Self-Care vs. Soul-Care: A Matter of Theology

Self-care. I think I read that word almost every day somewhere on the internet. The concept of self-care has become extremely popular in recent years as a means of dealing with stress or difficult circumstances, especially among women, and even more so among the myriad of “mom-blogs” out there. Another version of self-care that I read recently went something like this, “The world needs you to be the best version of you.” Or another popular rendition, “In order to be the best mom (wife, husband, employee, etc.) you can be, you need to take care of yourself and your needs first so that you can then pour into others.”

It’s basically the “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others” mentality. Self-care proponents urge people to engage in leisure activities like reading, taking walks, or practicing yoga, as well as making healthy lifestyle choices like getting enough sleep, making healthy food choices, and exercising frequently.

So, what’s the big deal? Seems like a logical enough concept on the surface and many of the components of “self-care” are actually really good things! Personally, I thoroughly enjoy reading a good book, being out in nature, and my morning yoga practice. However, if we look a little deeper into the concept of “self-care,” we will see a fundamentally flawed theology. I realize that I am swimming against the current in our cultural context, but I believe that our theology matters, even in something that may seem as trivial as self-care.

Here, is the issue with the theology of self-care: it revolves around me. My self. It puts me at the center of the equation instead of God. It says, at its root, that if I do enough of the things that refill me and help me de-stress, then I can be the best version of myself possible, and that “myself” is what the world needs.

Now, let’s compare that to the truth of scripture and what it says about the condition of our “self.”

  • “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Jeremiah 17:9
  • All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12
  • “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:25

This is the picture the Bible paints for us in regard to what is inside of us. Deceitful, desperately sick, worthless, no one who does good, straying sheep. No amount of self-care, of looking to ourselves to fix our own problems, can change the condition we find ourselves in as humans.

However, I chose that last verse because it contains the answer to the bad theology of self-care.

Notice that it doesn’t say, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the best version of yourself through deep breathing and green smoothies.”

It says, “You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 1 Pet. 2:25

Which is why I contend that the answer to the world’s flawed theology of self-care is soul-care. Soul-care that doesn’t originate from inside of us, but rather from the Overseer of our souls, our Father in heaven. Soul-care looks to the omnipotent creator of the universe to restore and refresh us. It looks to prayer to fight our anxieties and overcome our obstacles. And it looks to the promises of scripture to sustain us through both tragedy and the mundane.

Self-care eliminates the need for a redeemer. We attempt to become our own saviors from the stresses and cares of life. In contrast, soul-care presses into the life-changing power of redemption, forgiveness, and restoration graciously given to us through Christ.

Are some of the aspects of so-called “self-care” helpful? Definitely. I am certainly in a better mood when I wake up before my kids, or when I’m eating right, or when I’ve had enough sleep. But if I am trusting in my yoga routine to save me when the angry words come spilling out at the 6-year-old who is arguing with me for the 20th time already this morning, or during a power struggle with my toddler, it will fail me every single time. What I need during a hard day of being a sinner, living in a sinful world is not more self-care, but more soul-care.

There is another reason I am fairly certain that self-care is a poor substitute for what we actually need and that is our example of faithful believers, both in the Bible and throughout history. We don’t see Moses going on a guy’s hiking trip up Mt. Sinai just to “reset.” We see him climbing the mountain to meet with the God of Israel. We don’t see Paul going on a cruise for some “me time.” We see him shipwrecked and beaten for the gospel and yet learning to be content. I’ve never read of Corrie ten Boom or Elisabeth Elliot needing a pedicure and an insta-worthy coffee shop pic in order to keep on being faithful.

Is going on a hiking trip or a cruise, or getting a pedicure and a coffee sinful? Not at all! But they are not where true rest comes from if they do not involve communion with our creator. So, go on the hiking trip or the cruise and marvel that the God who made the universe cares for you and the details of your life, and praise him for it! Go to the coffee shop and open your Bible to remind yourself of the promises he gives. Then you will move past self-care into soul-care.

I do not have this all figured out! Soul-care is hard work. Our human tendency to make ourselves the god of our own lives lends itself much more naturally to self-care than soul-care. It is much easier for me to go sip a latte than it is for me to discipline my mind to stay focused in prayer. However, the benefits of soul-care will be lasting and life-changing.

I’ll leave you with some verses to ponder as we learn together what it looks like to engage in soul-care (all italics mine):

  • He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.” Isaiah 40:29
  • “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” Psalm 37:7
  • Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
  • “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you” Psalm 63:1

Let’s be a people who practice more soul-care than we do self-care, so that we can be the best version of gospel witnesses that we can be.

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