The limits of self-care

(Photo: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema)

'It is your responsibility to live your life for yourself. If you don't, who will?' So writes Michelle Elman in The Joy of Being Selfish, published earlier this year.

Already popular, the concept of 'self-care' has gained further momentum during the pandemic, with Google searches for 'self-care routine' up 250% since the first lockdown. 'Self-care' means responding to your limits and needs to protect your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Its champions recommend habits such as daily exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness, strengthening boundaries, prioritising alone time, and investing in hobbies.

There are elements which might benefit us all. God instructs us to care for our bodies and minds (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Philippians 4:6-7). Rest is built into the pattern of creation and a recurring commandment, modelled by Jesus who often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). Stewarding our bodies and minds well can be an act of worshipful obedience. When we recognise our limitations, we acknowledge God's supremacy and our dependence.

However, self-care is grounded in self-sufficiency. Ellman's book on boundary-setting offers 'life change' and 'liberation' through practical steps, such as reminding yourself why you are lovable. Self-care's insistent mantra is that 'you are enough'. The gospel counters that we aren't. Jesus claims that our biggest problem lies not with our circumstances but within our very selves.

Self-care makes helpful suggestions but hollow promises. The issues it claims to address — unfulfilment, exhaustion from overcommitment, lack of connection — are only answered adequately by someone who offers true purpose, grace, and love.

With the gospel as a firm foundation, self-care practices can help us find joy when they point us to its source. We can exercise, eat, and sleep well to protect our God-given bodies and minds. We can enjoy time with loved ones, recognising that God designed us for community. We can cherish beautiful music, films, nature, and food, and praise the Creator. We can meditate, not on our own capacity, but on God's faithfulness and promises.

Openly adopting these practices with the purpose of worshipping God, rather than the self, helps us demonstrate to others that true rest is found not in a state of mind but in a saviour. Real 'self-care' means trusting the care of ourselves daily to God, who promises rest for the weary and burdened:

'Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls' (Matthew 11:28-29).

This article first appeared on the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and is printed here with permission.