The Myth of Self-Care

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our live for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth.

1 John 3:16-18 (ESV)

Our culture is completely captivated by the idea of ‘self-care’. According to Balwick, King, and Reimer (2016) who wrote the book The Reciprocating Self, this obsession with self-care and personal fulfillment come from the American values of independence and self-fulfillment that built an entire pop-psychology culture. The idea is that you cannot pour from an empty cup, so you must make sure you’re taking regular opportunities to fill your own cup. I’m just going to be real with you. Not only is this not the Gospel message, but you’re never going to fill the cup.

First, the idea that you are an empty vessel to be filled is not correct. There are very specific places in our hearts and souls that need to be filled, and we don’t have the ability to fill any of them. These are God-spaces, spaces that only He can fill. Any attempt at self-fulfillment will ultimately result in the opposite: feeling more and more empty. In The Mind of Christ (1998), Dennis Kinlaw says, “The work a Christian disciple is called to do can be accomplished only by the Lord. But a self-reliant disciple gets only what he himself can do” (p.62). We don’t have the ability or the tools to fill ourselves. The more we try, the more empty we feel. 

This isn’t the Gospel. Jesus’ life was one of sacrifice, service, and compassion. It was about relationships—with His Father, with the disciples, with the multitudes. He laid down His life for us. He didn’t try to fill His own cup. He prayed in solitude—sure. But that isn’t self-care. That is relationship with the Father. Reading John 13 where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet—did Jesus wash his own feet first? No. He took off his cloak, put on a towel, and got to work. This is the image of the Gospel. Service. Sacrifice. Life lived for the other. 

The idea that I am fulfilled simply to be a full vessel is a little silly. Water that sits becomes stagnant. A glass is not made that it should remain full all the time. It is meant to be used. It is meant to be drunk from, poured out, used up, and filled again. I am not meant to be fulfilled so I can remain full. If I am full, it is only because I’ve not yet been poured out. Being poured out is the point. I’m meant to be used. I’m not here, in the grand sense, for myself. I’m here for others. I’m here for Him. 

I don’t want to miss the opportunity to focus in on the end of verse 18 in 1 John 3.

“Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth.” We live in a culture of talk. We think a post on social media says more about a person’s heart than the way they’re living in the real world. “Their silence speaks volumes,” we’re told. “Their written stand is brave, heroic, and shows support.” Again—not Biblical. Should our words match our deeds? Absolutely. But the idea that we can show love, compassion, and care through faceless words is ridiculous. 

Taking it further, specifically for moms, it can be easy to portray a loving mother posture on social media and not in real life. We can post our kids’ wins and how proud we are of who they are without ever telling them. We can post how much we love motherhood without ever showing that to our children. When I do bedtime prayers with my kids, one thing I always say is, “Thank you, Jesus, for letting me be their mom.” (Seriously.) I want them to hear the words, but for them to know it is true, they need to see those words matched by what I do. (Things that are true exist in reality. I want my love for them to be their reality, not just something they hear.) We can also go the opposite direction and only talk negatively about our children or our role as mothers. Again, this is from a heart that seeks to be filled, and we are trying to carve out the time for the activities we think will fill it. This isn’t loving in deed and truth.

Let’s stop pushing the cultural lie of ‘self-care’ and start pushing the Biblical idea of love through sacrifice. Let’s start trying to love our families in deed and truth, not just word. (And if we don’t love them in word, let’s work on that, too.) Let’s let God fill us so we can be used and poured out. Let’s be fulfilled only so others may be filled. Let’s stop trying to care for ourselves and start caring for those in our care.

Lindsey Jane Godbold
Lindsey Jane is the interim worship leader at Faith Methodist Church; pastor's wife; homeschool mom of eight and blogger at notesfromtheparsonage.com