In the field of psychology and in lots of media outlets, the term self-care is on center stage. The consensus is that for many people, taking care of themselves is somehow forbidden or forgotten. Additionally we see plenty of people racing to put themselves first and many philosophies tailored to promote that behavior (i.e. Ayn Rand). So which is it? How can we find a healthy way to live and to love?
For many people who come to my psychotherapy office struggling to make sense of their faith in Christ and their depression or dis-ease with the world, a debate lurks in the back of their minds in almost every decision they make. This debate is about taking care of others OR themselves. It’s become a binary choice for them. If I take care of myself, I neglect others and vice versa. The words of Jesus were clear: deny yourself and take up your cross (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34-35, Luke 9:23-24, John 12:25). But the way they understand these words puts them at odds with much of the love, rescue, hope, and abundance that Jesus also promises. Particularly for women who have been taught that their place is to submit to others and serve or help others in every way possible, this misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to self-denial is damaging. It is not so much a denial of self that they practice, but an abnegation of self in which they ignore any needs of their own and certainly all desires that may stir within them. They develop an unconscious reaction to decisions that involves basing their choices not on the promptings of the Spirit within them or on their own needs, but on their impressions of what others want or demand of them.
Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow is a call to engagement in the full life of the Spirit which includes a radical change to our way of doing everything, even our most basic and unconscious decision-making processes. Rather than making unconscious deals with the demands of others as they swim around in our minds based mostly on past often painful experiences, the freedom of following Christ lies in giving up this unconscious way and finding instead the abundance of following step by step in an intentional and conscious practice of listening for guidance from within us where Jesus abides. This requires continually self-reflection. Christian theology is deeply psychological. The fundamental notion of Christ’s teaching that He comes to reside with us and in us by the Spirit means we no longer choose based on our desires OR others desires.
Breaking free from despair often involves identifying how tied up we have become unconsciously and how we then contribute to our own despair. Jesus’ call to giving up the self is rooted in the basic need to give up these defensive patterns that mascaraed as service, but do not reflect a true call from God. Discerning when we are called to self sacrifice is essential practice for devoted Christians. Certainly there are times when we will choose activities based primarily on the good of others, but these must be conscious choices made from a core sense of ourselves as valued and beloved children of a loving God.