'Self-care': Demonic indulgence or a godly discipline?

A study recently shared by Barna reveals the 'self-care' habits of Americans who consider themselves Christian or simply 'spiritual'. What should one make of its findings, and is 'self-care' a dangerous enterprise of self-indulgence, or a vital discipline for a healthy church? 

Research found that time in nature is the most common way for those surveyed to engage in their own 'self-care' (25 per cent). The second most popular practice (21 per cent) is the reading of books on spiritual topics. Meditation (19 per cent), silence or solitude (16 per cent) and journaling are also practised. The least common practices are yoga (12 per cent) and group gatherings or retreats (12 per cent).

The study also found some interesting differences depending on class and education: generally the above habits of 'self-care' are more likely to be engaged by the wealthy and those with higher education experience – bar journaling and time in nature.

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Meanwhile younger generations, the youngest of which amongst adults is millennials, are the most likely to seek out the disciplines of self-care. That may not be surprising, given that the emerging generation has been at the heart of discussions about mental health and wellbeing, and are likely to be the most responsive to new trends.

Though one study can only say so much, the social divides it shows may betray a wider societal ambivalence about 'self-care'. And one can imagine why some might be suspicious of it. Its name could be distracting: Christians might be wary of that direction toward the 'self' perhaps being merely a thin veil for narcissism. A commitment to 'me-time' or 'looking after myself' might just be another way of avoiding social obligations and ignoring the needs of others. Christians would be right to question a mindset of pure self-interest or self-reliance.

Given that the wealthier are more able (financially), and likely, to seek out yoga or spiritual retreats, it might confirm suspicions that 'self-care' is just the frivolous preserve of the bored and rich, but hardly an essential human good.

Other Christians might be suspicious of generic 'spirituality': a Bible-study sounds pious and evangelical, an interest in yoga or mindfulness could make particularly conservative believers wary of dangerous syncretism.

But despite those reservations, there's profound wisdom in the work of 'self-care' – especially for Christians and those called to ministry. As Dr Tasha Chapman of Missouri's Covenant Theological Seminary has argued, 'Self-care is not selfish; it is a wise form of self-denial in order to "finish the race." Our personal health impacts the health of our ministries'.

Even if some imagine pastoral work as largely serene and undemanding, those in ministry frequently report the highest levels of poor emotional health and work-related stress. Inevitably, that stress is destructive not only to the self but to relationships, so 'self-care' is really about being more aware of others, not less. A refusal to care for the self can result in over-commitment, unhealthy work-rhythms and ends in damaging 'burn-out' for many leaders.

The disciplines of 'self-care' are just that: they are challenges, not easily fulfilled, demanding on our time and energy. But like any discipline, they yield fruit with investment. Journaling is an important way to document experiences and emotions, to enable the processing of complexity and mixed feelings – it can help us remember, celebrate, grow and not make the same mistakes. A lack of self-awareness can breed self-delusion, which helps no one. Ironically if you think you're invincible, you'll surely fail, but if you know you're fragile, you're on the path to prosperity.

It shouldn't be too surprising that time in nature does us good, if you believe in a beautiful world crafted by a creator, in which 'the heavens declare the glory of God'. It might sound cliché but remains true: fresh air, vitamin D, experiencing the stunning and sublime in nature is a vital discipline for a society so easily glued to – and depressed by – its digital screens. Likewise, silence and meditation help us switch off, tune into new perspectives that can alleviate, in part, our anxieties.

And of course, this Christian Today interview shows why believers needn't fear yoga as demonic but merely a helpful tool, a way to pray, when rightly used.

Misuse or abuse is possible with any good thing, so of course responsibility and wisdom are required for the one seeking 'self'-care. It's true that we're naturally selfish, but that's not a reason to pretend we don't exist, or don't need help. Jesus taught people to 'love your neighbour as yourself' – the implication of course, is that its natural, and right, to love yourself.

You can follow @JosephHartropp on Twitter

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