Should Christians care about self-care?
Self-love and self-care are both popular concepts in our society. There’s plenty of polarization to be found within the church’s discussions on whether these practices and attitudes should occupy any major part of the Christian life. They are definitely prominent aspects of the life of the secular (or otherwise non-Christian) world, and this causes many believers to question if they are inherently unbiblical or if they could be applied in some capacity to a life surrendered to Christ.
I would argue that while they both can easily be taken to sinful extremes, self-care is not inherently negative. However, we must lean on some clear biblical principles in our application of it and be prepared to surrender the practice to Christ if it ever causes us to violate His standards in thought, word, or deed . . . especially because this can happen very subtly.
So what are self-care and self-love? To be fair, while they’re definitely connected to one another – at least, in our culture’s espousal of them – they aren’t exactly the same thing.
The term “self-care” is typically used in reference to specific acts of kindness directed toward oneself, especially in moments of distress. This could look like going for a walk every day to keep your head clear in the midst of finals week; getting your nails done on a regular schedule because it lifts your spirits; lighting a candle and watching an episode of your favorite show on Netflix; or any number of small, habitual things we practice to give ourselves a break from the monotony and grit of regular life.
“Self-love” is a broader concept that relates to self-care, but a helpful way of distinguishing between them is to remember that self-love is an attitude rather than an action. Some common phrases we hear in our social circles and Pinterest newsfeeds are manifestations of this self-love mentality:
- “You have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others”
- “Be kind to yourself.”
- “Just do you.”
Of course, there is some truth to the first phrase (especially in the more literal context of airplane safety) and perhaps even to the second. But more often than not, the third phrase is at the very heart of society’s obsession with self love. At times it’s even the driving force behind the practice of self-care, leading it into a dangerous and unbiblical place.
Are Christians called to love themselves? Honestly, I don’t see this indicated anywhere in Scripture. Nor do I see anything in Scripture commanding us to hate ourselves. Both of these extremes are often proposed by well-meaning Christians, but it does not accurately represent what Scripture says about the believer’s relationship with themselves. What I do see in the Bible about the Christian approach to earthly life is this:
“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” (New American Standard Version, Gal. 2.20)
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must take up his cross and follow Me. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt. 16.24)
“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14.22)
Of course the secular world grasps desperately at attitudes and practices that promote here-and-now comfort and self fulfillment. It’s all they have. But as Christians, our primary, overarching method for dealing with the pains and anxieties of life is first to surrender ourselves to the promises of eternal reality. We are not owed a single moment of self-care, self-fulfillment, self-whatever in this life or in the one to come. Our lives aren’t our own.
Romans 12:1 is especially helpful in thinking about lifestyles that find their motivation or sense of peace in the concepts of self-love and self-care. It says,
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”
We are living, walking sacrifices. This means we die to self – constantly, not once – in order to live to Christ, with whom we have been crucified. And we are holy sacrifices, which means we are consecrated for God and set apart for a life that looks different from the ones we see around us. Our means of finding peace, fulfillment, and joy seem foolish and counter-productive to the world (1 Cor. 2.14).
This doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the things people do as acts of self-care. We can paint our nails, enjoy scented candles, take bubble baths, smoke good cigars, taste good wine, and watch movies with our loved ones to the glory of God. But we need to be discerning and watch for the signs that we are practicing self-care in an unbiblical way.
Self-care goes too far when it:
- Hinders you from caring sacrificially for others and putting them before yourself
- Becomes an excuse for excessive, sinful self-indulgence (a telltale sign of this is when you become too dependent on your acts of self-care and cannot function without them if necessary)
- Encourages a specific sin pattern in your life (vanity, idleness, etc.) or leads to bad stewardship of time/money
Acts of self-care can be helpful when they:
- Motivate you to reorient yourself around a more eternal, Gospel-focused perspective outside of the distractions of earthly existence (for example, taking a break to step away and pray or meditate on Scripture)
- Fulfills the biblical command for occasional rest
Ultimately, we need to care less about “doing more of what makes you happy,” and instead, “Do more of what makes you holy.” Because the kind of self-love and self-care that glorifies God is that which recognizes what self really needs: the love, peace, and righteousness of Christ.