In today’s culture, we hear a lot about self care and it’s importance in our life. Psychologists, doctors, and therapists write entire articles about why it’s so valuable and how it’s imperative for our overall wellbeing.
But, on the other hand, in the Christian church (and pretty much every major world religion for that matter), we’re constantly told to put others first, to be selfless, and to sacrifice for the good of others.
So how can we balance good self care with selfless sacrifice? Should we take care of our own needs first or should we put everyone else first?
The truth is, these views are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. What’s important is understanding what it means to care for yourself and to care for others before yourself.
What Is Self Care?
By definition, self care is the act of taking care of yourself in order to preserve your health and well-being. But you can be selfless and still practice self care.
In contrast to the way self care is portrayed in the public eye, it’s not about being greedy or self-serving or self-indulgent.
It’s not about being completely consumed with making sure all of your desires are met, even if it means being unhelpful or harmful to other people.
Self care is, in its simplest form, the practice of making sure you take care of your basic needs in order to live a healthy and joyful life.
(And, in case it’s not clear, joy is not based on external circumstances as happiness is. Instead, a person can be filled with joy even in the midst of the most unpleasant of circumstances).
What Does Scripture Say About Self Care And Selfless Sacrifice?
From the very beginning of scripture, we see that God makes rest an essential part of a Godly life. After six days of creating, even God himself took the 7th day to rest and recuperate from all of his work.
With this first Sabbath rest, God set the precedent for all of humanity. Self care is not something that is needed because of the fall, God created rest (self care) in the very beginning as a well-deserved reward after all he had made. (Genesis 2:1-3)
The entire law of God in the time of Moses is filled with commands to rest and care for your physical health. Even Jesus made intentional time alone a priority.
On many occasions, he would withdraw from the crowds to be by himself where he would often pray. The night he was arrested he spent time in the garden of Gethsemane praying as his disciples were supposed to keep watch (Mark 14:32-42).
In 1st Corinthians 6, Paul teaches that we should honor God with our bodies by fleeing from sexual immorality and instead of letting your body be mastered by physical things (like food and sex) we should turn to God and let him be our master.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but I will not be mastered by anything.1 Corinthians 6:12 NIV
Wives are told that our beauty should not come from our outward appearance but rather from our inner self and the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:3-4)
Romans 12 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind so that we can do God’s perfect and pleasing will.
In addition, we are not merely spiritual beings. God created us with a mind, body, heart, and spirit and we are to love and serve God with our whole selves, not just our spiritual selves (Mark 12:30).
But Christ also tells us to take up our cross and follow him. We’re told to turn the other cheek, and if someone asks for our coat, give them our shirt, too. Jesus tells the wealthy man to sell everything he owns in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
So how do we discern what God wants from us?
How can we be sure we are being good stewards of the bodies and the health God has blessed us with while at the same time not neglecting the calling God has placed on each of us to serve him by serving others?
Self Care And Selfless Sacrifice
It comes down to wisdom and discernment. It is clear through scripture that God does call us to care for the bodies he’s given us, but our bodies have certain limitations and are not eternal.
Our spirits, on the other hand, are eternal and of much greater value than our earthly bodies. We must do what we can to treat our bodies as the temple of God that they are.
But at the same time, we must recognize that God can and often does call us to sacrifice up to and including our physical wellbeing in order to further his kingdom.
While Christ did care for his body to the best of his ability, making sure to eat and rest and care for his needs, he also did not refuse the calling to literally die on the cross in order to save all of humanity.
While we do not have the power to save humanity, we are often called to smaller acts of sacrifice in the service of Christ.
But how can we know the difference between Godly self-sacrifice for the benefit of the kingdom and foolish self-sacrifice at the expense of our well-being?
That’s a question that really only you can answer with guidance from God.
But there are some considerations to be made as you think through whether God is calling you to sacrifice or if it’s ok for you to take care of your own needs first.
- God will not call you to make any sacrifices that Christ himself has not willingly endured already.
- God will not call you to a task without providing the means and resources needed to complete that task.
- God does not call us to stay in an abusive relationship.
- God’s plan for you is good.
- Self-sacrifice now is often rewarded later (although, the only reward we are guaranteed as followers of Christ is our reward in heaven).
Caring For Others And Yourself
Scripture supports the idea that God intends for us to care for our own bodies and that he intends for us to care for others.
Just as we must first put on our own oxygen mask on a malfunctioning airplane before we can be of any help to others, we must first make sure we are caring for our own physical and spiritual needs before we can lead others.
Christ calls us to care for our own problems in order to see clearly enough to help others care for theirs.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.Matthew 7:3-5 NIV
At the same time, Paul tells us that the physical sacrifices he makes (being imprisoned, beaten, and many other hardships) are worth it in order to advance the kingdom of God.
For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.
Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. And when I come to you again, you will have even more reason to take pride in Christ Jesus because of what he is doing through me.Philippians 1:20-26 (italics added)
So What Should We Do Then?
Respect your bodies as the temple of God. Don’t indulge your sinful nature by engaging in sexual immorality, addictions, too much work and not enough rest, improper nutrition, allowing others to mistreat you and abuse you, and becoming a doormat for people to walk all over.
But at the same time, put aside your selfish ambitions and seek first the kingdom of God with all its eternal glory and temporary sacrifice.
Take the time to rest and feed your mind, body, and soul physically and spiritually. But don’t neglect the callings God has placed on your life.
God always provides the tools needed to accomplish the tasks set before you. Don’t underestimate the power of God to meet your needs by failing to trust in his provisions.
You absolutely can practice selfless self care in the pursuit of serving God by caring for his people, including yourself.
Self care and selfless sacrifice do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I would say that you cannot have one without the other. To truly meet the needs of those God calls you to serve, you must first make sure your basic human needs are met.
God created us and he wants us to care for the bodies he gave us as well as to enjoy the passions, desires, and pleasures he has blessed us with. Christ already took on the punishment for our sins when he died on the cross.
Those of us who have decided to follow Christ no longer have to bear that burden. Christ calls us to a life of service and of blessing. Don’t let one overshadow the other.
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.Ecclesiastes 8:15