What does the Bible Say about Self-Care (without Self-Obsession)?

Updated Apr 22, 2019
What does the Bible Say about Self-Care (without Self-Obsession)?

“Sorry to leave you with the kids,” I said to my husband on a sunny Saturday. I felt terrible leaving him alone while I shopped.

He looked confused. “Thank you for doing the shopping,” he said. “It’s a big job.”

I suddenly saw my “getaway” in a new light. Buying toilet paper and detergent at Target wasn’t exactly an afternoon at a day spa. Yes, it gave me a few minutes of precious alone time, but my outing was a practical need, not an indulgence.

And yet I felt guilty and anxious for taking those few minutes away.

Our culture is obsessed with ‘self-care.’ The secular understanding of rest was immortalized on one of my favorite shows, “Parks and Recreation.” In the episode, two somewhat self-obsessed characters take Ben, a workaholic, on a “treat yo-self” day. They go on a shopping spree, drink mimosas, and urge him to indulge his every whim—in his case, an elaborate Batman costume. In Treat Yo-Self World, self-care takes place at a mall with a no-limit Mastercard.

Though it makes for funny TV, Christians justifiably decry this kind of decadence. Much as it might relax us in the short term, conspicuous consumption doesn’t actually nurture our souls (especially when the resulting credit card bill hits our mailbox). What, exactly, does the Bible say about caring for ourselves? 

Photo Credit: Unsplash/ Jen P

Self-Care According to the Bible

Self-Care According to the Bible

I think Christians are just as confused about what self-care looks like. More often than overindulgence, I see a lot of punitive, anxious striving in the church. A reader asked me if it was a bad idea to enjoy her quiet times too much. A friend going through three serious and simultaneous family crises told me she was “failing” at faith—despite her vibrant ministry and a sincere yearning for God.

We can become overachievers for Jesus—shouldering heavy burdens of spiritual disciplines, church involvement, service, and piety that burn us out. We can have such high expectations for ourselves that we think missing Bible study when we’re sick or weary equals spiritual failure.

Self-indulgence doesn’t nurture us, but neither does putting our noses to the spiritual grindstone. In fact, the Bible teaches a shocking message of self-care that cuts through our constant striving. Here are five verses that teach us how to enter into God’s rest and care.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

1. Rest is Holy - Genesis 2:2

1. Rest is Holy - Genesis 2:2

Genesis 2:2 reads, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested... God blessed the seventh day and made it holy....”

This verse is so familiar I think we miss its shock value. God took a day off? Did the Almighty do a cross-word puzzle or take a nap? Why? How?

I once felt guilty for taking time away from my kids to go buy toilet paper. Yet God takes a lavish rest and then (throughout the Torah) commands that we follow that example.

I struggle to obey; not working makes me feel itchy and anxious. But God models a different kind of work ethic by bringing all creation into existence, saying it’s very good—then taking a break. Observing my own informal Sabbaths—avoiding housework, social media, and professional work—made a big impact on my anxiety and workaholism.

If God can do it, then why can’t we?

But practically speaking, what does healthy rest look like? Is it really about mimosas?

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Sage Friedman

2. Self-Care Honors Our Bodies - Psalm 23

2. Self-Care Honors Our Bodies - Psalm 23

Psalm 23 gives us important clues about the practical meaning of rest. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides quiet waters, he restores my soul… You prepare a table before me… my cup overflows.”

The overall imagery of the poem compares God to a shepherd caring for sheeps’ bodies. I think Christians only consider Bible study, prayer and church as self-care. But the Bible prioritizes physical needs as well.

Shepherds make sure sheep are adequately fed. They protect their bodies from physical harm. They make sure they have safe shelter for the night. They notice injuries and tend to them. We are called to nurture ourselves and each other in the same way.

Quite honestly, I did not learn how to care for my own body well until I was in my thirties. I struggled with insomnia and unhealthy sleep patterns, ate in ways that gave me headaches and made my hands shake, and felt so anxious that getting a massage made me jump.

The devotion God calls us to weave into our lives is intended to rejuvenate us—strengthen us for another day, and for the longer run. If our “devotion” continuously breaks down our minds and bodies and spirits, something is wrong. If our schedules are so packed that there’s no time for rest, Jesus calls us to make discerning, sometimes difficult choices.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

3. Self-Care Isn’t a Proving Ground - Mark 2:23-28

3. Self-Care Isn’t a Proving Ground - Mark 2:23-28

For years, I avoided taking a Sabbath because it sounded legalistic. I thought honoring the Sabbath merely meant prioritizing church attendance and not taking a paid job on Sundays.

But Jesus’ critiques of Sabbath legalism don’t critique the Sabbath itself. In Mark 2:23-28, for example, the Pharisees rebuke Jesus’ disciples for feed themselves from some stalks of grain on the Sabbath. Jesus shrugged at their indignation, saying, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” He critiques the Pharisees’ rules and their impact, not the Sabbath itself.

It is always possible to be legalistic, self-focused, or inflexible about self-care. In Christ’s day, that looked like Sabbath bean-counting; in ours it might mean rigid rules about “clean eating,” going to church even when we’re sick, or overindulgence in ‘treat-yo-self’ sprees.

But Jesus never questions the fact that God made Sabbath. Resting is an imperative, and the first rule is that it should actually nurture us, not prove something.

We don’t rest to prove we’re “good Christians.” We don’t rest because we deserve a break. We rest because rest is part of God’s plan for our wholeness.

Abstaining from work on Sundays changes me. It helps me remember I can do no creative act without God. It helps me avoid confusing my work and myself. It reminds me that I am not omnipotent.

Psychologist Neil Fiore points out that the word “recreation” hides a root meaning: re-creation. Sabbath re-creates us and connects us with the awesome creativity of God. It is made for us, and it also makes us new.

Photo Credit: GettyImages/Antonio Guillem

4. Self-Care is About Self-Knowledge - 1 Corinthians 12:4

4. Self-Care is About Self-Knowledge - 1 Corinthians 12:4

Not long ago, I felt God nudging me to sign up to serve in a worthy ministry at our church. I hesitated, because quite honestly, the work they do—one-on-one teaching—sounded exhausting for an introvert. But I knew I needed to obey.

To my surprise, the director asked if I’d mind helping them with their website. I could volunteer without leaving home. Apparently Jesus knew and honored my limitations.

In 1 Corinthians 12:4, Paul says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”

Jesus made me, therefore I should serve in obedience to God’s workmanship in me, offering up the strengths of my nature, while trusting him with my weaknesses. If I don’t pay attention to my gifts, temperament, and limits, I do myself harm.

Knowing our own gifts helps us discern where we are most effective. It helps us avoid guilt because we work out of calling instead of obligation. It helps us avoid envy or judgement because we know how we serve might not work for everyone.

If we serve without considering our limits, we risk disobedience. God commands us to do all things in Christ’s power, not our own. It might seem generous to say yes to any service opportunity, but we often do this out of the dangerous idolatry of our own power. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “…every Christian must be constantly vigilant against… a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Priscilla Du Preez

5. Trust in His Easy Yoke - Matthew 11:28-30

5. Trust in His Easy Yoke - Matthew 11:28-30

For a long time, I thought Jesus was lying when he promised an easy yoke (Matthew 11:28-30). I found Christianity exhausting. It exhausted me to volunteer for everything, shame myself for all the ways I fell short, and show up for every activity, discipline, and church service event. Most of the time, I felt bitter about how much God demanded of me.

Turns out, I was the one demanding so much of myself, not God. Christ’s power is sufficient for my weakness—but I was too worried about my own failings to really rest in that power. As I have cultivated the discipline of Sabbath and stopped depending on my hard work, I have found deep joy in being cared for by the Shepherd of all.

I was once ashamed that I had to work so hard to be a “good Christian.” Seeking God’s rest turned my assumptions upside down. It turns out that Jesus really does change everything in my life—as soon as I allow Him to. By letting go of my workaholic ways, I learned the real meaning of self-care: entering deeply, faithfully, into God’s rest.

Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.

Photo Credit: Pexels/Victor Freitas

Originally published Monday, 22 April 2019.