For many moms, “self-care” is a constant catchphrase. And depending on where you fall on the evangelical spectrum, you either love the phrase or hate it.
You may be a weary mom—exhausted by the little years—and come upon an article talking about how you must first meet your own needs in order to care for your children. “Self-care is the first step to sustainable mothering,” the author says. It makes sense to you. You’re tired. You’re overwhelmed. You see all the needs around you, but feel depleted, left with nothing to give.
Then while scrolling through Instagram later that evening, you come upon another idea: soul-care. “You don’t need self-care; you need soul-care. You need the Bible and you need prayer. Jesus is sufficient for all of your needs,” this person says. This makes sense, too, you think. You know you’re physically drained, but your spiritual reserves are also running on fumes.
Must you choose between soul-care and self-care? A closer look at Scripture reveals that sometimes both are needed. For Christians, these two practices walk hand in hand toward flourishing.
As human beings, we are both body and soul. To thrive, both need to be nourished and cared for. When we divorce self-care from soul-care, we err in one of two ways. On one extreme, we get stoicism devoid of compassion. On the other, we get selfishness devoid of sacrifice.
Soul-care without self-care treats the body, or even the personality, as a shell that houses the more important part of our selves. It misses the reality of the brokenness of this world and the real ways it affects our bodies. Too much emphasis on self-care, though, makes our ultimate happiness about our physical needs being met. We know from Scripture that physical sacrifice is a part of the Christian life (Luke 9:23). Self-care, like soul-care, must serve a greater purpose that doesn’t just culminate in our needs being met.
Understanding this embodied life helps us join the two together, for the greater good of serving those under our care. You are a soul in a body, so you don’t get to neglect your body—any more than you get to neglect your soul. Your body must be taken care of in order for you to both survive and thrive. You need food. You need water. You need exercise. You need sleep. When Paul writes, “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Eph. 5:29), he assumes self-care is a basic and valid part of human existence.
You are a finite and limited being, which means your physical body is bound by real limitations. To neglect them is foolish and to your peril—even your spiritual peril.
Embodied Care on Sleepless Nights
I have struggled with severe insomnia since the birth of my third son. I have tried every remedy imaginable, from anxiety medication to essential oils. Thankfully, I now have a regimen that works for me. I have to wind down at the end of the day. I need mindless things in the evening, like television. I need to go to bed early. I wear ridiculous-looking glasses that help eliminate blue light when I watch television. I limit my schedule at night so that I don’t cut into my sleep habits. I drink a special tea at bedtime. I read fiction before bed (nothing too engaging or I’ll be awake for hours!).
Is that strictly self-care? On the surface it looks like it. I’m doing things that seem to only benefit me. But in the same way that I’m a soul in a body, I’m also a human who lives in relationship to others. If I don’t get enough sleep, I can’t get up early enough to spend time reading my Bible. If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not able to take care of my children during the day. If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m grumpy with my husband. If I don’t get enough sleep, I can’t do the work required of me (like writing this article). If I pretended my needs were strictly spiritual, I would not be serving anyone.
If I pretended my needs were strictly spiritual, I would not be serving anyone.
My battle with sleep is a physical one that has spiritual implications. No amount of reading my Bible and prayer will help me go to sleep. Of course, I know that only God grants sleep (Ps. 127:2)—in fact, this has been the truth that has caused me to depend on him even more in my insomnia. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a responsibility to work toward healthy sleep habits. My self-care is my soul-care.
Man Who Needed Soul-Care (and Self-Care)
There is biblical precedent for this care, which is important, since this conversation is so fraught with tension among women. Elijah was a prophet of the Lord in ancient Israel. He had a hard job. He spoke God’s words to people who refused to listen and even threatened his life.
Perhaps surprisingly, he also practiced self-care.
We meet Elijah in 1 Kings 19, after a great battle for God in 1 Kings 18. He has just defeated the prophets of Baal, demonstrating to all Israel that only God is God. But this mighty act was not well received by Jezebel, the wicked queen. So Elijah runs. And in 1 Kings 19 we find him in the cave. After all he’s just seen God do, we’d expect him to be energized for the next hurdle. Instead he is weary and discouraged, and he asks God to take his life.
But instead of rebuking him, which is what we would expect, God grants him sleep (v. 5). Then God feeds him, and he sleeps some more (v. 6). Then he eats again, because the angel of the Lord says the journey is too great for him (v. 7). And as if this weren’t surprising enough, verse 8 tells us that he’s strengthened in this way for 40 days. Before God gives Elijah his next task, or even shows up to speak to him, he provides for Elijah’s body.
Elijah’s in an extraordinary circumstance. The task to which God has called him has depleted him. But instead of rebuking him for his frailty, God meets him where is and strengthens his body. There is a time for spiritual restoration, but Elijah first needs physical restoration. You could even argue that self-care, rightly understood, is the very thing that nourished his soul.
Even the great prophet of the Lord was a human being, an embodied person, who needed his physical needs met so he could meet the spiritual needs of others. How much more so you and me? When we forget that we are souls in a body easily ravaged by life in a fallen world, we miss the nourishment we need for the tasks set before us.