Much has been written on this theme by many far wiser, but God has graciously blessed me with a vocation that I love and is teaching me lots about how to live out this command to love others as we love ourselves, both in my professional life (in a secular state school) and in my personal life.
State schools are often very high intensity environments and I think a by-product of these environments can be very intense relationships, with colleagues and pupils alike. Furthermore, I have been heavily involved with my church and a number of projects, all of which involve intense relationships. I think stress, my own and other people’s, had warped my understanding of how to love others and love myself, in both professional and personal environments. As a result, I have learnt the hard way that loving others without loving yourself, that is, without taking good care of yourself, is ultimately very detrimental to your health (physical, emotional, spiritual) and to the very individuals or causes you serve.
Jesus is very clear that we, as His followers, are to love and serve others sacrificially, out of our poverty not just from what we can spare. However, I think that perhaps the message from the other side of the coin is often forsaken. Our God is one who has commanded that we rest, because He knows that we need to, for our own wellbeing. Jesus took time out to rest, to pray, to be restored. In Luke’s Gospel (5:16), it is noted that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” He knew how to say “no”: there must have been numerous dinners, important meetings and requests made of His time that He said “no” to, in order to maintain His perfect balance in life, for the sake of His ministry. God does not ask us to be a doormat and put up with whatever a colleague, neighbour, friend or relation throws at you. Jesus was gentle but strong, and He sacrificially loved and served others, but He was not passively allowing others to exploit His energy and resources unsustainably.
I read a book on this theme, “Boundaries” by Dr H Cloud and Dr J Townsend, which really helped me articulate some of the things I was struggling with and allowed me to begin to re-image godly boundaries in all areas of my life. I realised that the confidence to say “no”, when requests were made that I really did not have capacity for (without some other element of my work or wellbeing suffering further) is crucial, and a gift and liberty that God gives us. Establishing new, healthy boundaries in environments and relationships where perhaps they were lacking is really hard. But by God’s grace, devotion to prayer, with support from trusted friends and family, it has been possible to gain back some ground. As a result, not only has my energy and health been picking up, but I feel so much more equipped for new professional and personal relationships. Furthermore, I know that the work God has been doing in me has enabled me to support others in addressing similar challenges.
This is not at all to say that we are not called to love and serve sacrificially, as I truly believe we are. And there are always going to be relationships that are necessarily less balanced. However, as Jesus modelled, we still need boundaries that allow us to live out the calling God has put on our lives, without burning out. My lack of understanding of how to do this nearly pushed me out of teaching but in His goodness, God has been teaching me how to walk more closely with Him, to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:29, The Message). He has also gifted me new opportunities to continue the journey in education, in the classroom. I want to encourage you that when prayerfully put in place, healthy boundaries in your professional and personal life can allow a more truly Christ-like life, as you seek to love others as you love yourself.
Emily is a secondary school geography teacher and has lived in various places around the world. London is currently her home.
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