“Self-care.” It’s a popular buzzword right now. How are we to approach this topic as believers? The battle lines appear to be drawn–“for” and “against.”
But what if the answer isn’t so black and white?
THE WORLD’S VIEW OF SELF
In the world’s eyes, the self is at the center of the universe. Everything revolves around me–my desires, my choices, my feelings, my body, my opinions, my thoughts, my life. Even the so-called altruistic or humanitarian acts the world supports are, at their root, self-centered. The motivation is to feel good about yourself and how “selfless” you feel.
The sad reality is, all of us by nature are self-oriented, selfish creatures. Our sin has corrupted us, turning us inward to worship ourselves rather than our Creator. We may do nice things for others, or offer lip-service to some god, but in the end, our hearts and acts are laid on the altar of Self. We’re kind and helpful… in order to get something in return (even if it’s just our own happiness). We’re religious…to pacify our consciences, impress others, and build up some self-righteous brownie points.
The world welcomes and even propagates the altar of Self. We are told, “Follow your heart,” “do what is right for you,” “chase your dreams,” and “you deserve to be happy!” No matter what evil might be required to serve the Self–even murdering your own children–it’s all excused as necessary in order to keep the world’s first and greatest commandment:
Ironically, by seeking to love ourselves first, we don’t truly love ourselves at all. It’s hatred to our bodies and souls to use them as idols. They were created to worship God, not ourselves. Self-worship is actually service to Satan–the one who seeks to devour us, body and soul. And that’s exactly what happens when we are given over to unrepentant selfishness.
Self-care, according to the world, should be our utmost priority. Our physical, emotional, and mental “needs” (as defined by non-Christian standards) always come first. The reasoning is that we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves. And if we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love others.
Does that mean that any form of self-care or self-love is sinful? I don’t believe so. But we all know how much Satan loves to take a little bit of truth and twist it into a big lie. The concepts of “taking care” and “loving” ourselves are distorted to mean something else than what Scripture says. In order to see the truth, we have to understand how the Lord God defines and orders these things.
THE CHRISTIAN’S VIEW OF SELF
When we are brought by God’s power and grace to the Valley of Humiliation, our eyes are opened to see how wrong we were to think that our Self is at the center of existence. We see that God, and He alone, is the self-existent One, the only one worthy of worship. He is the glorious I AM, and the only reason we exist is for Him:
For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever (Romans 11:36).
Once we embrace this truth, two seemingly contradictory things happen. First, we gain a very low view of ourselves. We see how small and despicable we are, how utterly empty of virtue apart from Him. We are but dust at His feet. Scripture also compares our finitude to the flower, the grass, the vapor–all of which fade away so quickly and so permanently. If we exist, if we can even live forever, it is only because the Eternal and Infinite One has ordained it for His own pleasure.
But second, we also come to see the value that God has bestowed on our bodies and souls, created in His image–and for Christians, bought at the price of Christ’s blood. The Scripture testifies to the preciousness of the human body and soul in several places. Consider just a few:
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man. (Genesis 9:6)
Those who trust in their wealth
And boast in the multitude of their riches,
None of them can by any means redeem his brother,
Nor give to God a ransom for him—
For the redemption of their souls is costly,
And it shall cease forever—
That he should continue to live eternally,
And not see the Pit. (Psalm 49:6-9)
For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well. (Psalm 139:13-14)
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
It is not by our merit or anything good in us that our bodies and souls are precious, but only His worth–as our Maker and Savior.
Considering these things, we must always seek a nuanced approach to things like “self-care” and “self-love.”
For one thing, the Bible assumes we already love ourselves in certain ways:
For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. (Ephesians 5:29)
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37-39).
Now notice the order Jesus gives in Matthew 22: first, love the Lord your God, then others “as yourself.” We are not told, as the world loudly proclaims, “Above all, love yourself!” Jesus commands love for God and others as our top priority. But there is an implication of self-love present in His words. I appreciate these thoughts from Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage:
It is implied, that we do, and should, love ourselves. There is a self-love which is corrupt, and the root of the greatest sins, and it must be put off and mortified: but there is a self-love which is natural, and the rule of the greatest duty, and it must be preserved and sanctified. We must love ourselves, that is, we must have a due regard to the dignity of our own natures, and a due concern for the welfare of our own souls and bodies.
It is that “due concern for the welfare of our own souls and bodies,” in accordance with the Word of God, which leads us to a godly approach to self-care.
True self-care is not what the world thinks it is–getting a manicure because we “deserve it,” demanding a weekly escape from our children, or insisting on a cup of coffee before we’re expected to be nice to anyone. It’s not about lying to our souls by saying, “You have many years, many great possessions; eat, drink, and be merry.” (Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with painted nails, date nights, coffee, or food. The selfish heart attitude is the problem.)
Rather, we are exhorted by God in His Word to love our souls and bodies by, first and foremost, seeking salvation in Christ. This is the ultimate “self-care”–caring enough about ourselves and our eternal states to see our desperate need, and to lay hold of the free salvation offered to us in the gospel. We are sinners deserving of God’s wrath; we need our sin-bearing Savior to redeem us, body and soul:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David. (Isaiah 55:3)
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28)
Christ willingly sacrificed Himself–body and soul–on the cross for us, satisfying God’s wrath in our place. He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
If you want to seek good for your own soul, remind yourself of the gospel and cling to Christ. Offer up your body, not in service to sin, but as a living sacrifice to God. Our bodies and souls thrive when they are active in faith and love for their Maker.
PRINCIPLES OF GODLY “SELF-CARE”
Besides salvation, what are some other implications of self-care?
We must start with the truth that our heavenly Father is the one who takes care of us. We should not have a sinfully anxious care for ourselves and our needs, as though we will not be provided for. In fact, we are promised that if we “seek first His kingdom and righteousness, all these things [food, clothing, whatever we need for life] will be added” to us (Matthew 6:33).
Without faith, the world thinks it must worry, wring its hands, or even fight for what it needs. And often these “needs” are actually extravagant “wants” in disguise. But Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). That bread includes basic physical nourishment, as well as the Word of God that we live on. Likewise, God tells us to cast all our cares on Him, for He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
So we trust Him, but we also remember that God is a God of means. Our food will not magically fall down from the sky. We work diligently in our callings, with the thankful recognition that He graciously blesses the work of our hands.
Another biblical principle is that we must not care for ourselves to such an extent as to neglect our duties to God and others. The world promotes self-indulgence, but Christ commands self-denial. Our love for others comes before ourselves, and we must be willing to deny ourselves and lay down our lives as God calls us to. But wisdom is needed here to ensure that we do not go to the opposite extreme of asceticism and mistreat our bodies or starve our souls from communion with God in the name of outward service. Remember Mary, who was commended for sitting at Christ’s feet even while Martha served.
So what does “Christian self-care” (if you want to call it that) look like in practice?
While the world and the Bible can seem to overlap on this–both teach that physical food is an aspect of self-care–the motive for Christian “self-care” is always love for God and others first. We do not make ourselves #1.
For instance, we eat breakfast and feed on the Word of God for our own health, but primarily to equip us to serve Christ and His people.
We get enough sleep at night, not just to feel our best, but to have the energy and mental acuity for our God-given callings.
We enjoy God’s gifts, moderately and with discernment, asking not only “Is this good for me?” but also “Does this bring glory to God?”
Our minds meditate on the Word so that the joy we experience can spill over into joy-filled worship.
Our arms and prayers wrap around our friends for their sakes–and the warmth of love we receive back is a gift. When we “water” others, we are watered in return (Proverbs 11:25).
Why do we fight against ungodliness and strive for holiness? One (inferior) reason is because we love and care for ourselves. We know that sexual sin is a sin against our own bodies (1 Corinthians 6:18), that envy rots the bones (Proverbs 14:30), and a troubled conscience brings misery (Psalm 32:3). We also know that all the ways of Wisdom (that is, Christ) are pleasant and peaceful to us (Proverbs 3:17), and that “blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
God is so kind to give us these consequences and blessings to motivate us! But above all, our superior reason is our love for the Lord and His name, and love for others, who would be negatively impacted by our sin.
Worldly self-care has no place for that kind of love, that would hate sin and pursue holiness. That requires far too much cross-bearing and not enough pampering! For the unbeliever, self-care begins and ends at what makes me happy.
But put in its rightful place, self-care (and even its root, self-love) does not have to be sinful. In fact, when we exercise a godly, Christ-centered care for our bodies and souls, we honor the Lord, who made both--and will one day glorify both, so that we can spend eternity with Him. Oh how we long for that day!