I’m grateful to Shona Murray for writing this book, Refresh: Embracing a grace-paced life in a world of endless demands (Crossway, 2017). It is both sensible and scriptural. It speaks to real problems that many people struggle with, and it distils some significant theological principles so as to speak clearly and accessibly to people’s needs.
The problem Dr Murray addresses is running out of energy for spiritual things, because of overdoing it in everyday things. Surely all believers get concerned at some stage or other about their lack of spirituality. But maybe not all believers have access to the pastoral sanity that recognises the complexity of the human person and the strange interactions within a person between the spiritual, the psychological, and the physical. It’s not as if spiritual problems (lack of assurance, lack of trust, feeling far away from God or forsaken by the Lord) are always only purely spiritual – occurring entirely in a vacuum detached from problems such as anxiety, depression, tiredness, illness, or social isolation. Rather, when people are run down and worn out by earthly, temporal things, they are more vulnerable to wavering in the spiritual domain too.
Murray’s advice to anyone who is struggling in this way is, correspondingly, both spiritual and practical.
On the spiritual front, Murray talks about a ‘grace-paced life.’ The abounding grace of God motivates his people to live lives of thankfulness. The accepting grace of God delivers his people from legalistic striving to earn or maintain his approval. The rewarding grace of God frees his people to be diligent in whatever they do while safely leaving the outcome up to him. The providential grace of God means his people can accept setbacks as part of his goodness. And the giving grace of God leads his people to receive the care he provides for them in the gifts of rest and comfort. Lives genuinely informed and deeply influenced by these aspects of God’s grace would surely be lived at a calm and steady, thankful and cheerful pace. (p12-14).
These principles have implications for practice. The book imagines you doing an induction session when you join a new gym. It walks you round a series of stations, a chapter for each, with advice for a different area of life at each one.
If I can summarise this advice, not so much in the way it is presented in the book as in the way it makes most sense to me, it falls into three rough categories.
The first would be, using the means. God provides us with all sorts of means to sustain life and make life comfortable. We need to eat, sleep, exercise, and plan our schedules, for example. We can’t casually regard ourselves as able to dispense with these ordinary means and still expect our lives (including our spiritual lives) to run successfully. There is a whole chapter on rest, for instance, which insists on the importance of getting enough sleep, exposing the myth that sleep is only for the weak, and the wrongheadedness of taking pride in how little sleep we can get by on. It is a useful feature of this book that Murray includes advice about these apparently very basic things, because the most spiritually minded saint is still a frail and finite human being who needs to recognise the frame that God has given us and live accordingly.
The second category of advice would be, using the gifts. God gives us (especially, privileged twenty first century Westerners) more than the bare necessities for mere existence. For example, medicine is a gift that is available for us to use when we need to and not despise. Murray provides a careful, thoughtful exploration of the value of taking antidepressant medication. ‘Don’t rush to take antidepressants … Don’t rule out antidepressants … Don’t rely on medication alone.’ (p141-148)
For another example, it is in God’s kindness that our lives do not need to be one unremitting drudge but that we can from time to time find enjoyment and restoration. Murray recognises two aspects of many women’s experience which are not often talked about in either evangelical or Reformed contexts. One is the demands of work. It is normal for women to work, and to work in pressurised roles. The other aspect of experience is how demanding motherhood can be. There is no pretence here that motherhood is some blissful, noble calling in which every mother finds nothing but joy and fulfilment. Looking after small children is hard, frustrating, boring, incessant work, and Murray, mercifully, acknowledges this.
She makes the point that people need to build in times of relaxation or refreshment at regular intervals – she says daily, weekly, and annually (p85ff). The daily refreshment is not your daily devotions, but a time to relax and do something enjoyable. The weekly refreshment is the sabbath (‘a joyful day of rest and refreshment centred on the worship of God…’) which is certainly a gift. The annual refreshment is a yearly holiday.
As something of an afterthought, Murray adds something called seasonal refreshment, by allusion to Solomon’s seasons and times. Seasons could be times of bereavement, relocation, retirement, etc., and the advice is to identify the season and adjust accordingly. Here there is also the briefest of mentions of hormones (cycles, pregnancy, nursing, menopause). This could perhaps have been usefully expanded on, because the interaction between hormones and spirituality is not straightforward. Just as you learn not to take it as a sure sign of new found tenderness in the things of grace when it’s really only the weepy phase of your cycle, you also learn not to over-commit wildly in the high energy phase, embarking on life-changing new regimes which are simply not sustainable, or even sensible, a few days later. However, individuals can work out their own way to follow the suggestion of “accepting reality and working with it, not against it,” and to avoid thinking that “I essentially have to ignore the constraints of my [current] season” (p99-100) and carry on regardless.
The third category of advice is thinking straight. The book gives comprehensive pointers to how to think accurately about ourselves and about God.
Murray opens her book with a description of an experience of burnout which will ring true for many people. She then gives examples of how to review your whole situation to see what warning signs there might be of a looming breakdown (and how to evaluate the seriousness of these signs). The warning signs range from physical and mental, through emotional, relational and vocational, to moral and spiritual. Previous generations of Reformed believers understood the value of self-examination. Plenty sources give questions we can put to ourselves to assess our spiritual condition (unconverted? converted? backsliding believer? growing in grace?). But the special strength of Murray’s ‘Reality Check’ chapter is that it takes a holistic view and invites us to think clearly and honestly about every aspect of ourselves, body and mind included, and our situations, taking in work and relationships as well as use of the means of grace.
Murray also constantly returns to how we should think of the Lord. He is glorious in himself and he deserves that we should glorify him. He has made us this way – frail creatures of dust, frail creatures of time. He looks after us and our families and our responsibilities when we are unable to, including when we are asleep or when we are ill. This adds up to helping us think straight about ourselves in relation to God. Our lives should be a response to his mercy and kindness. Other people’s amazing feats of endurance or success do not set the bar for any other one of us. As believers, if we see that he is in total control of providence, we can give up our selfish perfectionism. If we accept his verdict that we are sinners, we must also accept his verdict that we are dead to sin and alive to Christ, and live accordingly.
Refresh is not a book for everyone. It is not particularly for unbelievers, although there is advice here that anyone could act on, because the reader is assumed to be familiar already with the grace of God. It is not perhaps for believers who have lots of time on their hands, who might feel that as they do not live life at a frantic pace they have no excuse for a low spiritual condition. But it is, oddly enough, for people who think they are at no risk of burnout and are never going to find themselves dealing with depression. Even if a reader hasn’t slipped beyond the ‘stressed’ and ‘anxious’ stages to ‘burned out -> sad -> depressed -> suicidal,’ nobody is immune to the pressures of life lived in a fallen world, and everybody can benefit from a clearer grasp of their limitations and God’s provisions.
And Refresh is certainly helpful for those who are consciously struggling, who know that something is wrong, and who want to get their lives back on track to glorify God. Here is some friendly advice from a qualified, experienced confidant. God’s people in God’s providence need to make use of God’s means and God’s gifts, and God’s revelation of who we are and who he is. ‘Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.’