What would you say if I told you that being a Christian isn’t just about your spiritual life? What if going deeper in your faith could mean so much more if you considered that God wants you to take care of yourself? How would you respond if I said that in taking a look at this, you could honour God with all areas of your life?
Let me begin where I should, with the Word of God and two of my favourite verses. In John 10: 10 Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” I sincerely believe that God wants you to have abundant life, or whole life. But I believe that to understand what abundant life looks like, you need to be holistic. What does this mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary, holistic understanding is “characterized by the belief that the parts of something are explicable only by reference to the whole.” Let me explain. You are a spiritual being. But you also have a physical body, mental processing, emotional responses, and social connections. You are not solely a spiritual being. When you consider going deeper in your faith, you actually need to consider all aspects of your life and not just the spiritual part. Mark 12: 30 reads, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” I believe that when you look at addressing issues in all areas of your life, you can actually live a fuller life with, and for, God.
I’m not sure about you, but somewhere back as a teenager, I got this belief stuck in my head that faith was only about being spiritual. I thought that if I worshipped, prayed, and ticked off the spiritual boxes then my life would be great. But there was a nasty tension, because I knew that my mind, my emotions, my body, and my social environment affected how I saw God, how I knew God, and how I saw life. When I was in high school, I liked to compartmentalize my life: it was easier that way. Church was for Sunday, youth group was for Thursday night, and the rest of the week was school, sports, parties, friends, and my family. I knew that obviously my mental state affected how I saw God. I knew that I was supposed to honour my body, and only put good and healthy stuff in it. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be an emotional wreck all the time. But life as a teenager just felt hard and challenging, and I had no real practical ways or tools to sort myself out.
In 2011, I spent three months working for an organization called Life in Abundance, in Kenya. It was here that I encountered the idea that faith isn’t just about spiritual elements; it is also about mental and emotional factors, as well as physical and social aspects. Faith – and life – needs to be holistic.
I have a nursing degree, so this holistic understanding was not unfamiliar. Within the big world of health, holistic understanding encompasses big level stuff (macro level) – things like culture, economics, and the public sphere. I am not going to focus on that level here – it’s too much information for a wee short article. But please recognize that these factors can affect you. I am instead going to talk specifically about your mental and emotional wellbeing, your physical health, and your social interactions. I’m not going to really touch on the spiritual side, because I am confident that you often hear about it at church and youth group. Just understand and remember that everything is connected. Different elements of each area will turn up in the others.
Mental and emotional wellbeing
What do you think of when you hear the word mental? Automatically, I think of mental illness. But that’s not really what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about a few things relating to how your brain works and develops as a teenager, and why this is important. I also want to give you some ideas about how to keep an eye on your mental state.
How much do you know about how your brain functions? Well, it is fascinating! Your brain is full of nerves and their connections. Big groups of these nerves make up certain areas that are dedicated to certain functions. One area is the cortex. Among many other functions, it is where reason, logic, and rational thinking are formed. Another area is the limbic system. This is your emotional core. As a young person, your cortex is still developing and your brain relies heavily on your limbic system to make decisions. Have you ever been told that you are an emotional and angsty teenager? Well, that’s maybe because your brain functions are fighting among themselves trying to figure out if you should listen to your emotions or use good judgement!
Having said that, you have the opportunity to decide between positive and negative risks. Positive risks might include the decision to go on a camp, speak publically, learn something new, or volunteer. Negative risks might include choosing to drive badly, choosing to mess with drugs and alcohol, or choosing risky sexual behaviours. Even though some of these things are thought acceptable in our culture, they are not good or wise choices. So, as you wrestle with your emotions you might need some help as you learn how to make wise choices which will increase your ability to cope with adult life. You need to learn to decide in every situation if you are an asset or a liability, and accept responsibility for your attitude.
Your limbic system also has incredible power (not just in young people) to hold you back from developing good habits, or breaking the bad ones in your life. The process is called limbic lag, and it is the gap between what your emotions tell you, and what you know would be good for you. It takes three weeks on average for your limbic system to catch up with your decision-maker. So, when you want to make a habit that is good for you, push through the negative feelings you might associate with the new habit, and try sticking with it for a minimum of three weeks straight. (1), (2)
You might have heard the phrase, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” This is all about how the brain prunes the nerve connections that you don’t use. But the brain also undergoes a process called myelination. This is something that started before you were born and continues into adulthood, and it helps your brain send messages quicker. You might have noticed that it is easier for children to learn new languages and music, for example, but harder as people get older. Well, that’s because as you grow up the brain busily prunes the things you don’t use, and establishes strong connections for the things that you do often. So, you have a great opportunity while you are still young to learn and train your brain in certain ways! Something that I have found really valuable, for my mental and emotional health, is monitoring my self-talk through a process called cognitive restructuring. The more we tell ourselves negative things, the easier it is to believe them. When we reconstruct those negative things into positive thoughts and the truth, we challenge our thinking and can cause it to become happier and healthier. How can you identify positive truths? You can ask questions like, “Is what you are saying to yourself actually true?” or, “What is God’s perspective?” or, “Is what I am telling myself adding value to my life?”
Ignoring your physical health can have detrimental effects. The best practice I know when it comes to addressing your physical health is to aim for balance: look at your exercise, sleep, and nutrition.
An often quoted rule for exercise is to aim for thirty minutes a day. But why bother? Exercise is important because it releases endorphins. Endorphins make you feel good, and you are likely to experience more peace and be happier. When you exercise, you reinforce good physical practice, and can receive a sense of accomplishment. You also lower the risk of several diseases for your future, and it can help with your sleep.
Sleep as a young person is so important, but often so neglected. Teenagers need around nine hours of sleep a night. We all know that late nights are part of adolescence, but those late nights should be the exception and not the norm. Better sleep can give you more energy to do what you love, and can make you better at doing those things. It can cause your brain to remember more, reduce your stress levels, improve your mood, and allow better control over your emotions. It can strengthen your immunity and physical health, impact your physical appearance, and affect how well you eat and drink!
Eating well is becoming a popular topic. But there is good reason for it. The way that your body responds to junk food, take-aways, sugary drinks (including lots of fruit juice), and lollies has more negative impact than we ever realized. These foods need to be the exceptions, and not the normal everyday foods. Having a healthy diet - with enough fruits and veggies - will impact on all areas of your life, and improve your wellbeing. Not only does your physical health (including your skin and weight) benefit from eating healthily, but your energy levels will be steadier, and your brain functions better. If you don’t like veggies…you need to learn to get over it! Your body will thank you, and your taste buds will learn to like healthy delicious food.
Welcome to the world of trust. You need to learn how to use wise vulnerability. This is the art of trusting the right people, and not allowing the wrong people to speak into your life. My advice, when it comes to who your friends are, is to test first and proceed with caution. Develop an inner circle of people you know are trustworthy. Here are a few tips for how you relate to others:
- Be intentional about who you allow to invest in your life.
- Make friends with people who draw you closer to who you want to be, and closer to God.
- Build bridges. Don’t burn them unless it’s completely necessary.
- Learn how to listen. It will blow your mind how much easier life becomes.
- Recognize the attention seekers and problem makers. Love them, but don’t seek advice from them.
- If it’s always everyone else’s fault, it’s probably your problem.
On a final note, let me tell you about being assertive. I did a course with Soul Tour a few years back, and they had some great things to add to my understanding. I like Wikipedia’s definition of assertiveness: “the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive.” You should learn the art of being assertive with friends, family, those in church, and teachers because it allows you to bring yourself to a relationship, and not be compromised by other people. Let’s say that there is a situation where you feel squashed or intimidated by someone else. Here are some keys to being assertive:
- Plan what to say in advance.
- Pick your timing. For example, try not to choose a time when either of you are especially tired or under stress, and give yourself enough time to talk.
- Use “I” statements. This is all about how you phrase something. For example, your conversation is likely to go better if you say something like, “I feel like I’m not getting a say in what we do,” rather than saying, “You always have to have your own way.”
- Acknowledge your own faults.
- Let them know what you want.
- Don’t interrupt if they disagree with you. Don’t attack them for what they say. Stay respectful.
- Leave their response to them.
- If it’s going nowhere, then get some outside help.
Here is my disclaimer: I am writing from my experience, opinion, and education. I am no expert, and still have much to learn when it comes to working with young people. But hopefully this article has given you some things to think about. God wants you to live a full and exciting life. The mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of your life are all interconnected. Allow yourself to open your eyes to see God in all the different aspects of your life... Who knows where you will go!
Story: Kate Sawyer
Kate is the Youth Pastor at Palmerston North Central Baptist Church.
- Do you agree that life as a Christian is about more than just your spiritual life?
- How much do you understand about how your brain works and develops? What could you do to understand yourself and others better?
- How good is your physical health? Are there some simple aims that you could set yourself for the coming year?
- Do you have any difficult relationships in your life at the moment? How could the advice here help you?
1. Mariam Arain, Maliha Haque, Lina Johal, Puja Mathur, et al., “Maturation of the adolescent brain,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 9 (2013): 449-461, doi: 10.2147/NDT.S39776.
2. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, “The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain”, TED, ted.com/talks/sarah_jayne_blakemore_the_mysterious_workings_of_the_adolescent_brain/transcript.
Photo credit: Prixel Creative/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.