The concept of self care—defined as the entirety of ways in which a person understands how to solve their emotional problems and manage their anxieties—has become a real movement in the past two years with an entire industry ready to make our lives easier and more comfortable. For Christians, however, this trend has proven to be quite problematic: making our lives easier is in conflict with the biblical instruction to carry our cross every day. But the need to somehow manage stress and anxiety is real.
It is entirely normal to want what is best for our lives: to attain certain goals, to advance in our careers, to be healthier and more energetic and to even have a better spiritual life. The fact that more and more people are jumping in on the “#selfcare” train is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, as long as it doesn’t actually glorify self-indulgence, neglect or complacency, ultimately flirting with all sorts of behaviours that not only momentarily distract our thoughts, but in fact can even take us away from our goals in the long run. Because, if at the beginning “#selfcare” was mostly about doing something—sports, diet, therapy, etc.—now it can range from eating healthfully to eating as you please, from exercising to taking a break from sports.
Conservatives, who generally also happen to be Christians, are among the most vocal critics of endeavours that seem in one way or another to lower the standards of the Christian life, which is expected to be the opposite of a hedonistic life. A hedonistic life is one that is physically and mentally comfortable, and attention falls mainly on oneself and on the satisfaction of personal needs and desires. Christians are generally prepared for a hard, sacrificial life, in which character is polished by trials and turmoil. We are invited to “take up our cross and follow Jesus” in our daily lives, to “lose our lives to then find them,” to walk the “narrow road”, and in general not to blend in with the culture we belong to just to make our lives easier. The passage in which Jesus says that he came to the earth not to bring peace, but the “sword” seems to crown this preparation of the Christian for a life full of conflict and suffering.
For these reasons, many Christians have trouble understanding why self-care has become so important today and why it should be introduced, with some amendments, into Christian practice. After all, many Christians know people who work for God at the cost of their own health, because the needs are so great that if they also make time for themselves, it seems like a selfish and counterproductive gesture. There are people who can do this with joy, but there are also people who, by doing this, end up destroying their lives and faith, and it seems unfair to judge the first as worthy and true believers, and the latter as unworthy and hypocrites. Faith is personal and the way we practice it will have a different impact on each individual’s life.
Christians suffer too
The fact that Christians who live and work in secular settings end up suffering from anxiety and depression is not new, although the issue of mental health still remains unaddressed in many Christian churches. The courage of church leaders who dare to publicly admit that they did not understand their work correctly and therefore ended up suffering from depression, could change this.
Steve Austin is a youth pastor in a North American church. He used to divide his time between activities with the youth group, full-time volunteering at a public school and administrative church matters, which occupied all his Sundays, plus an evening a week. Panic attacks started suddenly, once, maybe twice a month, and four years later, they started to disrupt him weekly. “People wondered how I could keep so many plates spinning. In my religious fervor, I judged their lack of busyness. Every night, my wife would lay next to me, longing for intimacy, for deep conversation, for friendship with the one who had promised to cherish and respect her, but I was lost in connection on my iPhone, a million miles away, planning the next youth rally or night of worship. I figured my wife must be so proud. Look at all I was doing for the church! Yet, in having no personal boundaries, I was building walls. I was keeping the people who loved me the most at a distance. I didn’t know it was okay, and even appropriate, to say ‘no’ to others. To schedule a day off. To turn off my phone. Eventually, the stress was more than I could bear, and I tried to kill myself”, Austin said.
Fortunately, his attempt failed and since then Austin has been focusing on his recovery. Studying the Bible, he was surprised to find that self-care is promoted in the Scriptures and, when properly understood, can only bring benefits. But Austin’s story is not unique. Many pastors or small church priests find themselves in the position of being the “jack of all trades,” from sermons, to couples therapy, to construction work, repairs, and transportation; basically working twice as much as most people. And the story of some of them ends tragically. Bradley Bolejack, a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Lake Union, Washington, passed away after a long battle with anxiety and depression. His wife—who confesses that Bradley was late in going to the doctors, thinking that doing so would mean that he did not have enough faith, that he did not pray enough, or that he did not study the Bible enough—made a public appeal to Christians to understand that “God won’t love us less if we suffer from depression and it is not something we should be ashamed of.”
It is certainly strange to hear such news, because it is assumed that people who are closest to God are wrapped in an extra layer of protection, when in fact they are still normal people, who get sick and hurt like everyone else. The pressures on emotional and mental health are unique to this job description. They can lead to burnout, anxiety and even depression, which are not necessarily symptoms of spiritual failure. In fact, for someone suffering from depression to remain faithful, a special spiritual strength is needed. Therefore, let us not ostracise those who have the courage to publicly share the internal battles they are going through.
What does Christian “selfcare” mean?
“I avoided self-care because it looked dangerously close to self-indulgence. But avoiding self-care actually fed my sinful appetite to live self-sufficiently and to seek fulfillment in my own abilities. It may seem backward to say that avoiding self-care was actually self-indulgent, but it was for me”, says Amie Patrick, the wife of a pastor from St. Louis, USA.
Like Steve Austin, she says she treats her limits and natural needs as things of a luxury she can’t afford at the expense of God’s work. “It didn’t occur to me that accepting my God-given limits and actively choosing to receive God’s gifts of rest, food, recreation, and solitude are also acts of worship and obedience. Second, I didn’t see my attempts to push past my perceived weakness or neediness for what they really were—pride,” Amie added.
“Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.”
Here is a man so tired of his life and duties that he has come to desire his own death. What did God do? Did He scold him for his selfish decision that would interfere with the divine plan? Did He admonish him for his defiance and lack of faith? No. He gave him what he needed to recover, as many times as he needed. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” says Jesus. If we understand God’s love and attention for our needs and limitations, we will also understand that the biblical ideal for “#selfcare” has nothing to do with selfishness, but with total surrender to God’s care, Who embedded the Sabbath rest in His divine creation and in the history of the Jewish people. This is optional only in the sense that we can ignore it with all its consequences, but it is quite clear that the true rest we can find for our souls is with God, on this especially blessed day.
However, this rest is not like sleep and it requires active involvement on our part. Keeping the Sabbath does not only mean that we stop working and taking care of all the things that concern us for the rest of the day, but it is an act of worship and communion with God and His creation. It is a day to remember His promises, meditate on His word, and trust in His providence. Enjoying this day of rest made for man is in itself an act of faith. We need to rest, because God Himself said we need to rest. And this implies our confidence that He will take care of all things as we recover.
Last but not least, rest “in God” is essential because it is a relational act; it is not something we do strictly by ourselves and for ourselves. We do not rest in a void, but in relation to the One who created and sustains life. “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” is the life-giving promise that God Himself makes to us.