always more to be done, always that extra visit, those few more pages to be read, that letter to be written. So the minister becomes a stranger to relaxation ... Utterly weary, he drags himself each day to perform his spiritual duties.'5
Spurgeon quotes Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy to the same effect and adds his own call to relax with the beauties of nature in his essay, 'The Minister's Fainting Fits.'6
It is not out of place to mention the duty of self-preservation and the wisdom of extending our usefulness as much as we can. We admire men like M'Cheyne and Brainerd in spite of, not because of, their premature deaths. Luther and Owen both suffered in later life because of earlier physical neglect. They both regretted their immaturity. If suicide is a sin, then surely to neglect physical and mental health is a fault of the same species. The facts about healthy eating and regular exercise are well known. The over-enthusiasm of some for these things does not invalidate the need for them.
2. The Sabbath or Rest Principle
Gordon MacDonald closes his very helpful little book Ordering your Private World with a chapter entitled 'Rest beyond Leisure'. Despite the 'leisure industry' few people today, it seems, know how to rest. And so MacDonald reiterates what is not only the fourth commandment but a creative ordinance honoured by the Lord himself, the need to rest one day in seven. Exodus 31:17 tells us that on the seventh day of creation, God 'abstained from work and rested' or, literally, 'refreshed himself'. God himself cannot need rest, but he has laid down a pattern for us. Pausing to look back, to look forward and to refresh ourselves in Christ is a Christian duty and privilege. Wilberforce once lamented the suicide of a fellow politician with these words, 'With peaceful Sundays the strings would never have snapped as they did from over-tension.'
Of course, for the minister there is no regular Lord's Day Sabbath. But are we to be so wooden in our approach to Scripture that we fail to see that the Sabbath principle applies even so? When Jesus said to his disciples, in Mark 6:31, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest', he was not introducing a new commandment but implementing an old one in the only way possible in their situation. Ministers must do the same.
But how? Following a four-month sabbatical, Gordon MacDonald and his wife came to an important decision affecting their rest-time. After their return to the pastorate, Thursday became their rest day or (as they liked to call it) their 'Sabbath'. As he says, 'Obviously every Thursday could not be budgeted for Sabbath, but that became the norm'. He adds the vital point that, 'We do not rest because our work is done; we rest because God commanded it and created us to have need for it.' 7
David Kingdon accuses ministers of trying to be wiser in this respect than their Creator. 'We are the worst Sabbath breakers in the best of causes', he says. 8
Spurgeon writes similarly:
The bow cannot be always bent without fear of breaking. Repose is as needful to the mind as sleep to the body. Our Sabbaths are our days of toil, and if we do not rest upon some other day we shall break down. Even the earth must lie fallow and have her Sabbaths, and so must we. Hence the wisdom and compassion of our Lord, when he said to his disciples, 'Let us go into the desert and rest awhile.'
Does some red-hot zealot denounce such atrocious forgetfulness of present and pressing demands? Let him rave in his folly. The Master knows better than to exhaust his servants and quench the light of Israel. Rest time is not waste time. It is economy to gather fresh strength. Look at the mower in the summer's day, with so much to cut down ere the sun sets. He pauses in his labour — is he a sluggard? He looks for his stone, and begins to draw it up and down his scythe, with 'rink-a-fink — rink-a-fink — rink-a-fink'. Is that idle music — is he wasting precious moments? How much he might have mown while he has been ringing out those notes on his scythe! But he is sharpening his tool, and he will do far more when once again he gives his strength to those long sweeps which lay the grass prostrate in rows before him.
To tug the oar from day to day, like a galley-slave who knows no holidays, suits not mortal men. Mill-streams go on and on for ever, but we must have our pauses and our intervals. Who can help being out of breath when the race is continued without intermission? Even beasts of burden must be turned out to grass occasionally; the very sea pauses at ebb and flood; earth keeps the Sabbath of the wintry months; and man, even when exalted to be God's ambassador, must rest or faint; must trim his lamp or let it burn low; must recruit his vigour or grow prematurely old. It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less. On, on, on for ever, without recreation, may suit spirits emancipated from this 'heavy clay, but while we are in this tabernacle, we must every now and then cry halt, and serve the Lord by holy inaction and consecrated leisure. Let no tender conscience doubt the lawfulness of going out of harness for a while, but learn from the experience of others the necessity and duty of taking timely rest. 9
3. The Need for Variety
This is implicit in the previous principle but ought to be stated separately. The world says, 'Variety is the spice of life'. More accurately, the Lord has so made us that we need variety, rhythm, pattern in our lives. This is one of the points made in Ecclesiastes 3 and Proverbs 25:27, for example. In a magazine article, Richard Chester says, 'My experience has been that it is not so much the amount of activity that causes tiredness, but rather that it is the lack of variety that causes staleness.' 10'The devoted servant of God will find a measure of relaxation in turning from the more painful to the more soothing exercises of his work', says Bridges. Dr D. M. Lloyd-Jones makes the same point with reference to the need for variety in the minister's reading matter.11 change can be as good as a rest.
With these three principles in mind we can proceed to some practical points.
1. A Day Off
In view of what has been said about the Sabbath, surely every minister should take off at least one day in the week. It will, of course, have to be a 'moveable feast' but a set day is advisable. Even Lord's Day Sabbaths are sometimes legitimately lost. If this approach is rejected, a realistic alternative must be pursued. It can happen 'at any time in large or small doses.' 12
In an anonymous article entitled 'The pastor is ill', one minister pleads, 'God's ministers need holidays. This ... is conveniently overlooked by (those) Christians who seem to be intent on breaking their pastor's mortal frame in the shortest possible time.' He argues for several breaks a year and the church's responsibility to make this possible financially. The minister should not have to preach when he is away to finance the trip. Some men have simply never learned to say 'no'. Another pitfall to be avoided is the 'busman's holiday' which is really no holiday at all but yet more Christian service.
3. Other Breaks
The practice of 'swapping pulpits' from time to time is to be encouraged. It has many advantages. Four or five Sundays a year seems about right. At least one fraternal and one annual conference is good but too many committees is not. David Kingdon adds a plea for sabbatical leave at regular intervals, which is the practice in many other countries.
4. Physical Exercise
In view of what has been said, physical exercise is a must. It does not have to be jogging! I play badminton once a week with a colleague and try to find time for a swim. Many play squash. Jonathan Edwards apparently chopped logs and Flavel would ride on horseback. Charles Simeon used to walk on the roof of his Cambridge apartments, and John Murray would do the 'Murray mile' after lunch. Spurgeon loved walking in the woods. An American, Dr Theodore Cuyler, remembered walking with Spurgeon one day and 'conversing in high spirits'. Suddenly he stopped and said, 'Come, Theodore, let us thank God for laughter.' 13
The place of laughter in relaxation ought not to be forgotten either.
A hobby or another interest can be useful. We need to take care, however. 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.' But all play and no work makes men mere smatterers. I know of men with artistic and musical skills who just have to let them rust for fear of their former professions taking over. Ernest Kevan used to advise his students to read the newspaper standing up so that they avoided wasting time on it. Some similar procedure needs to be found with other pastimes. Under this heading we may mention what Dr Lloyd-Jones has to say about music. He speaks of the enjoyment he himself derived from music and mentions Karl Barth's fondness for Mozart. 'A general stimulus' he goes on, '...is often more helpful than a more particular intellectual one. The man himself is bigger than his intellect ... Anything that does you good, puts you into a good mood or condition, anything that pleases you or releases tensions and relaxes you is of inestimable value.' 14
6. Family Life
The situation will vary from person to person and from period to period. But for all of us this will include some contribution to the household chores 15 and probably some handiwork too. This is apart from the need at least to acknowledge the existence of others under the same roof from time to time. Richard Chester is very honest when he writes:
I know that it is my responsibility as a father to spend time with my children. But I have found it very easy to do this in a legalistic fashion with my mind on other things, so that I almost begrudge the time spent in this way. Similarly, pastors may be told of their duty to spend one evening a week sitting with their wife. So they come out of the study armed with a pile of papers and books and simply change their place of work for one evening! When I play with my children or relax with my wife, I must do it heartily as to the Lord.16
Finally, for any who have neglected such principles let me quote again from David Kingdon's essay:
Remember the limitations of your bodily strength. If you are thoroughly tired in body (and therefore in mind as well) do not drive yourself on by sheer will-power. Do not be afraid to go to your church officers and tell them that you must have a rest from your ministerial labours. It is better to do this sooner rather than later, before you are prostrated for a lengthy period.17