Spiritual Self Care

Self care is not a very commonly talked about subject within Christianity. I would even assume to say that a lot of (Christian or not), don’t really have an idea of what self care [1] really means or entails. Self care can even mean different things in different circles. An article from Psychology Today [2] does a good job of explaining that self care is not “self-pampering” or “self-indulgence” but rather, “choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors.” In the physical health realm, self care is seen as the self application or administration of medication, exercise, or treatments for various illnesses or conditions [3]. Self care in the mental health realm is not as popular or commonly talked about but has basically the same definition but rather in terms of mental issues such as anxiety, depression, low views of self worth, etc. In the spiritual realm, well… self care is talked about even less, if it is even talked about at all. Let’s change that.

Before we do that, though, let’s lay out some foundational thoughts first. At times when we talk about spiritual self care, we may need to coast over into mental self care because they can influence each other in big ways. The mind and the spirit, are sometimes hard to define since they are not physical and tangible with our physical senses. Different people groups and different religious circles define them differently as well. Just for clarity’s sake and so we can be on the same page, let’s define some things. We’ll use general Christian understandings for some of these terms since that is the perspective that these ideas are coming from. I do understand that even within Christianity some of these definitions and concepts are a little debatable, but in the end that’s okay. I think these concepts will transfer and be understood, regardless, though.

Body / Soul / Spirit : the components of a person

In general, the mind is the place where all of our thoughts and ideas reside. In most of Christianity, the mind is one part of our Soul, which is made up the mind, the emotions/feelings, and the will of a person. For most of this article, if I talk about mental health, I will more so be referring to health for the soul overall, as mental health in society has as much to do with the emotional state of a person as it does the state of the mind. CARM (The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry) gives a good overview of the soul [4] with a thorough list of Biblical references explaining the soul.

The spirit is a little more difficult to put your finger on of what it is and made up of, since it’s even less tangible. Our bodies are are tangible with our five physical senses. Our minds are tangible in the sense that we have thoughts, emotions, and a will that can influence what our bodies do. Even saying something is just a “figment of our imagination” is a statement to the reality of our minds in that they can imagine things. Our spirits, however, have seemingly less tangibility, making it even harder to define. Sometimes the Spirit and the Soul are used interchangeably, but for sake of understanding and differentiation, we will use “Spirit” to refer to the part of us that connects and communes with God [5]. Many those who may not believe in Jesus (or any god for that matter) agree that there is an intangible part of us that was made to connect with something outside of us that is greater than ourselves. There is a whole subculture that considers themselves spiritual yet not religious.

So there we have it. We have our bodies, our souls, and our spirits. Now, I think we all can agree that taking care of our bodies is important, regardless of whether or not we are faithful to do that. Exercising, eating healthily, and addressing physical ailments are all important ways that we need to take care of ourselves. I think a lot of us can agree that taking care of ourselves mentally is important as well. At the lowest level, anybody would say living a lifestyle that is conducive to stress is not good for our health. It distracts us from things that are important like our families, or from being effective at work. It’s even bad for our physical health as it raises blood pressure or can manifest itself in other ways like ulcers or weaker immune systems. If our physical health is obviously important enough for us to take care of it, and our mental health can generally be agreed upon need self care to some extent or degree as well, how come we don’t put much emphasis into taking care of ourselves spiritually?

Jesus was very intentional to take care of Himself spiritually. It was not uncommon for Him to disappear from the crowds or to escape to the mountains to find solitude and to spend time with God. We can see this in Mark 1:35, Luke 5:15–16, Luke 6:12–13, just to give a few examples. I don’t think that you have to go hide out in the woods to spend time with God or to take care of yourself, but what we can learn from Jesus’s example is that He was very intentional to take care of Himself spiritually.

I heard an illustration a few years ago while at a conference about the importance of taking care of ourselves before we attempt to take care of others. The talk that was being given was about taking care of your soul, but the illustration applies spiritually as well. Here’s what I remember of the illustration: imagine you are like a plant and are (somehow) holding a water hose that can be used to water yourself, or water others. Typically, we tend to aim the hose as far away from ourselves as possible, trying to pour into as many people as deeply as possible. As we do this, however, we ourselves become dry and lifeless. If we would just aim the hose downward at ourselves and take care of ourselves first, the water would naturally overflow outward and would water those around us as a result. I’m not always the best of putting this illustration into practice, but it has always stuck with me since I heard it. I found a video of that specific talk on YouTube, of which I will put a link to it at the bottom of this article [6].

Many Christians have daily times where they will pray or read their Bibles, and I would say that is a form of spiritual self care, but is that enough? When it comes to physical self care and health, most people would say that it’s not enough to just exercise or eat healthily, but good health requires a holistic approach of taking care of your body. Saying “I walked a lot today and ate a salad, I’m good, I could be much worse” is a bad mindset to have. (Side note, I’m very often guilty of that very mindset, so I’m preaching to the choir. I’m not saying I have all of these things figured out or practice them all well myself. These are all things I need to grow in as well, and in writing this I am hoping to make myself more aware of them as well.) So, am I suggesting that for our spiritual health we need to do more things to make sure we are spiritually healthy? Not exactly.

This is where mental self care can start to weave itself in with spiritual self care. I wrote an article a few weeks ago sharing my thoughts about “Rethinking ‘Devotional Time’” [7] and how our communion with God goes beyond just reading the Bible and praying and bleeds into our passions as He expresses Himself or reveals Himself to us in different ways. Not that reading the Bible and praying aren’t important or that we can neglect those. They are both vital to our spiritual health. Using our passions for God or to see or hear God in fresh ways is a good way to feed our spiritual selves in those ways that God has uniquely made us.

Another way that mental self care and spiritual self care connect together is in how we view ourselves, especially in light of the gospel. How we view ourselves is very closely connected to how we view God, and both can affect each other back and forth. A lack of deep-rooted understanding that Christ so loved us that He died to pay for our sins and that He loves us despite our greatest (and often failed) efforts can lead to a view and mindset that God is an angry God waiting for us to measure up to earn His love. When we view God that way and are constantly driven to measure up for Him, we are driven to low views of ourselves: worthless, failures, unloved and unwanted. That’s not just a spiritual health issue, that’s a mental health issue. As we begin to have a low self view of ourselves and are constantly being driven to measure up for God, we will then begin to try to measure up for man for our self worth, which is an even more impossible battle to win. As we try to base our own worth on how we measure up to man and to God, we then begin to base the worth of others in how they measure up for us. We fail to see the good in people, the worth in people that God has placed in them by creating mankind in His image, and further exemplifying their worth by dying for them.

I’m not trying to say that the whole point of caring for ourselves is to care for others, but it is an aspect of it. We can’t really help others until we help ourselves. If we are having severe issues with physical health, it’s really hard to care for someone else’s physical health. A person who has broken arms cannot carry someone who has fallen and hurt themselves to safety. The same goes for mental health and spiritual health. If it feels like there is just no strength left mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to care for others, then that is a sign that some sort of mental or spiritual care for ourselves is needed. “Put on your own (spiritual or mental) oxygen mask first before attempting to put on the oxygen mask of someone else” as they say in every flight safety warnings presentation before takeoff.

Spiritual self care can be expressed in a number of different ways. What I’m trying to do is not create an exhaustive book about spiritual self care, but to just begin the thought process of how we can begin to take care of ourselves spiritually and to see the importance of it. Although I expressed some of the importance of mental self care, I didn’t really get to get into what that looks like as much as spiritual self care. I do feel that it is very important as well, however, and would encourage you, especially if you feel some of those feelings like “I can barely put the (mental) oxygen mask on myself to begin attempting to help others out,” to begin looking for resources and ways to take care of yourself and your mental health better. Maybe you just need a basic regimen like adjusting your mental exercise or dietary habits so to speak, or maybe you need a little more help from an expert. There’s nothing wrong with that. When we don’t know what is wrong or how to take care of ourselves physically, we go to a doctor. There’s no shame in going to the doctor. Seeking out advice for mental health is the same way. Mental health and mental self care is a big subject to tackle, of which I will not do here. I just felt that I couldn’t end this without encouraging mental self care as well. We are made up of our bodies, our spirits, and our souls, all of which are important and worth taking care of.

So where are you at with spiritual or mental self care? Have you really thought about giving it attention before or do you feel like now that you think about it, it’s time to start taking better care of yourself mentally or spiritually? I would love to hear your thoughts!