Burnout has become an official clinical syndrome, according to the World Health Organization. Characterized by mental, physical, and/or emotional exhaustion, this condition of chronic stress threatens millions of Americans who face long work hours, difficult work and home situations, and little time for rest. In a society and culture where busyness is the norm, technology keeps us constantly connected and occupied, and leisure is viewed as laziness, we often end up feeling, well, tired.
Amidst this crisis has come calls for “self-care,” a movement focused on personal well-being and mental health. Advocates of self-care submit that the underlying cause of our stress and exhaustion comes from lack of self-focus and that we need to serve ourselves first in order to serve others better.
What is self-care?
Self-care can be described as being mindful of your own limits and needs so that you can ensure your own physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Its proponents emphasize developing personal habits and practices to manage stress and reduce anxiety.
Strategies may include:
- Exercising daily
- Eating a healthy diet
- Investing in a hobby
- Reading a book
- Prioritizing “me-time”
What does the Bible say about self-care?
While the Bible doesn’t directly address the idea of self-care, it does offer guidance for understanding the role of our physical and mental health.
Since the time of Moses in the Old Testament, God has provided instruction for the care of our bodies and minds. God values and commands rest (Ex. 34:21; Heb. 4:3-4) and care for our physical bodies (Ex. 22:26-27). Jesus himself prioritized rest. When faced with great crowds, Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). He cared that his disciples “had no leisure even to eat” and instructed them to “rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
We can also learn from Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, recognizing that we cannot live self-sufficiently and must intentionally care for our physical and mental health.
How can Christians develop a biblical practice of care?
1. Recognize your limitations, and practice good stewardship of your body and mind.
When we recognize our physical limitations, we acknowledge the supremacy of God and our dependence on him. Caring for our bodies and minds should not come from a pursuit of our own comfort and pleasure, but from an act of worship and submission to God. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 that our bodies are not our own; they were bought with a price to be temples of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that we “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1).
When we exercise and eat healthily, we act as good stewards of the gifts God has given us—our bodies and minds, “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works” (Eph. 2:10).
2. Go to the source.
The self-care movement is grounded in the assumption that the power for healing and rest lies within, that we have the power to care for ourselves. The gospel counters that true power can only come from Christ. It offers a profound and eternal care that addresses even our deepest needs.
“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” (Matt. 11:28-30).
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
All of the problems that the self-care movement attempts to address—unfulfillment, exhaustion from caring for others, lack of connection and purpose—are ultimately answered in the gospel. Jesus’ death and resurrection won the victory over sin and death, so that we can experience his eternal life and peace. If we want true rest and energy, we must turn to the source of all peace and joy: Jesus Christ.
3. Turn to the gospel as a better, more sustainable motivation for life and work.
Part of the underlying cause of burnout is a misunderstanding of the purpose of work.
If our goal and hope is simply to acquire wealth or “make a difference,” we will be easily discouraged, unfulfilled, and exhausted.
The gospel frees us from the burden of living and working for our own wealth, accomplishment, and reputation by declaring that our life and favor with God comes not from our own work but from God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ. With this understanding, we can view life and work as a blessing instead of a curse (Eccl. 3:12-13, 5:19-20).
The Bible tells us that we were “created in Christ Jesus to good works” (Eph. 2:10). As the character and nature of God are revealed by his work (Psa. 8:3, 19:1-4), we reflect his character and nature by investing in our work. We live and work in response to God’s grace, calling, and design for our lives, for his glory and the good of those around us (Eph. 4:28, 1 Cor. 10:31).
With this understanding, we can live and work wholeheartedly but with hope and confidence, trusting that “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13; Psa. 127:1-2).
What about investing in hobbies? Spending time with friends and family? Meditation and relaxation techniques?
In light of the aforementioned principles, we can view these habits and practices as helpful but not ultimate. They can help us find joy and peace as long as they bring us to the source of all joy and peace, to God. We exercise, eat healthy food, and sleep well as an act of worship and stewardship of our God-given bodies and minds. We spend time with loved ones because God has called us to and blessed us with fellowship and community. We play music to turn our hearts toward the Creator of all things good and beautiful. And we meditate, not on ourselves and on our own ability to overcome our circumstances, but on God’s works and promises.
Sitting at his feet
Ultimately, the self-care movement makes helpful suggestions but empty promises. We may change our personal habits, but we cannot always change our circumstances. What’s more, the gospel submits that the biggest problem lies not even with our circumstances but within ourselves. What we need is a deeper and greater source of life, joy, and peace, one that exists outside of ourselves. We find this in Jesus Christ alone.
We often relate to Martha as described Luke 10: “distracted with much serving,” “anxious and troubled about many things,” and wondering why everyone else “has left [us] to serve alone” (Luke 10:40). Our culture might offer a myriad of suggestions for Martha’s self-care regimen, telling her to care for herself before caring for others. But Jesus’ response was different and surprising. Rather than telling Martha to take care of herself or even commanding Mary to help, he simply stated, “few things are needed – or indeed only one.” What was this one thing that was better, that would “not be taken away?” (Luke 10:42): To adopt the posture of Mary, who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39).
Perhaps before we turn to new diets, gym memberships, and spa days, we should remember the one thing that is needed above anything else—to simply sit at the feet of Jesus and enjoy all that he is for us.