I've Listened to My Body. Now What?
“Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” -Mark 1:35
In pastoral ministry, it is often said that we should listen to our body. I give this counsel to others, and I believe I do a good job of practicing what I preach. However, while listening to what my body has to say to me is a noble task, essential for self-care, doing something about what it tells me is a more inconsistent discipline for me.
In Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, he reminds us that every therapist will tell you “healing involves discomfort—but so does refusing to heal. And, over time, refusing to heal is always more painful.” My body might tell me that I am hurting, but if I rest on my laurels for being so keen as to recognize that physiological pain and do nothing about it, it burrows like a bubble under the wallpaper of my psyche, preventing me from being whole as God intends.
Jesus was keenly aware of the tremendous weight on his shoulders during his ministry among us. He acknowledged not only what awaited him in Jerusalem as the terrible consequence for overturning the status quo’s oppressive tables, he recognized that being surrounded by people all the time who wanted to talk to and touch him, corner and challenge him had the potential of chiseling away at his mind, body, and spirit. The Scriptures don’t specifically spell it out this way, but I see Jesus listening to his body, pinpointing stressful pain that threatened the sustainability not only of his ministry, but of his personhood, his wholeness of self intended by God.
What the Scriptures do show us are those times when Jesus did something about what his body was telling him. After being surrounded by 5,000 hungry people and then miraculously dividing a few loaves of bread to feed them all, Jesus went up to a mountain by himself to pray (Mark 6:46). Just before going about the crucial task of choosing his twelve apostles, he went into the hills to pray all night (Luke 6:12). Moments before he would be arrested and taken away from his friends to be crucified, Jesus spent time in the Garden of Gethsemane in ardent prayer (Matthew 26:36-45; Mark 14:32-41; Luke 22:39-46). He probably could have kept going without those prayerful pitstops. I mean, he was the Son of Man, the Human One, the Word made flesh! But when the Word embodies Itself in humanity, the Word takes on limitations. Jesus could have kept going without addressing the burdens welling up within him, but I wonder how his refusal to address what his body was telling him might have affected his ministry—what we cherish as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Menakem writes about two types of pain popularized by Dr. David Schnarch and Dr. Steve Hayer: “clean pain” and “dirty pain”: “Clean pain is pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth. It’s the pain you experience when you know, exactly, what you need to say or do; when you really, really don’t want to say or do it; and when you do it anyway. It’s also the pain you experience when you have no idea what to do; when you’re scared or worried about what might happen; and when you step forward into the unknown anyway, with honesty and vulnerability…Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain. They also create more of it for themselves and others.” Again, the Scriptures don’t have those terminologies, but Jesus doing something about his mounting burdens by going off to pray alone, intentionally cutting himself off from the warmth of community to be in meditative solitude and silence, wherein his relationship with God was fostered, kept his pain clean: mending his mind, body, and spirit, and building his divinely intended capacity for growth. Without that purposeful discipline, without Jesus doing something about the grumblings of his human body, maybe the admonishments Jesus spoke to his disciples when their faith was weak, and to the Pharisees and religious leaders when their faith was hypocritical, would have been spoken less in love and more in projections of dirty pain, which is not what God intends for any of us.
Prayer: “Holy One, by your grace, make me whole. Catch me in my anxious scurrying long enough to listen to what this beautiful body you gave me is telling me, and then turn my stubborn attention to Jesus. Open the tight fists of my refusal to take time for addressing the burdens that weigh me down in mind, body, and spirit, and the pain that inflicts my wholeness. Make my hands open to the blessings found in the discipline of intentional self-care. By the example of Jesus and the guidance of your Spirit, lead me on paths of healing that are ready and waiting for me today that I would not meander and stray down paths of avoidance that put off the mending and growth found in your abundant love. Give me a clean heart, O God, that I would continue to follow you all the days of my life. Amen.”