Words and phrases come and go. Both within the church and without, they often rise for a while, then quietly slip into decline and disuse. It is an annual tradition for dictionaries to announce the new words they are adding as well as the antiquated ones they are removing. In recent days, I’ve repeatedly heard the phrase “self-care,” or one of its many synonyms. I’ve heard it used in church contexts and in secular ones. I’ve seen Christians and non-Christians alike laud it or lament it, describe it as a key to health or bash it as a frivolous waste. I’ve heard many wonder: Should Christians emphasize self-care?
As is so often the case, I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which self-care is one of our most basic responsibilities before God and our fellow man. Yet there is another sense in which it can be in direct opposition to our most basic responsibilities before God and man. Definitions and proportions make all the difference.
A basic tenet of the Christian worldview is that we are to care. To care is to provide “what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something.” From the very beginning, human beings were charged with caring for God’s creation and everything in it. And while even the somethings are important, we have a special responsibility toward the someones, for it is the ones who bear the image of God. We see the provision of care as essential to the Old Testament Law and the New Testament church alike. We see care as essential to family and social relationships. Bound up within the second great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the duty of care.
Yet also bound up within it is the acceptance of some level of self-care. After all, we are not to love our neighbors instead of ourselves but as ourselves. We need to be careful here. We are naturally self-infatuated and prone to elevate ourselves over others, despite the Bible’s calls to radical self-denial. I don’t see this commandment calling us to self-obsession. But I’d still maintain there is an appropriate form of self-care.
The Bible makes it clear that we are more than mere body or mere soul, but a mysterious unity of both (and so much more). We know there are close ties between our physical and emotional health, or between our emotional and spiritual well-being. We quickly learn that we have more quantity and quality of care to give others when we have taken care of ourselves. This makes sense, since our care flows out of our very selves. What we express outwardly is a reflection of what’s going on inwardly. When we self-care, we are caring for the most basic stuff God gives us to care for others.
Thus, we best extend care to others when we have cared for our own physical health (How can we walk the second mile with someone when we are so out of shape that we are huffing and puffing after the first few steps?); when we have cared for our own mental health (If we are workaholics and have neglected sabbath, putting ourselves deep into burnout, how can we bear the burdens of another person?); when we have cared for our own spiritual health (If we have grown cold and distant from God, what hope and help can we offer a wavering believer?); when we have cared for our relational health (A brother is born for adversity, but if we neglect our friendships, how can we know or care about another person’s grief or pain?). In so many ways, the care we offer to others flows out of the care we’ve taken for ourselves. It was not apart from, but because of, Jesus’s love for others that he sometimes walked away from them to spend time with his friends and Father.
It does not take great self-knowledge to know that in most cases, our temptation is to love ourselves too much, not too little. In most cases, our challenge is to radically love others more than we selfishly love ourselves. There is a balance we need to maintain, and though it would be foolish to assign exact standards or ratios, it seems to me that this self-care should be enough to equip us to properly and dutifully care for others, but not so much that it tips over into obsession with ourselves or neglect of others. This kind of self-care should be aimed not just at personal fulfillment but the fulfillment of our God-given duty toward others.
We are to care for others because care is love, care is essential to our God-given calling as humans and as Christians. Yet we cannot adequately care for others unless we care for ourselves. We rest and read and retreat so we can care more and better. We build habits and patterns that make us more faithful servants. We sometimes put ourselves ahead of others in our schedules so we can put others ahead of ourselves in our lives. Self-care is a necessary means of protecting and furthering our others-care.