Self-Care or Sabbath?

Brian Mesimer

A recent NPR article profiled what it called "the millennial obsession with self-care."1 Apparently, the millennial generation is engaging in the practice of self-care with a surprising frequency and intensity that a multi-billion dollar industry has been built up around it. Yet what is "self-care?" The concept itself is ambiguous at best and can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The general idea seems to be that we can enhance our psychological health by engaging in certain activities which bring us peace. Christian leaders should not be surprised to find themselves initially uncomfortable with this term. However, it may just be that our initial concern is really hiding a far more primal reaction.

Perhaps this concern comes from a confusion of how to balance the terms "self" and "care" in the Christian life. When connected with a hyphen, this word seem to challenge the very heart of the message of Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Bearing a Roman execution stake doesn't seem like it has a lot to do with taking time off. On the other hand, Jesus calls us to care for others, especially the needy and the poor. Who are we to orient this care towards ourselves when others around us so obviously need it? It is also worth asking whether behind our revulsion to self-care is also a bit of guilt as well--guilt for overworking and avoiding our own rest as mandated by the Lord.

Suffice it to say many Christians have a complicated relationship with the psychological concept of self-care. So it's understandable why many Christians reject the idea outright. And yet other Christians, particularly younger ones, seem to live by self-care like it's their own personal liturgy. What then should our orientation be towards it? What we need is a biblical word on the matter. Enter a journeyman prophet named Elijah.

We must be careful not to read too much into the story of Elijah in the wilderness in 1 Kings 19 and we must beware of using it to justify a lot of unbiblical things. Yet the story is important and rich. Elijah, God's instrument, wins a great victory against Baal, but shortly after flees for his life in fear and collapses in despair. Our ever-kind God restores Elijah in gentleness through a divine whisper and a delicious meal. Off goes Elijah to face whatever comes his way.

Elijah clearly engages here in some form life-sustaining practice that strengthens him physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And it is very effective. The focus on feeding Elijah in the text affirms that we are physical beings with physical needs and limits. What else can we determine from the angel's statement that "the journey is too great for you"?  In a sense, the passage affirms the importance of taking care of ourselves. Many may stop at this point and say "Look! Scripture justifies [insert favorite practice here]."

Yet if we focus on this alone, we miss the larger picture. God's strengthening of Elijah had a context and an end. Elijah isn't strengthened just for the purpose of making him feel better. He is strengthened so he can engage in fulfilling God's purpose for him in life. He gets up and then goes to Horeb to anoint Elisha and is strengthened so he can engage in the process of moving redemptive history forward. More important than what happens to Elijah is where he is going. His self-care is redemptive.

We still have one step further to go. God's care for us is not simply a utilitarian pit-stop, allowing us to fill up on the emotional gas necessary for our work. It is primarily an experience of the Lord Himself. The culmination of the story is a majestic moment in which God speaks to Elijah. Here God challenges him, blesses him, and furthers his own glory. God cares for Elijah by providing food for his body and a word for his soul.

All of this has an echo of Chatper XXI of the Westminster Confession. Here the Purian pastors and theologians charge us to be making use of the Sabbath by "the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and consciousable hearing of the Word...[and]...observe a holy rest all the day from their own works." A biblical view of self-care is really just Sabbath-care and should be more appropriately labeled "rest." Perhaps the existence of the concept of self-care can be explained as a common grace secular acknowledgement of the Sabbath. Our American society is notoriously oriented around working, so it is not surprising that we find push-back against this national idol, nor should we be surprised to find millennials leading this charge. We cannot fully suppress God's truth.

How then should we respond as Christian leaders to such beliefs? First, we should affirm the common grace good to be found in self-care. As Christians, we should be the most vocal champions of good rest and relaxation in a culture of workaholics in both ours words and deeds. Christian pastors and leaders should be the first to acknowledge Christ's lordship by taking sabbaticals or pulpit breaks, and we should advocate the glories of rest from the pulpit and counseling chair. We can also affirm and practice less public means of self-care, including taking walks, focusing on a hobby, or engaging in quality recreation., which will undoubtedly increase our pastoral effectiveness. Even further than this, we can affirm that rest for its own sake is a quality good, whether practiced by Christians or non-Christians, because God gives good gifts to mankind and because it prefigures heaven.

Second, we should challenge the practice by showing both our parishioners and the world how self-care only makes sense in God's economy and by correcting the practice where necessary. First, it might be best for us to drop the term self-care entirely and replace it with "Sabbath"--whether it is a proper Sabbath on Sunday or a mini-sabbath during the week, encompasses all of the good parts of secular self-care and more. Second, we must be careful that our rest does not come into conflict with the call to discipleship. The Christian life will always be one of suffering, and avoiding this in the name of self-care is wrong. If our resting becomes the enemy of dying to self, then we engage in no true rest at all. Rather, as we sabbath, our hearts are turned towards the one who in His suffering earned us eternal rest. And as we do this, we find true peace in the arms of Him who gave His self to care for us.


Brian Mesimer and his wife live in Columbia, SC, where he works as a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP).  He has degrees in religion, philosophy, and counseling.