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Is Self-Care a Christian Idea?

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” -Jesus

“Treat yo self!” -Tom Haverford, Parks and Recreation

You might not be familiar with Tom Haverford. In the NBC show, Parks and Recreation, Tom and his friend Donna have one day out of the year called “Treat Yo’ Self!” On this day they lavish themselves with gifts and various forms of self-care. The point is to pamper yourself. To relax.

Really, what the writers of the show are doing is taking the idea of self-care to its extreme. The idea is that if you take a day and entirely focus upon yourself, you’ll be filled back up. You need a day where you focus upon you. When you do this, you become better for other people. But is this a biblical idea? Didn’t Jesus encourage us to “take up our cross” daily? How does that fit with “treat yo’ self”?

What Is Self-Care? 

First, a proper definition of self-care is in order. I think these words from Moira Lawler give a helpful definition:

“Let’s clear up one common misconception from the get-go: Self-care is not synonymous with self-indulgence or being selfish. Self-care means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, you can be well, you can do your job, you can help and care for others, and you can do all the things you need to and want to accomplish in a day.”

The idea here is that if we want to be useful to other people, then we need to be able to take care of ourselves. There are times when we need to hit the pause button, get filled back up, and then go back into the world. It could be argued that when Jesus gets alone to pray, that He is practicing self-care.

Self-care isn’t about making yourself better a person, it’s simply being attuned to your own needs. Think of it as similar to the instructions you receive on a plane. If something happens and the oxygen masks come down, a parent’s first instinct will be to take care of their child and secure their oxygen masks first. But we are instructed to put on your own mask before attempting to help others. You can’t be of much help to anyone if you pass out from a lack of oxygen. If you care for yourself, then you’ll be in a better position to help someone else.

What about Denying Yourself?  

It seems that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:24 is contrary to any notion of self-care. But this all depends upon what my intention is in “self-care.” When Jesus speaks of “denying oneself” he is talking about putting to death our natural tendency to serve our own interest. If you want to see what this looks like in practice, then look no further than Philippians 2. Jesus’ “best interest” was to stay in heaven with the Father. But he denied this of himself and came to earth, taking the very form of a servant, and dying a criminal’s death on a cruel Roman cross.

To use the previous illustration of an oxygen mask on a plane, if I’m putting on my mask to preserve my own life and show no concern for others, then Jesus’ words here should be convicting. Likewise, if I’m engaging in self-care simply to indulge my own selfish impulses, then I’m not denying myself — I’m feeding my flesh instead of mortifying it.

Yet, if my self-care is for the sake of others, then Jesus’ words here are not applicable. Oddly, enough I might be denying myself the accolades of seeming like a Superman, when I instead decide to take a nap or a mental health day. Acknowledging our humanity isn’t the same thing as feeding our flesh. Denying yourself might mean giving due service to your finitude.

So, am I good to proceed with my Treat Yo’ Self Day?

How Are We Filled Up? 

You might hold off for just a moment on that Treat Yo’ Self Day, there is still one more issue when it comes to self-care. How exactly are we filled up? The concept of self-care might be wise and a good way to steward our bodies for the service of others. But the execution might be at best unhelpful, or at worst harmful to our souls.

A couple of summers ago, I was diagnosed with COVID. Thankfully, my symptoms were much milder compared to many others who had the illness. But it did seem as if it took me forever to get my oxygen levels back. A friend had given me a pulse oximeter, and I found myself checking my levels almost nonstop. It wasn’t healthy. Always checking your temperature isn’t a healthy thing — that goes for our emotions and any aspect of our humanity.

There is a danger of morbid introspection and self-focus when it comes to self-care. These words of Robert Murray McCheyne are wise counsel for us,

“’The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ Jer. 17:9. Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms…”

It is when we look to Christ that we find we are filled up. Yes, taking a shower can be therapeutic. Going for a long walk can be helpful. Spending a bit of time doing a crossword puzzle can help you be filled back up. These are all fine activities of common grace. But what really fills us up for the sake of “othering” is to spend time with the Lord. It is here, abiding in Christ, where we find our strength.

The Bible isn’t against self-care if done properly. In fact, Scripture gives us a weekly model for recharging.

The Bible’s Plan of Self-Care

In Genesis 2, after God created everything, He rested. No, this isn’t because God was tired. It wasn’t because God needed “self-care.” He rested because He was teaching us a pattern. Six days you work. The seventh you rest. The Sabbath was made as a means of self-care. It’s a way for us to be reminded of our finitude and to find our rest in God. It creates in us a longing for the shalom which God intended for us.

The word of Kelly Kapic are helpful here:

“…True human rest is not a form of self-isolation, but is necessarily tied to God’s rest. We were created in his image and likeness. This includes our call to the dignity of labor, participating in the motions and movement of creation; but it also means we were made to rest, to connect, to worship and sleep. According to Genesis, the foundation of our call to rest is that God himself rested (Gen. 2:3). Because God looks at his good creation and rests in his finished work, humanity can rest as well. Our rest is directly linked to his rest, and therefore it is also linked to fellowship with him.”

True self-care isn’t found by turning inward. It’s found by turning Godward.

Robert Murray McCheyne. Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne [(Edinburgh, 1894), 293
Kelly Kapic, You’re Only Human, 221

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Halfpoint Images

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.

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