Last week I had a surgery, and the recovery has gone well. By the time the weekend rolled around I felt pretty good. However, feelings can be deceiving.
I started playing with my two toddlers on their level, which means a lot of moving, carrying, and running. By the time Saturday night rolled around, I was a grumpy mess. I realized I had pushed too hard, and I needed to rest. But the next day was Sunday, and I had plenty of things to do the second I woke up. By God’s mercy, our church cancelled the evening service due to snow, and Sunday night I crashed again (a thousand thanksgivings for my patient wife!).
I had pushed too hard, and it exposed a struggle I have faced again and again in my spiritual life. I call it the Superman Complex.
It’s a Delicate Balance
Something about our culture rewards business. We tend to think that if we are busy we are doing something important. Or, to take it a step further, we tend to think that if we are doing something important, we can somehow ignore our physical limitations. Late nights and early mornings frequently fill our busy calendars. And it is true, the Bible does teach us to live with self-discipline and self-sacrifice (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). A quick look at Paul’s résumé dispels any notion of a care-free, comfortable Christian life (2 Corinthians 11:12-29).
But we also need to balance those truths with the biblical teaching that our individual bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are stewards of our bodies. More than that, all of our labors depend entirely on the Lord’s blessing. While we must sleep, God never does. He is constantly watching over his work.
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Rest is a divine gift to you and a reminder of your finite human limitations. It is a tool of humility that God gifted to all his creation from the very beginning (we could learn a thing or two from the animals!). It reminds us that, while we are stewards of our bodies and God’s work, we are only stewards. We are not God, and we still need our Sabbath rest.
Consider this often-misunderstood phrase about the Proverbs 31 woman that has guilt-tripped many a frazzled housewife: “Her lamp does not go out at night” (Proverbs 31:18b). That passage is not teaching that an industrious woman stays awake all night. Rather, it teaches that she prepared well by making sure her “night light” had enough oil and wick to last till morning. Sure, she may be an early riser (vs. 15), but she certainly isn’t superhuman. And neither are we. All of us need rest.
I am Not Superman.
Here’s a healthy exercise. Say, out loud, “I am not Superman.” You women may substitute “Wonder Woman” if you wish. It highlights the lie we too often believe.
We tend to think we can solve problems by pushing harder. If I just spent more time, gave more energy, used more force, I could get things to the next level. But it’s not true. We need to learn our limitations and accept them. We also need to refrain from pushing unfair expectations on others. Let me share a story from my own experience.
I enjoyed my freshman year of college. Since things had gone well, I decided to get more aggressive with my class schedule my sophomore year (push harder). I took over 20 credits, worked a part-time job on campus, and participated in sports, choir, and campus leadership roles (chaplain/chorister).
My daily scheduled looked something like this: rise at 5:30 am, get to work by 6 am, scrub pots and pans in the kitchen until 7:30 am, get cleaned up and head to class by 8 am, continue classes into the afternoon, then attend choir and/or sports practice around 4 pm, then study after dinner until 12 am (mixed with social events). The next morning I would wake up and repeat. My weekends were packed with homework, athletics, social life, outreach in the community, and church.
Half-way through the week I was wiped out. I remembered crashing many a Thursday evening, dreading Friday. I don’t tell you all that so you would think more of me. I tell you that to my shame. I was not being productive or fruitful for the Lord, I was being reckless with my body and destructive to my soul. I struggled with intense depression. I felt like a failure, and my grades, my relationships, my body, and my soul all cried out for help.
What strikes me is that, through this whole process, no one ever came to me and said, “Do you think you might be doing too much?” I was in a culture that prized that kind of lifestyle. Unfortunately, it is the modus operandi of countless churches, Christian schools, and Christian camps. As a result, we lose scores of pastors, teachers, Christian workers, and college students to ministerial burn-out. They just can’t keep up with the rat-race anymore, so they are placed on the shelf. Or they retract from ministry with unnecessary frustration and hurt. It ought not be this way. And it’s not just people in ministry who face this temptation. It’s all of us.
The Power of Weakness
But there’s a paradox in this whole discussion that needs to be addressed. God told the Apostle Paul that his weakness, his “thorn in the flesh,” was not a liability. Rather, it was a blessing. God used it as a means of humbling Paul and displaying God’s own power.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
In light of this passage, isn’t laboring to the point of exhuastion a good thing for Christians? As servants of God, we will suffer “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamaties.” When we embrace our trials and rely on God’s grace, God uses our weaknesses to magnify his power.
But here’s the issue. God-given afflictions and self-imposed recklessness are two different things. I was 100% responsible for the choices I made my sophomore year of college. I am accountable for how I treat my body. As one person wisely said, “It’s hard to be spiritual when you are not rested.” We drain God’s grace of it’s power when we rely on our own strength and refuse the rest God has given. We also endanger others when we force them down the same path.
We need to balance our lives with biblical truth. What looks good on the surface may not always be as noble as we thought. We need the quiet confidence of David.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
So say it with me, “I am not Superman. I am not Superman.” Thank goodness.