Self-Care or Sabbath?

Many Christians have a complicated relationship with the psychological concept of self-care.

On the one hand, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Bearing a Roman execution stake doesn’t seem like it has a lot to do with taking time off. On the other hand, Jesus calls us to care for others, especially the needy and the poor. Who are we to orient this care towards ourselves when others around us so obviously need it? It is also worth asking whether behind our revulsion to self-care is also a bit of guilt as well–guilt for overworking and avoiding our own rest as mandated by the Lord. 

 

A recent NPR article profiled what it called “the millennial obsession with self-care.”1 Apparently, the millennial generation is engaging in the practice of self-care with a surprising frequency and intensity that a multi-billion dollar industry has been built up around it. Yet what is “self-care?” The concept itself is ambiguous at best and can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The general idea seems to be that we can enhance our psychological health by engaging in certain activities which bring us peace. Christian leaders should not be surprised to find themselves initially uncomfortable with this term. However, it may just be that our initial concern is really hiding a far more primal reaction.

Perhaps this concern comes from a confusion of how to balance the terms “self” and “care” in the Christian life. When connected with a hyphen, this word seem to challenge the very heart of the message of Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Bearing a Roman execution stake doesn’t seem like it has a lot to do with taking time off. On the other hand, Jesus calls us to care for others, especially the needy and the poor. Who are we to orient this care towards ourselves when others around us so obviously need it? It is also worth asking whether behind our revulsion to self-care is also a bit of guilt as well–guilt for overworking and avoiding our own rest as mandated by the Lord.

Suffice it to say many Christians have a complicated relationship with the psychological concept of self-care. So it’s understandable why many Christians reject the idea outright. And yet other Christians, particularly younger ones, seem to live by self-care like it’s their own personal liturgy. What then should our orientation be towards it? What we need is a biblical word on the matter. Enter a journeyman prophet named Elijah.

We must be careful not to read too much into the story of Elijah in the wilderness in 1 Kings 19 and we must beware of using it to justify a lot of unbiblical things. Yet the story is important and rich. Elijah, God’s instrument, wins a great victory against Baal, but shortly after flees for his life in fear and collapses in despair. Our ever-kind God restores Elijah in gentleness through a divine whisper and a delicious meal. Off goes Elijah to face whatever comes his way.

Elijah clearly engages here in some form life-sustaining practice that strengthens him physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And it is very effective. The focus on feeding Elijah in the text affirms that we are physical beings with physical needs and limits. What else can we determine from the angel’s statement that “the journey is too great for you”?  In a sense, the passage affirms the importance of taking care of ourselves. Many may stop at this point and say “Look! Scripture justifies [insert favorite practice here].”

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