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Foundations of the Thrive Philosophy Part 3: Christians and Self-Care

This post is the third part of a series and if you have not seen Part 1 or Part 2 yet, I recommend starting there. In Part 1, I talked about how I believe Christians should understand ourselves. In Part 2, I talked about Christians and the concept of self-love. In this post, Part 3, I will outline how I believe Christians should understand and respond to the idea of self-care.

As I talked about self-love in Part 2, self-care similarly needs to be properly defined to be best understood. What is self-care? Self-care is simply any habit, routine, or activity that helps us meet our needs in any dimension of our lives. This can be anything from exercise, to relationships, to solitude, to food and celebration, to fasting, to Bible study, to enjoying music and the arts, to being in nature, to organizing your budget or your environment, to crossing tasks off your To Do list. When Christians look at a list like that, we can see how any of those things are potentially beneficial and we can see the value in them. If any of our friends or loved ones told us they had done any of those things or were planning to do any one of those things, we likely would not question the value of the way they were spending their time. What it seems we often struggle with is understanding the value of doing those activities for ourselves, for proactively choosing to do things that benefit ourselves. Where I think we often get caught up is in the idea that we are called to serve others when we follow Christ. If we are to serve others, isn't serving myself rooted in a sinful desire to care more about myself than I care about others?

Well, yes. And no. How is it possible to have both answers be true? Because, as in our previous two parts, I believe that the most important factor in this conversation is our motivation. As we have previously established, humans are created for the purpose of glorifying God and reflecting Him in this world. Because we have that calling, the activities that help prepare us, sustain us, and refresh us for that work would, I believe, align with God's will for our lives and His calling on them. If we undertake self-care activities or habits as an act of stewardship or as a way to savor the good gifts that God has given us, I believe those activities support us in our relationship with God and with others.

The next point I have often seen made references Luke 9:23, where it says, " Then [Jesus] said to them all: 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.'" This idea of denying ourselves, of "dying to self" is one that I have seen Christians use to imply that we should be miserable or reject all pleasure. But the Bible is full of references to how good God is and how pleasurable it is to be in His presence. We are called to "taste and see that the Lord is good," (Psalm 34:8) Jesus also said that he came as Savior that we "might have life and have it abundantly," (John 10:10). This certainly is not a picture of misery! It, instead, is the picture of wisdom and discernment. Pleasure, abundance, and comfort are not enemies. Nor are they the savior or the ultimate goal. Glorifying God is the ultimate goal, because He alone, through Jesus, can save us. While we do not want to veer into self-focus or self-indulgence, we are naturally the ones who are most acquainted with our own needs. I know best when I am hungry or tired or in need of exercise or a hug or a conversation. I know best about those things because I am the one experiencing them. I also know when those things are urgent and when they are not. I can use discernment and address them as needed. This is also where we can remind ourselves that God has given us biological families, spiritual families, and friends who can also help us meet those needs if we are humble enough to communicate with them. Asking others for help is a beautiful way to include others in our lives, to allow them to serve us, and to remind ourselves that, whether it is ourselves or others taking action, ultimately it is God who provides all good things and God who meets our needs.

You may be wondering when I think self-care goes too far. You may already be able to guess my response if you've read Part 1 and Part 2, but I think self-care goes too far when we make any choice that enables us to ignore or refuse our responsibility and identity as "God glorifiers." This will look different for every individual, in every situation, and often from decision to decision. Jen Wilkin, Bible teacher, and author says, "If we want our lives to align with God's will, we need to ask a better question than, 'What should I do?'...God is always more concerned with the decision maker than the decision itself." I wholeheartedly agree with this. In Christ, we have freedom (Galatians 5:1). We have the freedom to enjoy the good things that God has given us. The question, for example, shouldn't be "are Christians allowed to go on vacation?" When and why and how we reflect God while we are on vacation should be the questions we are asking. Do I glorify God by saying, "I deserve a break" and taking a month-long vacation that separates me from family, puts me in debt, and leaves those in my church or community in the lurch? Doubtful. But can I glorify God by taking a vacation? Yes, I believe so.

Ultimate Self-Care

As always, we can look to Christ for the ultimate example of how to live a life that honors God. As Christians, we believe that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. In Matthew 4, we read about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is where Jesus tells the devil that "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." This truth Jesus learned from the Scriptures, which is written in Deuteronomy 8:3. And yet, Jesus did not say that men don't need bread. God knows what we need. He created us and He certainly knows what is required for our health and our flourishing. He provided manna in the wilderness for the Israelites in Exodus, and He provided bread and fish in the crowd-feeding miracles in the Gospels. Jesus reminded his followers in Matthew 6:26 that birds don't actively store up food, but God feeds them as they need it. And even after He fasted and was tempted in Matthew 4, Jesus was cared for by the angels. Food isn't specifically mentioned here, but there was clearly some physical care given. These are all reasons why I think that we do not need to discount the very real physical needs we have, but we also have to acknowledge what we need most of all. We must continually bring our needs to God Himself. This is the ultimate self-care. "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 11:28-29

Self-care, the acknowledgment of and attendance to our spiritual, physical, emotional, social, and mental needs do not automatically need to be assumed to be a selfish practice. Again, the question is always to what end?

We must also understand that, ultimately, we ourselves are not the source of our own rest, comfort, relief, or satisfaction. We daily rely on God to provide what we need, accept it with gratitude, and administer it with wisdom and discernment.

One final warning: we must also understand that we cross the line to self-indulgence or even self-harm when we chose the easy option and label it "self-care." An evening resting with a good book is potentially a great form of self-care, but it might be an escape from a reality that needs to be dealt with or a passive-aggressive way to avoid conflict or confrontation. A decadent dessert or a weekend getaway can be a celebratory break, or it could be a way to cope negatively with emotions. In the same way we, as parents, set loving boundaries for our children, we must learn to set them for ourselves if we are going to truly be participating in the most healthy self-care.

Colossians 3:17 says, "Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." Similarly, we read in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." Christian brothers and sisters, God has called us to join Him in His mission of restoration and reconciliation. Sometimes, that requires us to deny our desires and take action. And sometimes that requires us to rest in Him. And sometimes it requires us to savor and enjoy and steward well all the good gifts He has given us for His glory, to enable us to continue on our mission with Him.

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