Newsletter #444 – Rethinking Self-Care and Life-Balance

Most of us who work with people know the importance of caring for ourselves and finding balance between our work and the rest of life, between meeting our own needs and the needs of others. Maybe we all struggle to fit self-care and life-balance into our lives. But Wheaton professor Sally Schwer Canning argues that self-care is an unbiblical concept and that attaining a balanced life is “burdensome, unattainable, and unrealistic.”  Writing in the current Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Canning describes how she and her  graduate students went through the Scriptures and  the psychological literature to evaluate the concepts of self-care, life-balance and burnout prevention.

Self-care. It is easy to pursue worthwhile activities that nevertheless wear out our bodies, undermine relationships, or weaken our mental and spiritual health. But the emphasis on self-care puts a heavy focus on ourselves. Instead, Christians do not aspire to caring for themselves so much as being faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

In place of self-care it may be better to think how we exercise stewardship over the resources, opportunities, and responsibilities that God has given. We are called to manage these resources, using and preserving them in response to God’s gifts and calling on our lives. This reframing puts a new perspective on how we live and serve. Working non-stop is  not faithful stewardship.  In contrast, exercise or resting are not so much me-focused self-care as they are stewarding the bodies that we’ve been given for a purpose.

Balance. The people we admire, including respected biblical figures, are characterized by passion, courage, focus, faithfulness and devotion rather than balance. The struggle for life balance ignores differences in family and career responsibilities, life stages, or variations in human capacities, energy, social support, available time and other factors that prevent us from putting all parts of life on a scale that keeps everything in a static state of equilibrium.

Like a symphony, life unfolds over time–sometimes it’s fast and complex, other times peaceful and melodic. We can’t take slices out of life or music and expect that everything will be in perfect balance.

Do you find this reframe helpful (like I did) or mere playing with words? What’s your perspective on self-care or life balance? Please comment.

  1. I think Sally has hit on something huge with this, too. Thanks for the wonderful summary, Gary. I, too, read this wonderful article and have been chewing on her insights. There is a wonderful image in the novel “Marcelo in the Real World”, by F. Stork. When making a decision, the main character, Marcelo, says we need to look for the “next right note” in the music. This is is another way of talking about staying in sync with what the Spirit is doing in our midst. I believe that this way of living will embrace principles of balance and self-care, but only in the larger context of staying in sync with God so that our lives are, overall, making beautiful music. Perhaps this is one way we become the “poetry of God” to which Paul alludes in Ephesians 2:10. Thank you, Gary, for an inspiriational start to my day!

    • Tim, was reading your response and when I saw your reference to reading the original article I thought “This must be a psychologist who is writing.” Only then did I look at the name.

      It is great to read your comments but it is even greater to hear from you again. I hope you are dong well. Drop me an email sometime and give me an update. Still speaking on the same topic? still making videos? Writing? Counseling? Raising those kids?

    • sylvia thompson
    • July 14th, 2011

    I agree with the perspective that this is about stewardship. And I totally agree that the heroes of the Bible were people of passion, vision, courage . It’s really difficult to live a life of passion when you have to be careful to be balanced all the time…the two concepts don’t seem to connect…passion and caution…outward directed purposeful motion and inward me focused self preservation. The two concepts don’t jive with each other. They seem opposite.

    What I am coming to believe is that for a Christian, surrendering each day to the Lord and living whatever He asks us to do whole- heartedly in His power takes care of the dangers of passion run amok on the one hand and fear of the future (will I burn out) on the other. The tension for us lies in being able to listen and hear His voice, allowing Him to lead and trusting Him for His provisions of strength, wisdom, and capacity building rather than “leaning on our own understanding” in achieving “balance”.

  2. Gary, I like your refraiming and I think that perhaps the word “self” in self care throws us off. While we don’t focus on ourselves, we are commanded to love ourselves…”Love the Lord thy God with all the heart, soul, and mind, and love thy neighbor as YOU LOVE YOURSELF” (emphasis mine). According to scripture we “renew the mind”, Jesus “saves our soul”, and we are to make our “bodies temples unto the Lord”. Thus there is a balance of mind, body, and spirit implicit in the Gospel message. I like your analogy of the symphony, our balance comes as part of life and sometime we will work hard, while at other times we must rest. I think C.S. Lewis would have said, if balance becomes the goal then it becomes our god. But if we seek first to do the will of God in all things, then the balance that God has designed for our (individual) life will become manifest.

      • Gordon Pike
      • July 18th, 2011

      Actually we are not commanded to love ourselves, rather love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The command is to love our neighbor, the” as you love yourselves part” is the measure of our love for our neighbor.

      • This is a great comment Gordon. And Yvonne, I am with you. I have so much appreciated the different perspectives on these issues.

  3. Gary, after doing considerable thinking about life balance myself, I agree with you that life can never be perfectly ‘balanced’ to the point that everything is just static and motionless. I finally thought of a seesaw and this is how I put it on my website:

    “Remember having fun on a seesaw as a child? When the seesaw was balanced properly on both sides, we experienced a comfortable and enjoyable ride up and down. The balance shifted just enough so that we could feel the thrill of movement and the joy of having fun.

    But if the other person on the seesaw suddenly jumped off, we went crashing down to the ground, probably bruising our back-side at the very least, perhaps worse. So there we were, just sitting there, trying to recover from the painful imbalance of the once fun seesaw. Finally, we got up and walked away, wondering if we really ever wanted to try that again.”

    “Or, in an effort to bring some semblance of balance back in our life, we put too much weight on the other side – working too much, taking on too many activities, and so on – possibly to the point of added stress and anxiety.”

    Balance in life is going to be different for everyone, as you put so well, but we can all enjoy the ride of the abundant life given us by an adventurous God.

    • I appreciated the next three comments. In fact I appreciate them all. I am sensing that we all struggle with this. Rob is right on, it is important to distinguish between taking care of self and being selfish. Maybe that is a core here. We can have the first without sliding into the second.

    • Rob Stevens
    • July 14th, 2011

    I think self-care is a critical aspect of following Christ. I would also point to Proverbs 4:23 … Guard Your Heart… How many people have taken themselves out of ministry by not taking care of their own lives? It is important to differentiate between taking care of self and being selfish.

    • This is good Rob. Thanks for responding. As always it is nice to hear from you – you are an insightful guy. Your observations triggered some good responses. See the comments from Craig and and my response below.

  4. Great thought-provoking comments, Gary. I agree with several of the following ones, especially Rob. The term “self care” sounds essentially self-centered, yet I think we might all agree that we need to use discernment in how and when we respond to demands around us. Jesus did.

    I like the example in Mark 1: 35-39. Despite all the needs around him, Jesus set aside time for solitude, for restoration. Could we call that self-care? At the very least, it’s establishing boundaries. The disciples track him down and exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you!” in other words, how can you be here by yourself with so many demanding your attention? Jesus’ response: “Let’s go somewhere else..” I like that. Then he let’s them know he has others who he is called to.

    Jesus knew his calling and his need for time away from the crush of others. He didn’t react to every need. He lived a healthy rhythm of solitude, community and ministry, as others have pointed out. We might not want to call that self-care, but he was certainly establishing healthy discernment (boundaries) in how he directed his time and attention.

    • Craig, I read your comment just after getting off the phone with a friend who, like me, has trouble saying no to people that we really can help. Jesus was able to do that. It seems so much harder for us. I liked Michael Hyatt’s blog yesterday (July 19) with his observation that every time I am saying “yes” to something that is not as important, I am saying “no” to something that is more important. You re right. It is a boundary issue.

    • Galen Currah
    • July 14th, 2011

    Being mildly autistic though highly functional, I was only once accepted for salaried employment. That brief period allowed for vacations and holidays. Yea! Otherwise, my fifty working years had only two modes: work too much, and no work at all. It became early clear that “balanced” living was for those who could afford it, a perquisite of being “normal” in a wealthy society. What about the other ninety percent of humanity? Were our lives not worth the living because unbalanced? Fortunately for us Aspergers, we find meaning in our work, if it requires mental dexterity, and little joy, if any, in pleasurable pursuits, since we experience no psychic pleasure. I praise my Creator, who has made my life worth living along with his promise that I, like the Tin Man, will one day have a heart and be able to enjoy him and all the normals who make it through, despite their balanced lives.

    • Tebogo Lekhehle
    • July 14th, 2011

    100% right. Christian leaders today never take some time out, if its not work its prayer… Its too much. In the 7th day He rested and so should we…

  5. When Christ died on the cross, He was not concerned about having a “balanced” life. Living fully where God has placed us for the day is where I believe God would have us to live. At times that can be a very “balanced” life. But we should be ready at any time to move in extreme directions as God directs our paths.

    • Rodger Bufford
    • July 17th, 2011

    Canning’s focus on stewardship seems helpful in at least two ways. First, it involves a recognized biblical principle, but extends it an a way I had not before considered. Second, it is not so amenable to selfish perversions as self-care. Christian stewardship is inherently God-directed. Third, it conveys the notion that even my own existence is a divine gift, one over which I have a responsibility that is divinely directed.

    Rodger

    • As I read all of these comments I am reminded how thankful we can be that we even have the abilities and the opportunities that we can think about self-care and balance. For so many people the issue is survival. Have any of you read Wayne Cordeiro’s book Leading on Empty? It was helpful to me in thinking through some of these things.

  6. Thanks for a thought provoking recap and the previous discussions. Possibly, it is semantics between today’s lingo of self-care and stewardship of our time, talents and energy as we fulfill our purpose here on earth.
    I appreciate the diverse views: the truth being weaved through each person’s personality and experiences.

  7. CAPITAL LETTERS: i WANT TO THANK ALL OF YOU WHO RESPONDED THIS WEEK. I don’t get a lot of responses but this week you set a record. Thanks everybody. Gary

  8. Hey Scott, Thanks for the comments on your blog and thanks as well to the people who responded over there. I appreciated their great comments.

  1. July 18th, 2011

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