Have you been feeling down lately? Turns out the remedy could be as close as your back porch. Over the past fifteen years or so, an increasing amount of research has gone into better understanding the relationship between our immune system and the way that our minds process emotions. It turns out that microbes, especially those found in our digestive track, “influence our immune systems, our smells, our mood, and possibly even our attractiveness to mosquitoes—and to other people,” often in a very positive way.
As Quartz‘s Zoe Schlanger points out, researchers have known for some time now that children who play in the dirt tend to have lower rates of asthma and allergies, as well as stronger immune systems in general. And recent studies have found that the benefits of being around microbes like M. vaccae don’t stop after childhood. They’ve been shown to reduce anxiety and depression with the hope that they might be able to help treat conditions like PTSD and mild traumatic brain injuries in the near future.
We often forget those lessons as we get older, though, and increasingly try to live sterilized lives. That’s not to say that we should never bathe, wash our hands, or go to the doctor, as the treatments that kill potentially helpful microbes also takes care of the ones that cause serious and potentially life threatening illnesses. But perhaps there’s something to the notion of being a little less protective against the germs that people have been living with since we first started playing with dirt in the garden (Genesis 2:15).
Finding a balance between those two extremes seems like the most helpful course. The same is often true of our walk with God as well. One of my favorite stories from Jesus’ ministry is Luke 10:38–42. Here we find Jesus and his disciples stopping to spend time at the home of Mary and Martha. While Martha is busy trying to get everything ready so that the Lord’s visit will go perfectly, Mary was simply sitting at his feet learning from him. When Martha comes in and, in a rather passive-aggressive way, asks Jesus to make Mary come help her, he responds instead that she’s chosen the better option and he’s not going to take it away from her.
In some translations, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good portion, but that’s misleading and not entirely true to the Greek. You see, Christ wasn’t demeaning what Martha was doing or implying that it wasn’t important. She was doing genuinely good things to get the house ready and prepare for his visit. The problem was that, in her efforts to serve Jesus, she neglected him and missed the opportunity to simply be in his presence.
How often do we make the same mistake in our lives? It’s easy to get so caught up in serving the Lord that we forget how important it is to simply spend time with him. Likewise, it can also be easy to enjoy his presence so much that we forget that a time comes when we have to put what he’s taught us into practice. Mary chose what was better for that moment, but I doubt Jesus would have been equally gracious if she never put those lessons into action.
Spiritual health requires balance in much the same way as our physical health. Go too far towards one extreme or the other and we’re no longer as effective for the kingdom, even if we’re busy doing genuinely good things. It’s helpful to note, though, that most of us tend to err in one direction or the other, and knowing our natural tendencies is a great first step towards maintaining the balance to which we’re called. Fortunately, we serve a God who knows us better than we know ourselves and stands ready to help us keep that balance. Will you let him?