Learning Self-Denial in a Self-Care World

I turned the shower on and leaned back, holding my breath, to see if Levi was still asleep in his lounger. I jumped as my eyes met his big blue ones locked on me. You’ve got to be kidding me

My dry, knotty hair was pulled back into a messy bun—in desperate need of a haircut. It was 11:00 AM, and I was still in my pee and spit-up soaked, hand-me-down pyjamas. 

Levi’s lips curled downward into a frown and tears filled his eyes. 

“Honestly, can’t I have ten minutes to shower and take care of myself?” I muttered, scooping the sobbing baby into my arms.

Frustration coiled in my heart like a snake ready to lunge. It felt like I could never find a moment to myself since Levi was born. I couldn’t help but envy all the people around me who I imagined sitting in their homes, showered and clean with nicely styled hair, who didn’t have this problem. The often repeated words of this culture made the snake in my heart rattled it’s tail: You need more time for yourself—how can you love others if you aren’t loving yourself first?

Is this true, even for us Christians? Where does self-care fit in the biblical worldview? 

The Problem with Self-Care

Left in the world’s standards, self-care is misguided and unbiblical. Self-care ignores the truth about us and our true calling as believers. 

False Entitlement

Self-care stands beside you with a bullhorn saying, “Take a break, you deserve it.” 

But do you actually deserve it?

Whatever you have was first given to you by God. As the Creator of the entire world, he is also the owner of the entire world. God has declared in the Psalms,

“For every beast of the forest is mine,

    the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the hills,

    and all that moves in the field is mine.

 ‘If I were hungry, I would not tell you,

    for the world and its fullness are mine.’” Psalm 50:8-12 ESV

The Giver of all things has graciously given you all that you have. But were you deserving of it? The Bible says we have all gone astray (Isaiah 53:6); none of us are righteous on our own (Romans 3:10); nobody does good (Romans 3:12); and we have all sinned against the holy God (Romans 3:23). What do we deserve but punishment? And yet God shows us grace. 

The self-care mindset often elevates us to believing we deserve much more than we do, when in reality we should be replacing our feelings of entitlement with thanksgiving to God for the abundant grace he has shown us.

Idolatry

Secondly, we need to be careful that self-care does not become an idol in our lives. When we value our self-care above obeying God and taking care of our responsibilities, it is an idol. The self-care mindset can easily begin to elevate ourselves and our needs above all else in our life, including God. We need to be mindful and pay attention to when our desires for self-care begin to become an idol.

If you are unsure if self-care has become an idol to you, I have an article on how to recognize an idol before it rules your life. 

The Biblical Call to Self-Denial

Rather than commanding us to care for ourselves above all else, God calls us to deny ourselves in three ways: to follow Christ, serve others, and to put off sin.

Follow Christ

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’” Matthew 16:24-25 ESV

Jesus said that if we wish to follow him, we will have to deny ourselves. Following Christ means denying our sinful desires in order to be obedient to him. Following Christ will mean giving up our comforts at times. Following Christ will mean enduring humiliation and suffering. This is not a light-hearted command. 

Following Jesus isn’t like the pictures with sunbeams and dancing through wheat fields. Following Jesus means we deny ourselves constantly, doing things that go against our sinful nature. But he promises that it is worth it, because though we will lose our earthly life, we have a perfect and eternal one.

Serve Others

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:3-8 ESV

God calls us to deny ourselves in order to serve others. He calls us to imitate Jesus, who left the glory and perfection of heaven, to walk on earth as a weak and fragile man, and to die a horrific death in our place, bearing the wrath of God that we deserved. In this way we are to serve others; not only when it’s cozy, comfortable, or convenient—like in a cute coffee shop on our time with our favourite hot drink—but also when it costs us something. 

We are to even consider others as more important than ourselves, putting their needs above our own. In this way God calls us to deny ourselves and serve one another in humility. 

Put Off Sin

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 4:20-24 ESV

Finally, God calls us deny our sinful desires and choose to put on righteousness. Our tendencies and bent will be towards that which is sinful, because what is sinful often feels better, comes easier, and serves our selfish desires. But God calls us to take the more difficult path and walk in obedience, even when it’s steep. Obedience doesn’t always come with nice feelings—sometimes it comes with pain—but it does always come with true joy in God. 

The Healthy Balance

We find a healthy balance between the two when we are not idolizing our desire to take care of ourselves, and we aren’t neglecting our duties and responsibilities to God. It is okay (and necessary) to take care of ourselves; we need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to have personal hygiene, we need time alone with the Lord, we need to refresh, we need to spend time with friends and family, and we need to rest. The problem is when we make these things an idol in our lives, to the point that we are willing to disobey God or neglect a responsibility he has called us to, that we are in sin.

It’s okay to say no to requests. It’s okay to make cuts when your life gets busy. But we must always be checking our hearts in it; am I saying no so I can serve the Lord better in other ways, or am I saying no to satisfy my desire to be lazy and my idol of self-care? I would argue that if your faith is always comfortable, perhaps you aren’t denying yourself as God has called you. 

This can be a messy and hazy thing to figure out. Each person’s life will look differently, so don’t compare. Rather, check your own heart and hold it up against Scripture to see if you are lining up. Are you idolizing self-care? Are you feeding entitlement? Or are you serving God and others in the best way possible?