Is the popular idea of self-care biblical? After all, many verses urge us to deny ourselves. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It is hard to reconcile the call to self-denial with a call to self-care, no matter how popular such exhortations are in social media.
If part of self-care is about setting up boundaries and avoiding toxic people, we find little help in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus tells his followers to bless and love their enemies, to rejoice when insulted, to turn the other cheek, to give to those who ask and beware of loving only those who love us. His warnings against anxiety could be seen as a kind of self-care, but it is accompanied by a command to not seek after the things we are anxious about: food, clothing, and financial security. Instead, we are to trust God for all things and seek first the kingdom of God. In many ways, this is more like self-forgetfulness than self-care. Jesus declares the best way to care for ourselves is to forget ourselves and seek God’s kingdom.
The apostle Paul doesn’t offer much support for self-care either. Paul describes his apostolic calling in terms of being “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17). He explains that although free of obligation to anyone, he makes himself “a slave to everyone to win as many as possible” (I Corinthians 9:19). Lest we think this standard only for apostles, Paul cites the example of Christ: “And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves” (II Corinthians 5:15). Self-sacrifice is Paul’s theme.
Some have argued that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves provides a biblical justification for self-love and self-care. It has been used to lend a Christian veneer to the self-esteem movement. However, the emphasis of the command is clearly on loving our neighbor. God’s command assumes we all love ourselves. In other posts I have addressed this idea at length. If we genuinely hate a person, we are not depressed about that person’s failures, ugliness, or lack of talent. It is precisely because we love ourselves that we are so depressed by our shortcomings. The answer to such depression is self-forgetfulness not even more self-love.
Yet, the needs that self-care address are real. Self-care is especially important for those in careers or roles where caring for others is part of the job description. Therefore, wise and mature women often urge younger women to take time for self-care. Traditional gender roles are quick to justify a man resting and pursuing a hobby after a week of work, but slow to give the working mother the same freedom to rest and pursue other interests. In a similar way, pastors can feel guilty if they aren’t always ministering to the infinite needs and unrelenting demands of their congregations. Burn-out is common among pastors, teachers, social workers, nurses, and others in caring professions. For these people, self-care may be matter of survival. But where does Scripture address the need for self-care?
The first place is the sabbath. Books, mostly by Jewish authors, have been written on how the sabbath blesses us, restore us, and refreshes our spirits. By not working on the sabbath, we declare our freedom from the fear and anxiety that keeps us going a hundred miles an hour to be successful. We declare our trust in God and we rest in His care for us. Program-driven Protestant churches, however, have often turned Sundays into a day of labor instead of rest. My father preached on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and then essentially made Monday his sabbath. As congregations and individuals, we may have real work to do to make our Sundays (or Saturdays) into real Sabbath days, but the sabbath is clearly God recognizing our need for rest and restoration.
I would also argue that delight is part of the essence of the sabbath. In Genesis, God rests from creation and delights in all He has made: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Our delight in God’s creation brings us into communion with God and his own delight in what he has made. It is why even those who are not Christians are refreshed and restored by nature and wilderness.
The second place is prayer and the spiritual disciplines that surround it. Jesus went alone into the mountains to pray despite the pressing needs of the people (Luke 6:19). Not all prayer begins in tranquility, but most of it ends there. Our intercession for others can be agonizing, but Paul declares that bringing our concerns to God with thanksgiving will result in the “peace of God, which passes all comprehension” guarding our hearts and our minds in Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:7).
The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude often accompany and support the discipline of prayer, for prayer is listening as well as speaking. It is possible to think of silence and solitude as “me-time,” but for believers it should be “us-time”—time we are alone with God in silence. Goal-oriented believers may be tempted to see prayer as little more than asking God to bless all their hard work. But there is little rest in squeezing these prayers into our days. Often, we think about getting prayers out of the way so we can get to the real work of the day. But in economy of heaven, few things are of more pragmatic and practical importance than prayer and listening for the voice of God.
A third place believers find self-care is in fellowship—mutual care. Many of our needs are meant to be met in community where we use our gifts to build up and refresh one another. Paul spoke of some brothers who “have refreshed my spirit and yours” (I Corinthians 16:18). In II Corinthians Paul commended the church in Corinth because the spirit of Titus had “been refreshed by you all.” Commands to love our enemies and bless those curse us may keep us from leaving behind every “toxic” person, but we can certainly seek to spend time with those who can refresh our spirit.
Recently, Tom and Carl, men from a morning Bible study I attend, came up to my house with a truck full of huge planks. I had asked Tom about the best and least expensive way to repair the rotting raised beds in my garden. He has a small mill on his dairy farm, so he milled some huge planks. Carl who is an excellent wood worker helped square them up. We then lifted them up and over the old rotten growing beds. We did no Bible study and did not lay hands on each other and pray, but their kindness and the goodness of our labor together greatly refreshed my spirit. Their care for me and their generosity was some of the best “self-care” I could have received during a difficult and weary week.
In all these sources of self-care we find a paradox and principle of indirection. When we forget our needs on the Sabbath, we discover God meeting our needs. When we take our eyes off ourselves and lose ourselves in the goodness of God’s creation, we are restored. When we forget about ourselves and enter into community with others, God uses others to refresh our spirit. When we give, others will give unto us “a good measure, pressed down shaken together and running over” (Luke 6:38).
So yes, God is concerned about our need for restoration, wholeness, and refreshment, but His path to these is different from the world’s. God invites us to forget ourselves and enter into the Sabbath, prayer, and fellowship. Of course, all of these require we humbly admit our need for God and our need for others. As often the case, humility is the first step.