A Growing Trend
Self-care has become a thing. The trend got traction by appealing to necessity—you can’t care for others if you don’t first care for yourself. So before we can love our husband and children or care for the needs of the hurting or exercise our spiritual gifts, we must tend to our physical, psychological, and emotional selves. Certainly, it’s wise to be good self-stewards, but the way in which it’s trending often runs counter to the stewardship advocated by Jesus: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). In light of Jesus’s teaching, some of what comprises today’s self-care trend is more along the lines of plain old self-indulgence.
When the topic of self-indulgence is raised, those of us who live in societies marked by luxury think primarily of overeating. But overeating is merely one facet of self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is all that the term implies—it’s indulging the self.
Our prayer life, our Scripture reading, and all the delights of belonging to God seem distant and dull when we prioritize our time and activities around gratifying our appetites.
So what’s the big deal? Self-indulgence doesn’t seem so bad when we hold it up to sins like racism and murder. In fact, opportunities for self-indulgence are viewed as a blessing. It’s a reward for hard work, a celebration of personal achievement, and an entrenched belief that “you deserve a break today.” Oh, sure, we can take it too far, as the scales or the low bank balance might indicate, but overall, our world sees self-indulgence as good for us if we keep it in check. Such thinking is why we miss the full import of Paul’s words about a certain type of woman: “She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives” (1 Tim. 5:6).
Paul wrote those word while he was advising Timothy about the care of widows in the church, and he instructs that the self-indulgent among them were to be barred from receiving practical aid. That the church was to withhold aid from these widows sheds light on the seriousness of self-indulgence, but even more sobering is the link Paul makes there between self-indulgence and spiritual death. It’s clear here that those who live for themselves and for the gratification of their fleshly, earthbound appetites can’t simultaneously live for Christ. We may not live a full-scale overindulgent lifestyle, but whenever we overindulge we are likely to get a taste of the sort of death Paul had in mind. When we sate ourselves on the things of this world—pleasures and comforts of whatever kind—we become spiritually sluggish. Our prayer life, our Scripture reading, and all the delights of belonging to God seem distant and dull when we prioritize our time and activities around gratifying our appetites. Have we not all had at least a taste of Paul’s words? “She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.”
We understand what it means to overindulge our bodily appetites. It’s harder to recognize overindulges of our mind and emotions and the means by which we do so. As we look at how the self-care trend has grown into a booming industry, we get an idea.
We can see the trend in the recent coloring-book craze, the popularity of which, in some measure, is the result of how it has been tied to self-care. There is an endless selection of adult coloring books, and there are even coloring Bibles for those whose devotional life could use an exhilarating boost. Over the past few years, publishers have been cranking them out to where sales of those coloring books have ranked them high on best-seller lists, in some cases because they are marketed as a means of spiritual growth. Tim Challies writes:
Somehow, coloring has progressed from a hobby to a form of spirituality, from a pastime to a spiritual discipline. . . . God is delighted when we find delight in hobbies. But there’s no heavenly or earthly reason to elevate coloring to the realm of prayer, meditation, or spiritual discipline. The same is true of any other hobby or any other activity. When coloring becomes a form of spirituality, it becomes both distracting and dangerous.1
There is certainly nothing wrong or overindulgent about sitting down to relax with some crayons, but if we come to rely on coloring books to reduce stress, or if we lose interest in Bible reading without colored pencils, we might be avoiding the mental effort that true Bible study necessitates. What begins as self-care can morph into habits of laziness, where we are unwilling to exert ourselves without some pleasurable comfort as an accompaniment.
See God at Work
At the other end of the spectrum are exhausted moms and others whose work goes round the clock. Their patience is tried and tested on a daily basis, so grabbing on to a few minutes of peace and quiet by any available means is surely a blessing, one to take advantage of whenever possible. Self-indulgence becomes a factor, however, when we allow those unreasonably busy seasons to make us selfish and demanding in our fight for “me time.” While there are certainly situations and relationships where we need to set limits and safeguard our sanity, we won’t flourish if we miss how God is at work in our hectic routine:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)
- Tim Challies, “On Christian Coloring Books and Meaningful Hobbies,” February 9, 2017, Challies.com, accessed March 6, 2018, https://www.challies.com/articles/on-christian-coloring-books-and-meaningful-hobbies/.
This article is adapted from Flourish: How the Love of God Sets Us Free from Self-Focus by Lydia Brownback.
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