“Is self-care selfish?” is a pretty heated topic among Christians, which is why I decided to flesh it out. Here’s the good, bad and ugly run-down on self-care (especially for moms). Be sure to check out this self-care toolkit if you want to learn more about how to implement some of the practices I suggest!
I recently posted a discussion question in our Christian Mom Encouragement Facebook group that generated some pretty polarized responses:
“What are your thoughts on self-care?”
I purposely left any value judgment out of the question itself in order to see what the organic response would be. I immediately felt the angst in people’s comments. They generally fell into two categories:
- We absolutely need self-care to be healthy and serve our families well!
- I’m sick of how entitled people are about shopping trips and manicures and how it will fix all of their problems!
I too wrestle with the idea. Is self-care selfish? Or is it necessary? (Or, dare I say, both?)
This is such a hot topic, for moms especially, because so many of us are feeling burned out trying to live the Christian life of self-denial (I get messages about it every day!).
Spoiler: I’ve ultimately decided to lean towards self-care being a good thing for Christians (in fact, I’ve got a bunch of resources that can help you practice it better if you want to check those out). However, it’s important to define what we actually mean by self-care if we’re going to practice it in a way that honors God.
Here is what the Bible does—and doesn’t—say if you’re at all wondering about how to approach self-care from a Christian perspective.
Related: Should Christians Prioritize Self-Care?
1. The Term Self-Care Is Not in the Bible
I’m actually going to start out with what the Bible doesn’t say. This is just as important as what it does say—because I can’t base a whole argument on something that really has no biblical foundation to begin with.
So let it be clearly stated: “self-care” is not in the Bible. Do a word search in any translation. You won’t find it.
Those of you who are in the “self-care is selfish” camp might be feeling pretty smug. It’s not there; therefore self-care must be selfish.
Hold your horses, though; just because the term as we understand it isn’t there doesn’t mean that self-care as a concept can’t be inferred from the scriptures. But those of you on “pro side” shouldn’t get too excited because you’re not free and clear yet either.
We need to be careful taking modern concepts in a modern language and trying to get the scriptures to fit a certain agenda, no matter what the argument. I’ll tread carefully here and try not to read too much into the biblical text. But I think there is enough teaching that makes a few relevant points about how to understand self-care.
My current understanding is that caring for our whole being, a.k.a “self-care,” is a biblical concept. But, like many concepts intended for our good, it can have a dark side when pursued outside of its intended purposes.
2. Sabbath Rest as Self-Care
Newsflash: did you know there are TEN Commandments? Like, in your Bible? See Exodus 20 if you don’t believe me.
Nine of them make a lot of sense, like worshiping God alone, not killing people, not cheating on your spouse and not being a dirty rotten liar or thief.
But then there’s this pesky one about remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. It’s a real head-scratcher.
I’m going to skip over the theological debate about who is and isn’t bound under the Mosaic covenant (I’m going to presume that most of you, like myself, think you are not); let’s talk about why that commandment is there in the first place. If it’s it God’s top ten list, then it’s probably not an arbitrary rule (none of the Torah’s commandments are, but that’s a discussion for another day).
Sabbath rest existed as a concept long before Moses received the Ten Commandments; in fact, God instituted it from Genesis.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.Genesis 2:1–2
It’s a beautiful story; God created the world, finishing it up with his image-bearing children. He tasked them with ruling over the earth on his behalf, reflecting his glory.
But before they got to work, there was something even more important: the invitation to rest with him in his presence, to delight in all the beauty he had made. This was the pattern of what he wanted for his children; even after the fall of mankind, rest is something we continue to seek as we move towards the ultimate restoration of creation (see Hebrews 4).
So what are we to make of this?
God designed humans (and all of creation) with the need to rest. This includes eating, sleeping, celebrating and ultimately being restored. We are not machines.
We can choose to rest weekly, by observing a Sabbath, but we can also choose other restful disciplines daily, monthly, or whenever it’s appropriate.
When I view self-care through the lens of Sabbath rest, it’s quite the opposite of selfish. It takes restraint and faith to stop working and to trust in him who cares for you rather than trying to do it all yourself.
This is a huge topic! If you’re intrigued, you can learn more about how to understand Sabbath rest practically in my eCourse, Choose Rest.
3. Stewardship as Self-Care
At first glance, it looks like the New Testament is rather inconsistent when it comes to anything that might relate to self-care. Jesus explicitly says to deny yourself if you want to be his disciple and to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. But he also is faithful about observing the Sabbath and invites his followers to rest in him (Matthew 11:28–30).
The apostle Paul says that he “beats his body and makes it his slave” in order to align himself with God’s purposes. Yet he also instructs Christians to live quiet lives and to treat their bodies as living temples.
All of those passages, of course, make more sense when read in their proper contexts. The unifying theme is loving and honoring God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength, which is God’s greatest commandment throughout the whole Bible.
Another way to look at this is stewardship—or in other words viewing yourself as God’s property and not your own. If your body is not your own, as Paul says, then how does God want you to treat it? How does that affect your view of not only your physical, but also your mental and spiritual health?
There will be times when you have to sacrifice “self-care” because there is a more pressing need that God is calling you to. This could be a season of less sleep (yep, I’m talking to you mamas) or a time when you have to give up something you enjoy. You will probably have periods in your life of more extreme stress and suffering as well.
But that doesn’t mean you should be in a constant state of repressing your own needs—or even your wants. The fully human Jesus himself slept, took time away by himself, feasted and even enjoyed being anointed with luxurious perfume, without guilt or apology. God the Father enjoys giving good gifts to his children—and we can ask for them! There is a time for everything, as Ecclesiastes says.
4. Entitlement as Self-Care
Going back to the original question: “Is self-care selfish?” Unfortunately, it can be, when viewed outside of the more biblical understandings I’ve already outlined.
One way self-care is selfish is when we fall into the trap of entitlement. This is, in other words, when we do something that can be good for us, but under the pretext that we deserve it.
I’ll use an example of entitlement from my own life. Like many stay-at-home moms, I lived for nap time when my kids were little. It was a time for me to relax and do what I wanted to do rather than being the chef/nanny/maid 24/7.
So when someone didn’t sleep for their allotted time, for whatever reason (and there were many), I felt angry. After all, I deserved a break, right? How dare my child take that time away from me?
You can see how self-care entitlement is a very slippery slope indeed. I call to mind a story about self-preservation in Luke. Martha appears to have felt entitled to her sister’s help when they were hosting Jesus. I speculate her mind would have been more at rest with an orderly kitchen and Mary being in her “proper” place, instead of inserting herself in a traditionally male sphere at the feet of the rabbi. Jesus called out her error—perhaps he can call out ours as well.
When you view opportunities for self-care as gifts you can appreciate through the lens of stewardship and rest, rather than entitlements, it’s a lot easier to be flexible and open to different ways God might be working. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect your need to rest (quite the opposite, actually). But it does mean you can hold onto your expectations and your boundaries loosely.
5. Escapism as Self-Care
Another way self-care can be selfish, which is closely related to entitlement, is escapism.
When practicing escapism as a form of self-care, as the name indicates, you’re escaping rather than really resting. It can be a little tricky to tell the difference, but here are a few examples that compare the two approaches:
- Resting: enjoying a slice of pie as a way to celebrate the end of the workweek with your family.
- Escaping: eating a slice of pie as a way to cope with stress from work.
- Resting: enjoying a bubble bath after the kids have gone to bed as a way to relax your tense muscles for sleep.
- Escaping: having a bubble bath so you can avoid your husband after your kids have gone to bed.
- Resting: sleeping in a few minutes late because you were up late praying and talking through a hard day.
- Escaping: sleeping in a few minutes late because you were binging on Netflix last night to get your mind off your worries.
- Resting: scrolling Instagram for a few minutes after lunch and feeling inspired by your favorite influencers.
- Escaping: obsessing over how many people like your posts multiple times a day.
Escapism, frankly, is directly related to idolizing everything but God and resisting rest, which leads us down all kinds of dark paths. We give into the desires of our animal instincts rather than responding to the nudges of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).
Of course, we all fall short and give into temptation from time to time, and as a result we can feel guilty about any self-care at all! But hopefully you can see that there is a difference between selfish self-care and restful self-care, and that difference is all about the heart behind it.
How to Practice Non-Selfish Self-Care
For me, the best way to avoid selfish self-care and to embrace biblical self-care is to be intentional about the way I practice it.
If you’re wondering how, a great place to start is with planning a self-care routine.
Now it’s your turn: what are your thoughts on self-care?