What do all the following have in common: New Age remedies, Buddhist meditation practices, fitness regimens, journaling and bubble baths?
The answer is they all have had the “self-care” label attached to them.
Self-care has gone from a little-known concept from a therapist’s office to a booming buzzword on the internet. More and more people are embracing the idea that taking time out to care for themselves is essential to coping with their busy lives.
As a result, you can find self-care topics everywhere from beauty Instagrams to pop psychology websites, and the techniques can vary widely – from face masks and juice detoxes, to painting a picture and taking the dog for a walk. (Here are just a few here!)
For many Christians, the word “self-care” is regarded with suspicion. Some suggest that self-care is about self-centredness or looking to ourselves for our answers, or that self-care is a Buddhist or new-age concept that draws on non-Christian philosophy. Others argue that self-care isn’t biblical and that it distorts the idea of “Jesus first, others second, yourself last”.
But is self-care really just fluffy self-indulgence?
Defining my terms
Before we go further, what is “self-care”? It really depends who you talk to.
In the online world, you could be forgiven for thinking that self-care is limited to yoga, incense and juice cleanses. But the concept of self-care didn’t just spring up out of Instagram posts – and actually, it’s existed as a term as far back as 1983, where it was defined in a report by the World Health Organisation (cited here).
The definition I’m using I’ve borrowed from a report by the World Health Organisation in 2013 which says:
‘Self-care is the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, and maintain health and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.’
So why should Christians pay attention to self-care?
Taking care of our bodies
Self-care isn’t limited to advice from a health-care professional when you’re sick – it actually involves some basic habits you engage in to maintain your equilibrium. This has physical and emotional components, and could involve “eating balanced meals, doing appropriate and adequate exercise/physical activities, and actively participating in social activities”.
Self-care isn’t limited to advice from a health-care professional when you’re sick – it actually involves some basic habits you engage in to maintain your equilibrium. I’ve used the analogy before of the firefighter, used by Christopher Ash in his book Zeal Without Burnout.
Ash suggests that serving God can be like fighting a fire – physically demanding and stretching our limits. This is all part of it. But, crucially, he suggests that pushing past our limits – to the point that we can’t function and others need to rescue us – is even more foolish. How can we serve God if we can’t even function ourselves?
We are fallible humans who need rest and recuperation. We can continue to work hard in our jobs, do freelance work from home and cover all the rosters at church – but if we’re not sleeping, spending time with our families or eating well, for example, crash is inevitable. We should be good stewards of the gifts God gives us, and that includes our good physical and mental health.
The truth is, you can see self-care as a concept throughout the Bible. Even God rested on the seventh day and made it holy.
There are also numerous examples of Jesus going off by himself, to pray but also for solitude from the large crowds. (Not always successfully – to which Jesus responds with patience, as in Luke chapter 4, verse 42.) He also advised his apostles to find solitude and rest as well (Mark chapter 6, verse 31).
Leisure time, just as much as work, can be done with God as our centre. Our self-care time may be a chance to pray, but it could just as easily be a time to indulge gifts that God has given us that we find relaxing or pleasurable, or spending time enjoying God’s creation.
One of my minister friends is very introverted, but has a highly extroverted job that relies on pastoral care of many people – so he sets aside an evening a week to read books and reflect as a recharge. Another friend of mine is an extrovert in a desk job, and prefers spending time chatting to a friend on the phone or having friends over for a drink to unwind.
I listen to podcasts or Bible audio books by myself, paint my nails, or use a journal with thoughts and questions for each day.
We can do these things in God’s presence, just as much as we work hard in God’s presence. He can be a part of our rest as well as our work.
What the popularity of self-care reminds us of
Our generation is busier and more connected than ever, and therefore switching off and renewing is even more important. As with everything, it’s about balance. We do need to love God and others, but everyone needs to lay down burdens and take time to rest (Ephesians chapter 5, verses 29-30).
As with so many trends, there’s a kernel of truth amongst all the Instagram posts, bubble baths and meditation programs: it’s always going to be important to stop and put our burdens down for awhile. Strangely, this can be easy to forget!
Balance is key, and as far as stopping and being still is concerned, it’s an important part of keeping us going.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional at the Christian mission organisation CMS Victoria. She has a background in editing and publishing, and lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html