Self-Care, or Self-Indulgent?

“Treat yo self!” In a 2011 episode of TV’s “Parks and Rec,” two characters, Tom and Donna, introduced us to "Treat Yo Self Day." In the episode, the two co-workers paint the town red, buying designer clothing, fragrances, all while indulging in mimosas, massages, and gourmet dining. Since then, “Treat Yo Self Day” has become an unofficial American holiday, celebrated each year in mid-October.

It’s easy to see why such a day might appeal to us. Whether you’ve got toddlers or teens who demand more time or energy than you thought you had to give, or you’re working 60 hours a week, trying to meet the unrealistic demands of an unrelenting boss, or you’re caring for an aging parent after the parent-child roles have switched, an entire day devoted to indulging in a little luxury seems harmless–-and maybe even helpful. In a stressed-out, fast-paced, high-demand world, what does it look like to practice healthy self-care?

Self-Care vs. Self-Indulgence

There’s a sharp contrast between ensuring that your emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental needs are being adequately met, and catering to every one of our selfish desires. A friend of mine observed not long ago that self-care can be a buzzword that we use to prioritize self over others. If we aren’t careful, “self-care” becomes a lifestyle that prioritizes our wants, goals, and ambitions at the expense of those around us. While this may have a noble feel to it--especially if we use the language of “self-care”--it will become inherently selfish.

When Jesus summarizes how God expects us to live, he tells us plainly that the second greatest command (after the command to love God above everything else) is to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:39). That means that we must be willing to devote the same creativity, energy, and attention to meeting the material, spiritual, and emotional needs of our neighbor that we do to ourselves. Paul echoes this in Philippians when he reminds us that we must look not only to our own interest, but also to the interests of others, imitating the pattern of Jesus (see Philippians 2). The pattern for the Christian life cannot be one that is focused on putting our own needs ahead of others; in fact, it must be the other way around! Our way of life is about serving the needs of others.

Self-Care to Serve Well

However, caring for others doesn’t mean neglecting ourselves. Years ago, when my wife or I would fly with a toddler on our lap, the flight attendant reminded us just before takeoff that if oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling, we were to put the masks on ourselves first! Failure to do so might mean that I pass out while fumbling with the mask for my son, endangering both of us. We cannot love our neighbor well, if we are emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or physically unhealthy. In fact, recalling Jesus’ summary of the Law, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves-–which presumes that we are ensuring that our own needs are being met. Jesus himself withdrew from the crowds, finding solitude to pray, and to rest. Properly exercised, self-care means taking care of our spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental needs so that we are better equipped to love and serve others.

Christ-Centered Self-Care

One way that the bible teaches us to practice self-care is in the discipline of Sabbath, or rest. God sets aside one day of the week, calling his people to rest from their work, and worship him. Taken this way, self-care is rooted in our relationship with God, and centers on nourishing our relationship with Christ. Worship reorients us to the greatness, the grace, and the care of God for us.

But rest also is meant to be regular time and space to set aside the many demands on our time that can so quickly drain us. For some, rest might be working in the garden, or going on a bike-ride; for others, it will involve reading a book, or taking a nap. Healthy self-care is attentive to the many facets of who we are--body, soul, mind, and spirit, as well as to the activities that rejuvenate us.

At the same time, self-care also looks for ways to regulate the rhythms of our lives that either leave us drained, or fill us up. Sometimes, self-care means identifying unhealthy relationships that need to be pruned back because they are interfering with our marriage. Self-care might mean seeking counseling to deal with conflict in a family, or pain in the past. Self-care can mean eating well, exercising, praying, making love, fasting, or making new friends.

How well prepared are you to meet the needs of those around you? Are you in a place where you are healthy, and ready to pour out for others? Give yourself to the needs of others! Are you worn out and feeling empty? Don’t “treat yo self”, but focus on Christ, and who he is, allowing him to fill you with his grace, caring for yourself so that you might better care for others!

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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