It seems like a lot of us are feeling sorry for ourselves. ‘Life is so stressful’ is a ubiquitous complaint. We blame technology for filling our heads with bad things, never giving us a moment’s peace. We blame our jobs, our schools, our families. According to the World Health Organization, ‘burnout’ is now an official syndrome and so now, if we have a bad week, we’re suffering burnout… Is life harder than it used to be; is it harder for us than it was for our parents? I doubt it. Does that mean then, that all this talk about ‘self care’ is just self-indulgent nonsense? Or course not. Life throws all sorts of difficulties at us; it’s a necessary part of our spiritual journey. We should never wallow in self-pity, that old cliché about there always being somebody worse off than you, is, unfortunately, very true; but equally, self care is a Christian responsibility .
‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.’ 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
It is our Christian duty to take care of ourselves; our bodies and our minds. Caring for yourself is not selfish: we are commanded to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ which presupposes that first we look after ourselves. You’ll find plenty of advice online about how to practice self-care, and yes, some of it may help, but the only place really worth looking is in the scripture. Prayer is the best self-care.
‘Come to me, all you who are wearied and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Matthew 11:28-30
Of course the Bible does not use the phrase ‘self-care’ but again and again the scripture tells us of the importance of looking after ourselves.
‘Six days shall you labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.’ Exodus 34:21
The full impact of that extraordinary statement is probably lost on us city dwellers, but the command ‘even during the plowing season and harvest’ makes it profoundly clear that God requires us to look after our physical and mental health and that the gospel frees us from the burden of working exclusively for our own wealth. If we drive ourselves to the point of breakdown, even if we believe that what we are doing is in the service of the Lord, we are disrespecting God by our arrogance and in thinking that we know best.
‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when the heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.’ 2 Jeremiah 17:7-8
If we put our trust in the Lord, we need not fear ‘when the heat comes’. Follow the example of Jesus, he showed us the importance of self-care through prayer. Mark recounts how Jesus would slip out, early in the morning and go to a solitary place in order to talk to God privately. In the gospel of Matthew we hear of Jesus’ practical care for those who have come to hear him speak.
‘Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ”I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” ‘ Matthew 15:32
When Jesus visits the house of Martha and Mary, Martha complains that she has been doing all the work and that her sister has done nothing but sit at the feet of Jesus and listen. She is experiencing the stress of trying to be a good host and it may seem entirely reasonable that she expects that her sister should give her some help. The answer that Jesus gives to her is a lesson in self-care for all of us.
‘ “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”’ Luke10: 38-42
Filling our hearts with the Holy Spirit is the best self-care we can give ourselves; caring for ourselves enables us to better serve others and in doing so, we serve God.