We all have a picture in our mind when we hear the term “self-care.” One might imagine an early morning hike followed by a good cup of dark roast coffee while overlooking a sunrise. Others might think of taking a warm bubble bath with a good book or water coloring in the wilderness or dancing crazily when no one is looking. Some may think of self-care as pampering yourself with expensive spa treatments, makeup, clothes, and food at a well-deserved weekend away with friends. You might simply define self-care as nothing more than satisfying essential bodily needs, such as eating well, exercising, or getting enough sleep.
Nevertheless, given these various perceptions of what self-care entails, it’s important that we understand its root rather than analyzing the examples of how it generally manifests in our minds.
Join me for a brief history lesson.
The History of the Self-Care Movement
Prior to the late 1960s, the term self-care was a medical concept, applying exclusively to those suffering with great physical or mental aliments. However, during the rise of both the women’s and civil rights movements in the 1970s, the term took on a political identity as members of minority groups began advocating their need to take care of themselves as a result of the government’s failure to take care of them. These groups argued that they faced a greater deal of stress and anxiety compared to their white and male counterparts and therefore needed more care and opportunities for relaxation.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the term emerged once again due to the large amount of people dealing with PTSD and related anxieties. Today, many people don’t realize the political history of the Self-Care Movement and often associate the term with luxurious, time-consuming or mindless forms of relaxation or rejuvenation.
Addressing Stress Management
In its essence, however, stress management is the underlying problem that self-care seeks to address. The proposed solution takes multiple forms, many of which are accompanied with a large price tag. Other solutions to stress may be less expensive but otherwise silly, or focus on the arts, food, or outdoor activities. What all of these proposed solutions share in common is their tactic to distract you from the stresses of your life. Yet, the means of distraction are often indulgent, selfish, and temporary. Sadly, when the activity is over and the credit cards have been run, your problems, stresses, and sins still remain. No amount of water coloring will make them disappear.
The Bible and Self-Care
Does the Bible address the topic of self-care? Not in the way the world conceives of it. The Bible never encourages us to use distractions to take us away from our problems or sins. Actually, Scripture always points you to repent, pray and look to the Lord for ultimate peace and contentment (Prov 3:5-6; Phil 4:11; Heb 13:5). What the world endorses as “self-care,” is often a carefully-disguised form of selfishness to help us escape from our problems.
Nevertheless, the Lord does encourage rest, and we find multiple examples in God’s Word of what true rest involves and how it can be achieved. In this article I will address two different aspects of rest that Scripture promotes: physical rest and spiritual rest.
The Place for Physical Rest
First, there is a place for physical rest in the Christian life. God grants His children rest in the form of sleep and time off from one’s work. Psalm 127:2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved.” Relaxing sleep is both a gift from God and a continual remainder for us to rely on Him. It may be an easy thing to accomplish when you’re laying down unconscious for a third of your life, but the same principle should carry through in the other two thirds.
Furthermore, God modeled the concept of resting one day a week in the creation of the world. In the Old Testament, He consecrated the seventh day of the week, known as the “Sabbath,” and did not allow His people to work on that day. “Six days you shall do you work,” God told his people, “but on the seventh day you shall rest” (Ex 23:12).
Today, while the Sabbath has been ultimately fulfilled in Jesus (Heb 4:1-10), the principle of resting from work for one day a week can still prove to be fruitful and wise. Resting from our labors allows one to refuel, recharge, and re-enter the work week with renewed energy! However, it is important to remember that the purpose of the Sabbath in the Old Testament was to worship the Lord. Therefore, there is a strong correlation between rest and worship. Your rest needs to ultimately be God-centric, as opposed to you-centric.
This Godward orientation is the main difference between the world’s definition of self-care and what the Lord defines as rest. Remember, the world’s idea of self-care found is built around the aim of distracting you from your problems or to give you an excuse to indulge, spoil, or pamper yourself. The purpose of rest as put forth in the Bible is to draw you near to the Lord in worship and adoration and to re-energize you to work more productively for the advancement of the Kingdom. “Do not grow weary in doing good,” the apostle Paul reminds us (Gal 6:9). I believe one very helpful way of not growing weary is by regularly resting as God intended.
Furthermore, the self-care movement is only dealing with temporary “fixes” for daily stress, anxiety, and weariness. But God offers an eternal, perfect rest for one’s soul that is found in Jesus Christ. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
In this passage, Jesus is referring to the rest found in salvation. Being adopted into the family of God and having your sins forgiven secures one’s eternal destiny in heaven. Faith in in Jesus allows for ultimate spiritual rest and ongoing communion with the Lord as you walk through life’s challenges. This spiritual rest can provide mental rest as you “entrust [your soul] to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Pet 4:19). God designed the human heart to find rest and satisfaction in His infinite goodness. In fact, our hearts long for it.
A helpful self-examination question is asking whether you are truly resting in Christ’s work on your behalf. Do you believe that your faith alone has saved you from an eternity of conscious torment, but at the same time try to add to it? In Galatians 3:2-3 Paul rhetorically asks, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Essentially, feeling the need to “do good things” in order to add to your righteousness before God will lead us into very dangerous territory. The good news of the gospel rests on the foundation that Christ has accomplished everything in your place. If you find yourself completely and utterly exhausted and in continual need of “self-care,” I would encourage you to turn afresh to Christ and rest in Christ’s work rather than your own.
Self-Care and Women
But why has the self-care movement targeted women as their primary audience? I will offer two potential reasons, and I encourage us as Christian women to consider whether we have fallen prey to either mentality.
The first is our current society’s perspective that women work too hard and therefore deserve a break. Yet, Proverbs 31:10-31 is clear that God expects a lot from women. Just from this passage alone we see a model of a woman who makes clothes for her household, works late into the night, wakes up while it’s still dark outside, runs a profitable side business, cares for the poor, and blesses everyone around her. That’s quite a woman!
Today, however, women often feel burdened or exhausted by their daily work. I wonder how much of this exhaustion has to do with our mindset that we have too many responsibilities. If this is the case, we need to be reminded that God expects both men and women to work hard and accomplish much in the day. That’s the model. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances (such as illnesses) that may keep us from working diligently. But in general, we should experience some tiredness as a result of carefully attending to our daily work.
The second reason why the self-care movement has focused chiefly on women is that many women don’t take the time to rest. Because the roles of wife and mother are often endless and necessary for the survival of their households, women feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to keep going and never stop for a break. I think this is a time when husbands and friends can be helpful in taking the reins for a short time to allow the hard-working woman to have some time to rest.
Failure to regularly rest allows exhaustion to compound which leads to burnout and the constant lingering feeling of, “I just need a break.” This, in turn, leads to not working very productively or effectively. The truth is we all need rest because that’s how God created us. We have a finite amount of energy. We rest, therefore, not to be selfish or self-centered, but to refuel ourselves to work hard for our families, our churches, and our Lord.
The concept of self-care is, by and large, selfish and often rooted in escapism—no matter how hard its proponents may argue otherwise. It serves as a means of forgetting our responsibilities and literally doing anything to not think about one’s problems, sins, or worries. The Bible offers a very different answer, calling the weak, the tired, the burdened, the helpless, the overwhelmed to look to Christ, casting all their burdens at His feet. He is rest. He alone can heal the brokenhearted, energize the exhausted, strengthen the weak. Seeking Christ for who He is rather than what He can give you is one of the most restful things one can do for their soul. Don’t replace rest in Christ with getting a facial at the spa or going on a sunset hike.
It is important to scrutinize every modern secular concept through the lens of Scripture, understanding its origin and manifestations and straining it through what God’s Word says. Thorough study can help you develop a deeper understanding of the Lord and His ways. And the one thing I can guarantee: you will always find His ways are best.