Our hearts were broken when my grandfather passed away. My mom and her siblings took his passing the hardest. Their relationship with their father was complex. You see, Grandpa was never completely present or honest with them. Up until his last cancer surgery, he was still sending money to women other than his girlfriend, he was still sketchy about how he handled store money at his auto parts business, and he only seemed happy when he was immersed in work for 70 hours a week.
It was nothing new. He was that way ever since my mom was born. It is a running joke in my family that there is no telling how many siblings my mom actually has. When I was a teenager, my mom told me that her dad would leave for an extended period of time; his family was there with virtually nothing to eat but mayonnaise sandwiches. Then he would return with a fancy coat or even a car as if that was enough to fill her belly or her heart.
On the other hand, my Grandpa was one of the kindest and most helpful people I knew. There was no denying he cared deeply for people. I would watch him when people came into his store without money for a part that they needed to fix their family vehicle. He would say, “you know, I have some tree limbs at the house that need to be moved. Why don’t you just take the part and come one weekend to help me, and we will call it even.” It was almost like a Jekyll and Hyde situation.
After Grandpa’s last cancer surgery, he was missing most of his jaw. He couldn’t talk anymore, and it was obvious that he was only going to have months to live. In a strange way, it was a blessing that he couldn’t talk. It gave him an opportunity to simply listen to his kids as they finally, in one breath, told him how angry they were with him and how much they loved him. It was also a curse that he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t write much or shake his head too often. All he could really do was listen and cry. I don’t have all the answers to the idea of hell, but I can’t imagine it being much worse than that feeling. We relied on context and the occasional familiar sound as he tried to moan what words he could.
I was surprised when Grandpa asked me to talk to him about God. I couldn’t understand most of what he had to say, but I just listened. I felt like his words were more for God than for me anyways. I was a preacher at the time, and I guess he saw me as sort of a mediator for the conversations he wanted to have with the creator. I told him the Good News that God really loves him. I never heard anyone say, “how could he love me” any clearer than Grandpa did that night. I told him about David being the man after God’s own heart, I taught him many of the parables of Jesus, and I told him that God promises to make all things right in the end. He believed that, and he wanted that so badly. Grandpa accepted Jesus as his God, friend, and Lord. He died a week later.
Nobody really had any closure after his death. How could one person be so cruel and heartless and simultaneously be one of the most tenderhearted people we have ever known? Not long before his death, my mother found out he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder several years earlier. It wasn’t an excuse. He still owned his actions. But at least it gave some context.
Grandpa hated to be a bother. He thought he could handle his own mess by himself. He felt like the selfless thing to do was to carry his own burdens. That’s the loving thing to do, right? But Grandpa never got help from professionals, he never went on medicine, and he never told his family about his mental illness. What he thought was selfless and loving felt really selfish and negligent to us. Was that REALLY loving and selfless of him?
Christianity preaches self-denial at its very core. Written in red, our Bible says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Holy Bible, ESV, 2001, Luke 9:23). It was in the very next chapter that Jesus tells the expert in religious law that eternal life is inherited by loving God and loving others (Luke 10:25-28). There are many kinds of love, but only one kind of love is what Jesus was referring to in Luke. God is, by definition, “agape” love (1 John 4). That is a love that is not dependent upon reciprocity. It is more than an action or a feeling. It is a selfless love. Christianity is about putting others ahead of ourselves. Right?
If Christianity, at its very core, is about selflessness, then modern psychology’s “self-care” seems to be an enemy of the cross. Is it not? So-called “positive psychology” focuses on the things that feel good instead of the importance of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses. It focuses on the positive instead of the uncomfortable and negative emotions. Albert Ellis, one of the most famous psychologists of modern psychology, believed that psychology should reflect more on self-care and pleasure than it should on selflessness and altruism (McMinn, 2011, p.19).
That view leans towards an atheistic and humanist presupposition that many modernist psychologists had in the 20th century. Is that not completely contradictory to the gospel Jesus preached? The idea of “self-care” is about putting yourself ahead of everything and everyone. Right? Paul said to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)! It sounds like my Grandpa was right to keep his struggles to himself in the name of “love, selflessness, and humility.”
But wait! Let’s look at what Jesus said in a similar passage in the Gospel of Mark (12:29-31). The two commands that sum up all of the law and the prophets are to love God and love others. “Jesse,” you remind me, “we already talked about that!” You’re right! But notice the standard he uses. “You shall love your neighbor AS YOURSELF” (emphasis mine). You can’t love others to your fullest potential if you aren’t taking care of your own emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical needs. “But why should I love myself at all?” Well, for starters, God made you intentionally, God loves you unconditionally, and God has a purpose for you in his plan for humanity and the restoration of all things (Romans 8:28-39). “Okay, fine, but still, isn’t it a contradiction to say I should love myself in one breath and deny myself for the sake of selflessness in the other?”
We see examples all throughout Scripture that teach us that picking up our cross in self-denial does not mean self-hate or self-neglect. In fact, we see examples that show us that sometimes neglecting our needs is actually the selfish and unloving thing to do for ourselves, for God’s mission, and for those around us.
For example, Moses took on a leadership role that ended up taking him away from other things he needed to do because he was the judge of Israel (Exodus 18). He was busy listening to their needs from morning until evening. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, told him that this was not good. He suggested that Moses would wear himself out with this heavy load. Jethro taught Moses how to delegate this responsibility. Don’t misunderstand; Moses was still very involved with helping the people, but he finally realized that he is no good to others if he assumes he can do too much. Not to mention, he was robbing others of their opportunities to use their gifts and find their specific purpose. What we sometimes call humility can really be arrogance in disguise. We need help. That’s not a selfish or unloving thing to say.
Another example is that of Elijah. Elijah was discouraged when he said, “…I, even I only, am left…” (1 Kings 19:14). Do you ever feel like if you don’t do it, nobody will? God told Elijah that he had 7,000 people that Elijah didn’t know about who were willing to do His work in Israel. There are times when we might be the only ones to help in a particular situation. But many times, it is really our pride telling us that “God needs me alone, so it would be selfish to let someone else help me carry the burden for a minute.” God has people that we don’t know about. Sometimes those people are waiting for you to step out of the way so that the Spirit can touch their hearts and show them the gifts He has given them. We need help. That’s not a selfish or unloving thing to say.
The best examples are always the examples of Jesus, God in the flesh! How did Immanuel handle the balance between self-denial and self-care? Jesus took the time to sleep, pray, party, rest, and just be alone and meditate (John 2:1-10; Matthew 8:24). Not only that, but he told his followers to do the same (Mark 6:31). Jesus took 40 days to fast and pray in the wilderness to care for his relationship with the Father (Matthew 4; Luke 4). If Jesus needed time to work on his relationship with the Father, to fast, to pray, to meditate, to rest, to take naps, and even to party, then who are we to say that is selfish or unloving? If Jesus did not heal or counsel every person on earth while He was in the flesh, then who are we to say we are better? As Jesus went down the “way of suffering” (via Dolorosa) with His cross, He did not carry it alone (Luke 23:26). Why do we think we can carry our cross daily if we try to do it alone? We need help. That’s not a selfish or unloving thing to say.
Many of us have heard the flight attendant say, “in case of a cabin pressure emergency, put on your own mask first before assisting others.” It sounds counterintuitive to us! “What? So, are you telling me if a mother is beside her child, she should put her own mask on first before helping the child? That’s so selfish and unloving!” But no, it isn’t selfish or unloving. You can’t love others to your fullest potential if you aren’t taking care of your own emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical needs. The mother can only help the child if she takes care of herself. We need help. That’s not a selfish or unloving thing to say because when we are cared for, we can care for others. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when love costs you everything. It certainly cost Jesus his life on the cross. It certainly cost an impoverished mother her meals. It certainly cost the father of someone struggling with drug abuse sleep and tears.
My only point here is that you are best suited to use your gifts and blessings for those around you when you take care of the body and mind that God graciously gave you. There is a balance somewhere that we can only find in the Spirit and through the grace of God. My Grandpa spent his entire life hurting himself and those around him because he thought the loving and selfless thing to do was to carry his own burden. In reality, it costs a lot more than random cars, nice coats, and mayonnaise sandwiches. It cost his children their father, and it cost his grandchildren emotionally stable parents, and it cost the mother of his children her family and self-esteem. Sometimes our humility, selflessness, and love are really an illusion of our pride, selfishness, and fear. It doesn’t mean we have poor intentions; it just means we all need help, and Christianity is not opposed to self-care.
September 1st, 2021, after eight years of ministry, I stepped out of full-time ministry. I found out that I, too, have anxiety and bipolar disorder. Just like my Grandpa! I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say! That reality doesn’t excuse past behaviors, but it helps me explain to myself and to those who love me why I have certain inclinations that seem to surpass normal human weakness. Why sometimes, I’m not myself, and I make pretty big mistakes.
I didn’t step out of the ministry because I hated ministry. I love ministry and miss it dearly. I stepped out for a break, partly because I saw in myself the need to take a little time and heal. And to get the help I needed to have some emotional stability. Satan told me to “keep on going; nobody else will put in the work you do in ministry. Nobody else will care as much as you.” He told me, “If not you, then who?” He told me I would be broke and cause stress on my family because I’m not good at anything else. “This is the only gift God has given me, after all.” He told me that I would be letting people down who really needed me in ministry. I did let people down, and it was hard to handle that because I knew they wouldn’t understand. But why is that? Why wouldn’t they understand? I think it is because the church has spent so much time either pressing against the idea of seeking self-care or, at best, neglecting that mental health is even worth talking about.
That needs to change. The church should be leading the march of well-being, fulfillment, self-care, and mental health. Through Jesus, through the Spirit, through the Bible, and through the gifts of spiritually minded professionals, we have the tools to normalize mental health discussions in our churches. I think that a healthy understanding of the Christian worldview can bring a balance between the most extreme versions of positive psychology and the most toxic versions of self-denial. In other words, there is a balance between self-care and self-denial that is both healthy and biblical. It is a balance that Jesus shows us, and we should show the world. It is a balance found when we walk in step with the Spirit.
If you need help but are fighting the balance of self-denial and self-care, please know that you are not alone. I’m there with you, and literally millions of others are as well. If Jesus had help carrying his cross, why don’t you let someone help you with yours as well? Take care of yourself! – Jesse
Crossway BiblesHoly bible: English standard version. (2001). Crossway Bibles.
Louys, E. (2018, October 1). The unselfish art of prioritizing yourself. Quest Therapeutic Camps of Southern California. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from https://questcampsofsocal.com/the-unselfish-art-of-prioritizing-yourself/
McMinn, M. R. (2011). Psychology, theology, and spirituality in Christian counseling. Tyndale House Publishers.
McBride Ph.D., K. (n.d.). Is self-care selfish? | psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201302/is-self-care-selfish