Self-Care: Making Sense of Christian Self-Denial
Is it just me or are Christians the absolute worst at self-care? Maybe it’s just my general impression. But when it comes to life skills, self-care is at the bottom of my talents.
It’s ironic because as Christians we are part of this beautiful tradition that honors the value of life. Jesus took time to sit with the broken, listen to our stories, and bring healing. The gospel is this message of radical love and acceptance. Why then am I usually the last person I can extend love toward?
A “Gospel” of Self-Denial
Here has been my experience growing up in church. We hear about our depravity in sin. We hear messages about picking up our cross and denying ourselves. We sing worship songs about disappearing and becoming less so that Christ can become more. We learn to evangelize and feed the hungry.
But when is the last time in church you heard a message about taking care of yourself? And I don’t mean the classic your body is a temple guilt trip against overeating, smoking, sex, drugs. “Yes, yes I’ll exercise more since my body belongs to God.”
No, I mean when was the last time you heard a message about taking care of yourself because you are valuable? Honestly, even writing that there is this part of me that is programmed to cringe and think, “well that’s selfish.”
See as a devoted Christian, I had this idea that I was supposed to take care of loving God and everybody else, but not to worry about myself. Taking care of my needs was selfish. If I focused on God and did as He asked, then God would take care of me. He would give me a calling for my life. So I didn’t need to worry about my own desires.
This is what I believed with all the conviction I could muster.
I also started considering suicide when I was fourteen.
To tell the truth, I was afraid of myself. Afraid that I was too depraved to be trustworthy. Afraid that my desires and needs would lead me down the wrong path. So I never listened to the longings in my soul. I never listened to my desire for rest, for acceptance, for love.
Instead, I strove to be what everyone else needed me to be or told me to be. And my soul began to ball up tighter and tighter in its pain.
The sad truth is that I rarely heard that I was allowed to take care of my needs, my desires. That not only was I allowed to, but that this was good. That it was honoring the worth and value that was within me, placed there by God.
The Goodness of Wholeness
My reader, can I tell you that the deep desires of your soul are good? They are not depraved or untrustworthy. Can they be twisted? Yes, absolutely. Our longing to be loved can be turned into a desire to put someone else down so that we can feel like more. Our desire for meaning can turn into a full-flung battle for success. Our desire for rest can turn into a 6 hour Netflix binge escape session. But I mean deep at that soul level. When we are as real as we can be about what we desire. There we will find something holy.
It is good to desire purpose, love, meaning. It is good to desire rest. God built it into creation for goodness sake. It is okay to need a day to yourself. We may think we are loving others by giving up ourselves. But the greatest gift you can give your children, your spouse, and this world is your wholeness.
Think about that person you really love when they are stressed and just struggling to get through. Then think about that person when they are relaxed, maybe when they are on vacation or doing something they love. Which version of that person blesses you more? The one who is working themselves to exhaustion for you or the person who is fully themselves, alive, happy, and content?
The world does not need one more person who is exhausted, stressed, and barely making it through. The world needs people who are alive, vibrant, and whole. Wholeness is not another item on our to-do list. It is a way of being in the world. One that prioritizes self-care and honoring your desires and needs.
Because here’s the deal. Our minds, bodies, and souls need care. We all know this, even if we don’t like admitting it. And when they don’t receive it, they start to wither and die. Isn’t this the exact opposite of the life that Christ promised us?
Denying the Ego, Honoring the Temple
I grew up with a sinking ship mentality of the world. The ship of this world was going down and it was our job to get as many people as possible on the lifeboats to heaven. If that’s not anxiety producing I don’t know what is. But I no longer believe that God asks us to live one way on this earth and another in heaven. You are not here to exhaust yourself for the kingdom so that God can somehow make up for it in heaven. You are here to be the kingdom right now. Do you want a kingdom of striving and exhaustion? I sure don’t.
So when Jesus talked about taking up our cross and denying ourselves, what did He really mean? Well for me, this need to save everyone else, to look after everyone else first, actually has an awful lot to do with me. I’ve realized it’s all ego masquerading as love. It had much more to do with racking up points than healing souls. Instead of trusting, I find myself trying to prove that I am a part of this kingdom of God. Trying to show that I am part of the team.
But what if God was never after points? What if God was never about who’s in and who’s out? What if you are just accepted? What if you are already valuable apart of anything you do?
So for me, picking up my cross lately has looked like dying to my ego, to my need to save everyone else. It has looked like dying to my need to be in control of my worth and redemption. And it has looked like taking care of this life that God has called good. For me, this is the true denying of the ego-self and the honoring of God’s temple.
It can be tempting to feel trapped in our busyness. “I can’t say no to that! Everything would fall apart!” But would it really? Ironically, sometimes our own attempts to not take care of ourselves is actually an augmentation of our own ego. Your marriage, your kids, your job, your church will not all fall to pieces if you take a break. You might. But that may just be the point.
Jesus comes to tell us in the same breath that you are so very important, and yet not nearly as important as you want to believe. And grasping this concept is terribly, wonderfully freeing.