We all want to be happy. One of the things we need to do to achieve this, coaches and therapists tell us, is to practise self-care. In popular understanding, self-care is what you do to protect or improve your physical and mental wellbeing, particularly during periods of stress. For example, taking a holiday or a sabbatical, making time for exercise, sleeping enough, cooking good meals for yourself, logging off social media to enjoy the quiet or good conversation, or spending time in nature.
Self-care is a not a term you will find in the Bible. And to some Christians, it sounds a bit suspicious. Aren’t we called to self-denial? Shouldn’t we care for others rather than ourselves? Isn’t self-care something selfish? Perhaps to answer these questions we need to go back to the beginning.
Created with needs
God created human beings with needs. We need sleep, food, warmth, shelter, and company for example. Having these needs is not a bad thing. They are part of God’s good design. These needs remind us that we are not God, we are vulnerable, finite, and we cannot function as independent units, we need community. And for humans to flourish according to God’s plan, these basic physical and emotional needs have to be met.
Ideally, these needs are organically taken care of within a community of people who look after each other, such as a family, a neighbourhood, a workplace or a church. Parents feed and care for their children and the healthy adults in a community share the burdens, providing for themselves, each other, and others who cannot look after themselves. In a healthy community with good rhythms of work and rest, and under normal circumstances, the need for self-care may not be so prominent.
However, modern societies are very demanding. People are constantly connected and can work around the clock and wherever they are. How many emails get written during bathroom breaks? How many discussions on social media take place in under the covers, during hours we should sleep? We are always flooded with news, with opinions, and with data. This large input of information takes away our ability to process and can lead to people having a much higher base level of anxiety.
In a society in which natural rhythms of work and rest are disturbed, self-care can be a way to restore some of what was lost. Because the option to work or be entertained is ever present, there are less communal times of quiet. It is more than before down to individuals to create the rest and reflection they need during hours which suit their own schedule.
There are also extra-ordinary circumstances when self-care is wise. Everyone has weak spots of which others may not be aware. Phobias, traumas, chronic pain, or other health issues for example. For people with trauma, certain circumstances can be triggering. Self-care can mean avoiding triggers during times when you are not ready or able to deal with the fall-out. Self-care can mean not attending a party at work if you struggle with alcohol addiction. It can mean not taking up responsibilities in church if you already feel overwhelmed with your usual family and work responsibilities. It means protecting yourself, your time, your sleep, your peace of mind and your health, even if others don’t understand why, or judge you for it. Disappointing others may seem selfish, but we may be confident in ourselves and before God that our needs are worth taking care of and that this will help us to better care for others.
Our responsibility to care for those around us is an important reason not to routinely neglect our own needs. We need to make sure we are physically and emotionally fit in order to do what has to be done. Mothers with small babies for example, need to sleep when they can, so they can be awake when they must. In the same way, it is a responsible thing to do to regularly attend to your personal needs, so when a time of great difficulty comes, you have some reserves and are strong enough to take the pressure. Times like that come to everyone sooner or later and it is hard to predict when. Making sure you are in good physical and emotional shape, can be compared to regularly putting fuel in your car, so you don’t run out when there is an unexpected D-tour. Routinely running on your last drops of fuel is unwise.
In the Bible there is the principle of Sabbath, a regular day in the week when there are no tasks to complete, not even for slaves, foreigners, and animals. During the Sabbath’s rest people can just be and enjoy, without the constant pressure of having to be productive. Again, this was a communal thing, and most of us now live in communities that have no regular time set aside when all economic activities cease. But the principle itself shows that God values us not just for what we do, and that regular breaks from being productive are part of God’s plan and provision. We ignore this to our own peril.
From self-care to service
But what about those for who self-care is an out-of-reach luxury? Who carry burdens and have no-one to share them with, not even for an hour or so? What about those who must work long hours every day, without having a choice in the matter? What about those trapped in poverty and crammed housing, who cannot escape to a quiet place, to just enjoy and breath?
This is where our faith gives an extra dimension to the concept of self-care. Jesus would sometimes dismiss the crowds to be alone to pray. But when he returned, he served them lovingly, teaching them and healing their sick. Our self-care equips us to serve others better. And this service can include taking some of their burdens, both financially and practically, so they too can attend to their needs.
Detoxing your soul
Lastly, I want to mention spiritual self-care. The way our society works, does not only pose a threat to our physical and mental health, but also to our spiritual health. Our Western culture is full of distractions, temptations, lies, and false gospels, which we daily breath in like one breathes in polluted air. In order for our faith to flourish, and for believers to bear the fruit of the Spirit, it is important we protect our spiritual health. Countering false messages with truth, by reading scripture and good books, listening to and singing hymns, meeting Christians for mutual encouragement, taking time to pray alone and with others, having moments of introspection, and seeking to understand God’s love and his will, are all ways we can detox from the spiritual pollution of the world and care for our soul.
Your body, your mind and your soul are precious and worth caring for. Where possible, Christians care for each other in the context of a loving community. Where necessary, we take care of our own needs. In this way, we will be better able to flourish according to God’s will, and serve others with joy.