We Need Self-Death, Not Self-Care

Without love, you die. With love, you also die. Not all deaths are equal.
Jonathan Safran Foer

Not all deaths are equal. Most people want to have their lives marked by love. We want to die with love, not without it. But how? How do we love when we are depleted and sorrowful…empty? The most popular answer seems to be “Self-care”. 

The term “self-care” has been in use since–roughly–the 1950s. Owing to its roots in feminist politics it has ridden the same wave of large-scale popularity. If you search #selfcare on Instagram you can find over 45 million posts linked. 

Self-care is best understood as an action taken–whether through a purchase, saying ‘no’, prioritizing mental or physical health, or taking a vacation–to overcome feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, or sadness. It’s loosely defined, which means the amount or type of self-care a person needs is entirely subjective…and that’s the point. Self-care is definitionally about whatever it takes to make a person feel better. Because, as the reasoning goes, if you do not love yourself, you cannot love anyone else. So the luxury purchase, vacation, time away from family, exercise routine, coffee run etc become essential components for life, without which functioning well is impossible. 

Now the term is not generally laid out this way. Typically it is thrown around off-handedly, sometimes jokingly. So what’s the harm? Who really cares what hashtag someone uses to label their vacation photos, or what they call their Target haul? Well, as Wittgenstein would say, our linguistic practices help shape our reality. When we begin to label things as needs, we begin to see them as necessary, and then we feel entitled to them.

This is why the wholesale acceptance of the term, particularly by Christians, makes me wince. Do I think we shouldn’t pursue healthy boundaries, godly counseling, exercise, or take a rest from our usual responsibilities? Of course not. But that’s not what self-care is really about. The term itself carries with it a myriad of assumptions, chief among them: I must take care of me first. Self-care promises peace through self focus.

It’s a promise it cannot keep. And I think we know this experientially. When we go on vacation we desperately needed, we come home feeling like we need a vacation from our vacation. When we cut out one “toxic” person, another one takes their place. When we have a day away from our kids, we come home feeling just as overwhelmed as when we left–maybe more so. 

Self-care may give us a momentary boost. It may allow us to offer some kindness to our husband for a day, we may have a bigger reserve of patience following a nice dinner out, we may ride the endorphins of a great workout and feel joyful, but it isn’t lasting. These expressions of loving others by believing we must love ourselves first are like artificial flavoring. It might taste like an apple. But it isn’t an apple. This “love” won’t withstand the storms of life. It won’t sustain us when we’re injured and we can’t run, it won’t equip us when our vacation is cancelled, finances are tight, or when we experience loss and heartbreak. This is because, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “apart from Christ all love is self love.” Trying to love others by prioritizing loving ourselves is like trying to grow an apple tree from an apple flavored candy. It’s impossible. If we want to bear the lasting fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, there’s only one way:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:5

If we want to produce fruit–the kind you can sink your teeth into, we won’t find the ability anywhere but in Christ. To live a life characterized by love, we don’t need self-care, we need self-death.

Thankfully, to borrow from Foer, not all deaths are equal. Death to self through faith in Christ isn’t a death that ends with self-hate, more exhaustion, loss of individuality, apathy, nor even the grave. Death to self leads to Life himself. As a result we find that all we need is Christ. And that changes everything.

Our heart changes from one of entitlement to gratitude. We have all we need in Christ, and so everything else is a gift. 

That helpful counseling session? A gift from the good God who gives us the tools to use our mind to heal and grow from our experiences. That morning run? A gift from the good God who created our muscles to be able to move quickly, and our lungs that can breathe deeply, and a nervous system that produces pleasant feelings as a result. That listening friend who comes and watches our kids for us so we can have time alone? A good gift from God who uses his people to love us and meet our needs. A husband who sees our emotions fraying and steps in to help or give us wise counsel? A good gift from God who gives us a partner for life who knows us better than anyone. When we feel like school, our jobs, our children, the laundry, the mounting bills, the grief, to loneliness are too much to bear? A gift too, to remind us that we can’t bear it alone, but Christ promises to never forsake us. 

We can take both the restful days, and the overwhelming days, with gratitude. Accepting both the gifts of vacation and the days that never relent. We can lean on Christ to be all-sufficient so that when our babysitter cancels we can still treat our children with gentleness; when the finances are out of control we can have both peace in the uncertainty, and self-control in tackling them; we can be gracious when our husband doesn’t anticipate our needs, and we can be loving when he needs us and we feel we have nothing left to give. How? Christ. Not because we’ve taken care of ourselves first, not because we have made sure to wake up and love ourselves enough, but because he is enough, he loves us, and fills our cup with living water that never runs dry, so we always have more to give. 

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