Is Self-Care Just Self-Absorption?

If you are ever on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. There are guides for self-care activities. Pictures being posted of ways people are pursuing self-care. Encouragements to others to make time for self-care. There are many ways in which these are good and healthy trends. God created a day of rest for all of us to take a break from working and to allow God to be sovereign in all things. Jesus periodically retreated into solitude to pray and rest. Space to rest and rejuvenate is a Godly thing.

As with anything, there are ways it can become selfish. It is very possible for self-care to turn into a lack of responsibility or engagement. To be more focused on our comfort than on working through hard things with others. To be an excuse to avoid commitments that we do not want to deal with. But behind many expressions of self-care is a deeper question of whether others can be trusted to care for us. A latent despair can underlie it where we feel the only one we can depend on is us. That requires much more than a face mask to remedy, it requires empathy and Christ-centered connection.

Who is most often seeking self-care?

In my observation, those who post about it the most on social media are women and/or people of color. We could resort to snap judgements and say these groups are “snowflakes” and lacking resilience. Or we could take a moment to look at the times when their posts are going up and what that may reveal about their/our experience of society. As a white woman my purview has limitations, but I will start with what I know. I most often see women talking about the need for self-care when topics of discrimination and sexual abuse have been prominent in public conversation. It ranges from accusations against public figures, a new television show or movie being released that features themes of gender-based issues, new legislation being passed that ignites debate, etc. These topics hit close to home for a lot of women and strike nerves that may be very raw. This can result in feeling emotionally drained, experiencing increased anxiety and depression, and having hard conversations with others. In these instances, self-care is often sought because we feel uncared for by our environment. The space we occupy feels threatening and so it is up to us to care for ourselves.

Similarly, these same types of struggles can emerge along racial lines (often intersecting for women of color). When there is a police shooting of an unarmed black man, or racist comments made by a public figure, or when church leaders exhibit a lack of support for justice issues, when co-workers are thoughtless and prejudicial, these events can have a very hurtful impact.  An understandable reaction is again to retreat into self-care practices. This can simply be to recharge after a draining day, and can also be a symptom of feeling alone in society. At times self-care can be an expression of isolation if it feels like you are the only one you can count on.

Take-Care

From Self-Care to Communal-Care

The Church of all places must be an environment where everyone can feel known and loved. That does not mean we all think exactly alike, or that there are not guidelines and boundaries for healthy relating, but it does mean that when one of us is grieved, we are all grieved.

So bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2

Humans are inherently selfish, and Christians are no exception. Even in the Church we struggle to care about situations that may not directly affect us. Sometimes we doubt whether the situation is real, or we are so removed from it that we forget it exists. Either way, that contributes to our brothers and sisters often feeling as though they are in it alone. But if we start with a posture of loving curiosity, we will be much better positioned to join with one another in our joys and sufferings. How might this cultural moment be impacting someone who is different from me? How would I be feeling if this was happening to me and to people who looked like me? What are some questions I can ask to better understand the ways others are reacting that may feel strange to me? How can I share my time and resources to meet the needs of the Body of Christ? If we all started with these questions, then very few of us would be alone for long.

Communal-Care driven by Christ-Care

The only way we can sustainably join with each other is if we are animated by the love of Christ. In our own power we will very quickly become frustrated or impatient, we will very quickly feel attacked or misunderstood. But through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, we can care for each other in ways we did not think possible.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. – Eph. 2:13-17 

It requires the power of Christ to show generosity to one another, and it requires the power of Christ to let others know our struggles and support us in them. It is a humbling experience to share our stories, to share our wounds and vulnerabilities. And it is a humbling thing to be an instrument of Christ’s healing and assurance. Both are part of the Christian life because Christ first demonstrated both. Jesus was wounded for our sins, and was raised to life again to bring us eternal healing. We follow His example in acknowledging our pain and in seeking wholeness together. May we paint a picture for the world of what it means to be a people that are honest about our suffering and fatigue, and who never allow anyone to recover alone.

 

Who invited them?

Sometimes other people are the worst. They can be annoying and hard to deal with, demanding when I’m busy and tired, stretching me when I don’t want to be stretched. But for some reason they’re everywhere, and Christ loves all of them, so as the Body of Christ we’re forced to figure out how to be together. Our first and best example of how to function as a community is the Trinity. They really are “the three best friends that anyone could have.” They always get one another, are always there for each other, always on the same page. What can we draw from their example to learn better ways of being in community?

Let’s think about the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the first time that we see the whole Trinity in the same place at the same time.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matt. 3:16-17

First we see that their Triune community was a blessing and an encouragement. Jesus through the Incarnation is an ambassador of God’s glory and presence living and walking with humanity. As both fully God and fully human Jesus is an earthly extension of God among us. That experience had to have been lonely and isolating for him at times. None of the people around him could have understood his experience and what he was going through, and no one fully understood his power and authority. So at this moment of baptism the Spirit falls with fresh encouragement and fellowship, and God the Father affirms his identity as a Son with full authority.

And then secondly, what is the impact of their relationship? The Trinity’s community with one another results not only in a blessing to each other but in blessing to all people. Jesus doesn’t receive from the Spirit and the Father and then they just keep hanging out together indefinitely. Everything that they do as a community is for the purpose of bringing other people in. There is no self-serving element of their friendship and kinship, it is always flowing outward.

For those of you who are blessed with a good group of friends, you have felt the temptation to keep your group exactly the way it is. It takes intentionality and emotional energy to bring a new person into an established group, and we often avoid doing so because it can take work. Now there are definitely times when we need the rest and rejuvenation that comes from just being with a close friend or being alone. Jesus withdraws by himself to pray on a regular basis, when he does that he was recharging with his close community. But then he always comes back to welcome more new people. It’s a continuous cycle of receiving and sharing that never stops with just him.

friends

And here’s the crazy thing we learn from Jesus: sometimes community is wildly inconvenient. Sometimes we have to extend ourselves in uncomfortable ways in order to welcome other people, because we serve a God of hospitality. There’s no greater expression of inconvenient hospitality than the incarnation. Jesus left the comforts of heaven and pure divinity to join with the discomforts of earth and humanity. He could have just kept hanging out with his two best friends and their angel squad, but instead he became flesh and dwelt among us so that he could bring us back with him and reconcile us to God for eternity. Paul summarizes this powerfully in Ephesians 2:13-20

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

We don’t pursue close relationships so that we can be insulated in our perfect group and stay there. We invest in community to build each other up and to send each other out to welcome more brothers and sisters into the Body of Christ.

If you are in a season where you have been gifted with a strong group of friends and community, then rejoice in that as a beautiful reflection of God’s purposes for all of humanity. What you have now is a Kingdom glimpse of the New Jerusalem, a signpost of God’s ability to unite all peoples for all time. Like Jesus and the rest of the Trinity, don’t keep that to yourself. Look around you and pray for Christ to shape your heart into one of overflowing hospitality. Stay close to the One who brought you near when you were the one who was far off.

welcome mat

If you’re in a season of isolation, of anxiety over who in your life is trustworthy and genuine, don’t give up. You cannot give in to the temptation to withdraw behind masks and walls. Satan loves it when God’s children feel alone and he will do everything he can to tell you that no one cares about you and no one will ever love you for who you are. The truth is that every moment of every day, Jesus knows everything about you and always calls you friend. And what’s more, He died to bring you into eternal friendship with the Trinity and with the whole community of faith.

The truth is that you are never alone because God’s Spirit dwells inside you and you are always in communion with the great Three in One. With that assurance, keep trying to connect with Christian community. Strike up some awkward conversations and just see what happens. Think of some good questions that will help you get to know a potential new friend and start creating situations where others can get to know you too. It may take a while so keep praying for courage and patience. You were not meant to be alone, don’t be satisfied with fear and facades.

None of us can be the perfect friend and community member on our own. It requires risk and vulnerability, time and energy, love and sacrifice. Other people will hurt us and let us down, and we will do the same to them. Community is simultaneously very beautiful and very hard. But we do it because we’re all meant to be together. Every day we can extend ourselves to others in response to a God who breaks down all barriers in order to make us one.

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