The topic of self-care, particularly as it relates to physical and emotional health, has long confused and challenged me as a Christian. While I’ve deeply resonated with much of the common sense in the philosophy of self-care, other aspects have troubled me and seem completely incompatible with Christianity. I couldn’t agree with Scripture and at the same time agree with arguments encouraging me to pursue a self-focused, indulgent, comfort-based lifestyle. On the other hand, I heartily agreed in principle with discussions of self-care as stewardship. Still, I usually came away with more of a sense of heavy obligation than of freedom and gratitude. I often saw God as an auto mechanic pacing around, irritated and inconvenienced by my failure to get my car in for regular maintenance.
As I struggled to come to biblical conclusions about self-care, I vacillated between embracing it wholeheartedly and rejecting it altogether. I’d mostly ignore my physical and emotional health for long stretches of time, defaulting to a philosophy of pushing through life, trying to move faster and do more. Then I’d crash. I’d make some efforts at rest or recovery, but always with a nagging sense of guilt that I’d been indulgent, lazy, or somehow disobedient.
Confronting Faulty Beliefs
My confusion about self-care was mostly rooted in two serious theological misunderstandings related to, interestingly enough, self-denial. Confronting these faulty beliefs has been pivotal in developing a healthy biblical view of self-care.
First, I equated denying myself with denying my humanity. Luke 9:23 was one of the first verses I memorized as a new believer. I took Jesus’s words seriously and deeply believed what he says here and in similar passages. We find our lives by losing them. Discipleship is defined by a supreme love for Jesus and willingness to take up our crosses daily.
But somewhere along the way, I developed an unspoken but functional belief. I started believing that denying myself isn’t just about denying my sinful attempts to be my own god, but also about ignoring the fact I am a human being with physical and emotional needs—and God-ordained limits. I never would’ve said I believed this, but my life told a different story. In particularly stressful seasons, I treated needs like sleep, nutrition, exercise, and emotional refreshment as luxuries for which I didn’t have time. It didn’t occur to me that accepting my God-given limits and actively choosing to receive God’s gifts of rest, food, recreation, and solitude are also acts of worship and obedience.
Second, I didn’t see my attempts to push past my perceived weakness or neediness for what they really were—pride. As I studied the Gospels, God began to unravel the mess in my heart. He repeatedly reminded me that Jesus—fully human and fully God—regularly set aside time in his ministry to be alone or enjoy meals with friends. Why did I assume these things were acceptable for him but not for me? Why did I encourage people to take good care of themselves while neglecting good care of myself? Scripture also reminded me of God’s great love and compassion for me, and his promise to provide for my needs.
I began to see God never asks us to pretend we’re not human or needy. In fact, the Bible regularly commands us to remember who God is and who we are. This doesn’t mean we should demand God to meet all our physical and emotional needs on our terms, or that he won’t call us to seasons of physical and emotional suffering. Christians have not been promised an easy, hassle-free life. At times legitimate needs will be denied. But I’m learning to view and practice consistent self-care in a new way—as a spiritual discipline that can help me rightly acknowledge my place in God’s world rather than dismiss it as a distracting indulgence.
Seeing Our Heart
I also used to believe self-denial is mostly about behavior rather than the heart. For a long time, I thought self-denial is about avoiding practices I considered self-indulgent. But as I began to reexamine God’s Word, I started to see more clearly that self-denial isn’t just a behavior issue—it’s a heart issue. Our behavior reveals our heart. God calls us to deny our hopeless attempts to justify ourselves and find life apart from Christ.
I avoided self-care because it looked dangerously close to self-indulgence. But avoiding self-care actually fed my sinful appetite to live self-sufficiently and to seek fulfillment in my own abilities. It may seem backward to say that avoiding self-care was actually self-indulgent, but it was for me. As I struggled with thinking that my accomplishments defined me, God taught me that self-denial for me meant stopping to rest. This lesson felt counterintuitive, but just because something looks like self-denial on the surface doesn’t mean it actually is.
Finding Freedom and Joy
Many of us don’t consider the issue of self-care until a crisis forces us to wake up. God, in his kindness, uses these crises to take us to places we wouldn’t choose on our own, but in these places we find greater freedom and joy in him.
The topic of self-care has thousands of practical and debatable considerations, and thousands of legitimate and important cautions that go with them. Nevertheless, it is an important topic and one we need to think about, for the way we handle it reveals a great deal about our hearts, what we believe about ourselves, and what we believe about God.