By Alan Ahlgrim
Too many times in my life my “stinkin’ thinkin’” and substandard theology led me to patterns that failed to improve my well-being. A few examples:
- I once determined to read the entire Bible out loud over the course of a year. That drained me more than blessed me.
- I once committed to a schedule that included both evening appointments and early morning meetings. Burning the candle at both ends left me flamed out. I was depleted by weariness and self-pity.
- I once adhered to a daily jogging regimen in all weathers. That led to injuries, especially when running on snow and ice.
I’ve learned most of my best lessons the hard way. The lessons are all rooted in enhancing well-being versus pursuing nonstop, demanding disciplines. I used to frequently talk—even brag—about my personal disciplines, goals, and habits, but now I prefer to talk about my life-giving rhythms. I now seek to share these lessons with other leaders near and far.
Not that I’m in perfect health. No one is in ideal condition for very long. We all have some nagging and even embarrassing limitations.
To help me deal well with those limitations, every morning I usually review the classic prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him in the next.
After reflecting on that, I told one of my doctors, “I’m learning to accept some physical limitations with my hearing, vision, and neck difficulties. But I’m also realizing I must courageously choose to do what I can to improve what I can. For me, that means regular exercise and medical care.”
One reason I remain consistent with both of these is that I want to remain as healthy as I can for as long as I can. I’m determined to enjoy a well-lived life!
I’m discovering my life will be no richer than my rhythms. I quickly feel out of whack and even out of sorts without them. Many people in the business world say, “Your systems are perfectly designed to get you what you are getting!” I’ll rephrase that by changing one word: “Your rhythms are perfectly designed to get you what you are getting.”
When I shared that with a covenant group as we reconnected on a Zoom call during COVID-19, a young leader said, “Now I realize what’s happening with me. Ever since the current crisis began, I stopped the life-giving rhythms. I’m now paying the price!”
Are you rhythmically thriving or merely surviving?These three areas of my life consistently produce the greatest return on investment for me:
- Reflection: I love to begin each day slowly soaking in God’s presence, listening for his leading, and seeking his prompting. It leads to ground me in God’s daily mercies.
- Relationships: I daily seek to connect with life-enhancing people who sharpen, deepen, and resource me. It leads to connect me with the gift of disciplined community.
- Recreation: Daily exercise isn’t an interruption in my life; it’s an enhancement. It leads to invigorate me in body, mind, and spirit with God’s creation.
These healthy rhythms help me thrive much more than those earlier nonstop, demanding disciplines. Thriving is all about well-being. King David prayed, “The Lord be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant” (Psalm 35:27).
Guilt may be a great short-term motivator, but only grace works well over the long term. I’m learning to focus more on the why and less on the what. Grace-full rhythms are the key to grace-filled living. As Anne Lamott wrote, “I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
It all comes back to the geometry of the cross. The vertical dimension points to a love relationship with God, and the horizontal, to a love relationship with others.
Multidimensional Aspects of Thriving
By God’s grace, I’m making some refreshing progress on my journey. While I don’t plan to take up dancing in old age, I do desire to learn more about the unforced rhythms of God’s grace. How about you?
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
By God’s grace, I’ve been led, through reflection, relationships, and recreation, to the land of well-being. Jesus said, “The thief’s purpose is to steal, kill and destroy . . .”—which sort of sounds like COVID-19 to me—but then he added, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10).
A rich and satisfying life is what we all want to enjoy; we don’t merely want to survive to the finish line, we want to thrive.
However, thriving is more than one-dimensional. We may be in fine physical health, but there is more to well-being than mere biology. Thriving is a multidimensional reality.
When visiting with my physician son recently, Joel said health is four-dimensional; it includes biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects. Medical science too often focuses exclusively on the easy-to-measure biological aspects of health but overlooks or minimizes the other factors. Studies have shown, for example, that stress, relationships, and even worship affect our health.
Health isn’t just a matter of good genetics and medications. Health is rooted in relationship. Human beings are marvelously complex. While we may have physical strength, without regular exercise we will soon experience lethargy and atrophy. Furthermore, without life-giving relationships, we will descend into an emotional quagmire of meaningless self-centeredness; conversely, “toxic” relationships can poison our spirit.
No one enjoys perfection in life, but we can experience overall well-being. For me, that comes back to depending on the grace of God by accepting the things I cannot change and assuming responsibility to change and improve the things I can. I alone can make those choices. It’s the same with you!
You probably know the sort of life-giving changes you need to make. It may mean getting a physical examination and taking proper medications. (Or it may mean getting off your “blessed assurance” so you can eliminate some medications!) It may mean practicing gratitude and trying to eliminate negativity. It may even mean ending your self-imposed isolation and embracing the joy-producing benefit of in-depth relationships. Regular exercise, healthy relationships, and encouragement can improve your brain health and biochemistry.
Whatever God-prompted changes come to mind for you, your well-being requires that you cooperate with the grace of God!
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Parts of this article are excerpted from my book, Soul Strength: Rhythms for Thriving (Illumify Media, 2022).
After 50 years of ministry, including almost three decades as founding pastor of Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Colorado, Alan Ahlgrim now serves as the chief soul-care officer of Covenant Connections for Pastors.