Humans are adap­tive machines. God designed us with this incred­i­ble capac­i­ty to change and adapt – not just to changes in weath­er, but also to nutri­tion, stress, and trau­ma. The human body and mind are con­stant­ly adapt­ing to our phys­i­cal and social environment.

It’s real­ly quite mar­velous how God did this — the cre­ation of a self-regen­er­a­tive, adapt­ing machine. This is not just for human sur­vival but a mar­velous exam­ple of the cre­ative mind of God. We see this in all of God’s oth­er projects, nature and ani­mal life. Of course not every­thing adapts and is able to thrive in changes… our adap­ta­tion has limits. 

In the last fifty years, the way in which life is lived in Amer­i­can soci­ety has dra­mat­i­cal­ly changed, and many are not adapt­ing well. We are poten­tial­ly on the cusp of a new human evo­lu­tion as our brain cir­cuit­ry is being rewired to accli­mate to the new pace and clut­ter of how we do life. As a result, many of us are find­ing it near­ly impos­si­ble to thrive in the noise and full­ness of the mod­ern world. When we ask peo­ple how they are doing we hear the worn cliché of busy, stressed, over­whelmed and tired.” 

Self-care is often seen as a lux­u­ry. Self­ish care is the norm. Inten­tion­al soul care is too often reserved for cler­gy, retired per­sons or some­thing we intend to get around to. Instead the default is to drown. 

It is imper­a­tive for the human race to learn how to inten­tion­al­ly nav­i­gate life at a liv­able pace. There are pro­found spir­i­tu­al con­se­quences to the cur­rent pace of life we are thrust into. Our world is lit­er­al­ly dying for a dif­fer­ent way to live. 

In this essay I’d like to explore a few sim­ple ways to look at some nec­es­sary tools that we as humans need to thrive in our chang­ing world. 

Let me first note that the line between self­ish care, self care, and soul care is often fuzzy as many activ­i­ties are sim­i­lar or dis­tin­guished only by the heart. How­ev­er, I want to attempt to draw some dis­tinc­tions between the three in hopes that we can move with grace and inten­tion­al­i­ty with how we approach life and the way we spend our time. 

Self­ish Care 

When many ref­er­ence self-care what they real­ly mean is hav­ing their own way and doing things they enjoy — a self­ish care. This is prob­a­bly in part the rea­son many peo­ple don’t allow them­selves to attend to legit­i­mate human needs for fear it is self-centered. 

Self­ish care is essen­tial­ly doing the things we want for no pur­pose oth­er than to have our own way. I wouldn’t call it bad per se, humans are chron­i­cal­ly self­ish. God knows this and gives space for us to work this out. And many activ­i­ties we self­ish­ly pur­sue resem­ble good self-care or soul care. The dif­fi­cul­ty becomes when we seek to have our own way in unhealthy, obses­sive, and destruc­tive man­ners. And oth­er­wise benign activ­i­ties serve as a painkiller, a drug of sorts, to numb out life. 

There are any num­ber of activ­i­ties we can self­ish­ly use, much of the adver­tis­ing indus­try is an invi­ta­tion to numb out to the lat­est and great­est dis­trac­tions, promis­ing the new hit will be bet­ter than ever, and of course that we deserve it. Not only are we social­ly encour­aged to live for the dis­trac­tions and painkillers, there can even be social con­se­quences to not pur­su­ing the lat­est show, expe­ri­ence, web­site, or device. 

We all have var­i­ous pref­er­ences for the rich diver­si­ty of painkillers read­i­ly avail­able to us. For some it is food, sex, TV, shop­ping, drink­ing or work. Oth­ers can get lost in that ever-illu­sive online hit remind­ing of us our impor­tance and inclu­sion in the world. Or we might find an effec­tive relief from our life by cloth­ing our­selves in neg­a­tiv­i­ty, sar­casm, and gos­sip. Of course packed sched­ules, gen­er­al noise and dis­trac­tion seems to effi­cient­ly accom­plish the goal of avoid­ing real­i­ty. We can even go so far as to greed­i­ly use spir­i­tu­al prac­tices in destruc­tive manners. 

You know you’re mov­ing into destruc­tive prac­tices when a sense of enti­tle­ment creeps in as you move towards car­ing for your­self. This is most clear when the thing we want to do becomes inter­rupt­ed, and we’re left bit­ter that we didn’t get what we deserved.” This can lead to devel­op­ing a sense of mar­tyr­dom or even lead to hurt­ing oth­ers for get­ting in the way of us hav­ing a hit. 

In a very real sense we’re all a bunch of addicts. Of course the answer is not to become com­plete­ly ascetic and deprive our­selves of any­thing remote­ly enjoy­able, but to live with­in the ten­sion — to live into our transformation. 

I say all this not to shame or shun the glit­tery things the world has to offer, rather to point out the impor­tance of keep­ing these things in their prop­er place – hav­ing them serve us rather than we serve them. And remem­ber that the deep­est cries of our soul, to know and be known, to love and be loved, by God and oth­ers, will nev­er be found in enter­tain­ment, accu­mu­lat­ing goods, com­fort and/​or per­son­al leisure. In a very real sense the glit­ter­ing painkillers our world has to offer are sim­ply false reflec­tions of the good­ness of God, unsat­is­fy­ing cheap imi­ta­tions of that which our soul desires, and the good life found in fol­low­ing Jesus. 

It’s painful­ly clear the fruit of our pur­su­ing self­ish care. For many it leads to bro­ken rela­tion­ships, chron­ic health and finan­cial prob­lems, and for some death. On a very basic lev­el it ham­pers the full­ness of life God has to offer and cheats the world out of the per­son we could become.

Self-care 

I should first note that there is a dif­fer­ence between liv­ing a gen­er­al­ly dis­ci­plined life and prac­tic­ing spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines. I might devel­op good dis­ci­plines in life like eat­ing healthy, read­ing, tak­ing time for silence or walks, but these prac­tices don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have any­thing to do with God. Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is about pur­su­ing prac­tices with and before God. It’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion for peo­ple to frame good and fruit­ful self-help prac­tices as spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. And while the actu­al prac­tices can over­lap and some­times have no clear bound­aries, there is a dis­tinc­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in our motives. 

Quite sim­ply, good self-care is attend­ing to and respect­ing the lim­i­ta­tions and needs that God has designed for humans. I find the anal­o­gy of car­ing for our car as a help­ful start­ing point. Chang­ing the oil and doing reg­u­lar main­te­nance is sim­ply being a respon­si­ble car own­er. It is not self­ish to ignore the flash­ing check engine light; it is not a mea­sure of one’s strength to ignore our needs as a human, rather fool­ish­ness. And so, respect­ing and attend­ing to our human lim­i­ta­tions and needs is sim­ply car­ing for God’s crown­ing cre­ation, the human machine.

Below I out­line a few dis­ci­plines that can devel­op into habits that vast­ly improve our qual­i­ty of life. Being a ful­ly func­tion­ing human and nav­i­gat­ing life in healthy ways often bumps us into God. I find these basic self-care prac­tices can eas­i­ly flow into spir­i­tu­al prac­tices. The soul and body are mys­te­ri­ous linked, and so good care of the body cer­tain­ly holds spir­i­tu­al impli­ca­tions. Shift­ing self care prac­tices into inten­tion­al acts before God can often be as sim­ple as prayer­ful­ly tun­ing our aware­ness to what God is already doing and intend­ing for us in the midst of our every­day ordi­nary life. 

Sleep

At least in our present con­di­tion, God designed the human body to require a cer­tain amount of sleep; fight­ing this is fool­ish. Of course, we can sur­vive on lim­it­ed amounts of sleep, but we are sim­ply unable to live into our poten­tial if we are con­stant­ly push­ing the lim­its and bor­row­ing from tomorrow’s fuel to sur­vive. Inten­tion­al­ly giv­ing one’s body what it requires for opti­mal func­tion is a way of respect­ing God’s design. Experts say this is some­where around 9 hours per night. Do I have to change my oil every 3,000 miles? No. But, it’s just fool­ish not to. Will I accom­plish more in my day if I sleep less? Pos­si­bly, at least in the short term, but, at a cost. When I’m deplet­ed, oth­ers suf­fer. I’m left to offer a dimin­ished self; we can only give what we have. The sim­ple prac­tice of sleep revives our qual­i­ty of life and allows us to be more equipped to be of ser­vice to our neighbor. 

Physical

There is much to say about attend­ing to one’s nutri­tion­al and phys­i­cal health. Eat­ing healthy and com­mit­ting to reg­u­lar exer­cise are good prac­tices in and of them­selves, but I do take some issue with the com­mon moti­va­tion for such pur­suits. The Amer­i­can obses­sion with phys­i­cal heath often has much more to do with van­i­ty than self-care. Social­ly speak­ing, we assess much worth and val­ue based off of our out­ward appear­ance, and while pre­scrib­ing to social stan­dards has many rewards, it is quite pos­si­bly the shal­low­est mea­sure of a human. I can’t help but won­der if we spent a frac­tion of that time, mon­ey, and emo­tion­al ener­gy attend­ing to the con­di­tions of our hearts, habits, and char­ac­ter this world could be com­plete­ly trans­formed. But this is still an issue for self-care. Attend­ing to the machine God has made for us is good. Putting whole foods into our bod­ies and main­tain­ing reg­u­lar exer­cise has many ben­e­fits for our qual­i­ty of life, sleep, and stress function. 

Play

I try to carve out time each week to spend alone with my kids. The oth­er day my ten year old and I were try­ing to decide how to use our time. Usu­al­ly we have activ­i­ties or spe­cif­ic things planned, but today we were at a loss for what to do.

Oh Dad­dy, let’s just play.”

Okay, cool what do you want to go do?”

Play!”

Right, but what does that mean?”

He was utter­ly con­fused. I sat for a moment and sheep­ish­ly made a confession. 

Kai, I don’t know how to play.”

His con­fu­sion intensified.

Kai, adults don’t know how to play. We forget.”

He sat for a moment. And began to tear up. Why? How? I don’t want to forget….” 

I’m not sure why or how it hap­pened to me, but it has. I know how to do activ­i­ties. I have plen­ty of hob­bies, but in grow­ing up I’m afraid I’ve for­got­ten some very real and help­ful parts of being human. Self-care is about play, laugh­ter, and cre­ativ­i­ty. I sus­pect I can’t read a book to teach me these valu­able trea­sures about being human. I need Jesus’ favorites — the lit­tle chil­dren — to teach me. 

Boundaries

So many of us, par­tic­u­lar­ly women, are social­ized to view bound­aries with our time and ser­vice as a lux­u­ry we’re not allowed. Not only are good bound­aries healthy, they are a way to love oth­ers. Push­ing the lim­its beyond what is healthy is the path to exhaus­tion, burnout, and ulti­mate­ly bit­ter­ness. Work­ing with­in the God-giv­en para­me­ters he has designed for humans to func­tion well sets us free to be present to God and the world. It is no virtue to live a ragged life of nev­er say­ing No” to peo­ple or activities. 

Of course this is just a few of the many help­ful habits we can devel­op; I’m also par­tial to a prac­tice of grat­i­tude, slow­ing, and being ear­ly to events.

We devel­op habits, good and bad, in large part because at some lev­el they work. And so when we were start restruc­tur­ing our lives it’s not uncom­mon for var­i­ous emo­tions to bub­ble forth. For exam­ple, if I start say­ing No” to peo­ple, this might reveal deep­er issues of my heart; need for con­trol, self-worth, and ulti­mate­ly how I receive love. Do not let the dis­com­fort of this dis­cour­age you; it is a won­der­ful invi­ta­tion to prayer. And we often find how self-care prac­tices lead us to spir­i­tu­al practices. 

Soul Care

Soul care is essen­tial­ly learn­ing to live our life with God. Soul care is not about us doing; it’s about what God is doing. We sim­ply place our­selves in a posi­tion for God to care for us, attend to our souls, and let his agen­da super­sede ours. It is a space where we allow the Lover of our souls have his way — to tend, care, nur­ture, cor­rect and guide – to renew our inner beings and fill us to over­flow­ing with his love and care. 

This can be done in a vari­ety of ways; there is no exhaus­tive list of spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines. I find in our day prayer and soli­tude are two won­der­ful­ly help­ful entry points. I’m con­vinced that God is ever ready to direct us into new prac­tices if we only ask and cre­ate space to lis­ten. While carv­ing out spe­cif­ic space to work with, the dis­ci­plines are the pri­ma­ry way we think about soul care. It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that many dis­ci­plines can and should be prac­ticed in the midst of life — our work, school, fam­i­ly, eat­ing and sleep­ing life. Often it’s real­ly as sim­ple as tun­ing our aware­ness to God in the midst the stress and mun­dan­i­ty of life and not obses­sive­ly com­part­men­tal­iz­ing our lives into cat­e­gories of sacred and secular. 

Spir­i­tu­al prac­tices are not some­thing to be con­quered. For those of us caught up in a long list of to-dos, soul care can be dif­fi­cult and coun­ter­in­tu­itive. The key is doing acts before God, as a move­ment of sub­mis­sion, as a lit­tle death to self and hav­ing our own way. The prac­tic­ing of inten­tion­al spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines trains our heart and mind into new habits, allow­ing God to enter into the ordi­nary and mun­dane. And while prac­ti­cal habits with how we spend our time will emerge, the real habits we are look­ing for is the fruit of the spir­it. Where we become peo­ple who nat­u­ral­ly live lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, and self-con­trol. We become a peo­ple con­formed and trans­formed into the image of Jesus Christ. This is cer­tain­ly a long and slow process. 

It’s so impor­tant to let go of our expec­ta­tions of what will hap­pen in these times. Our lov­ing father wants to give. The space for soul care is for his agen­da, a space where he says Let me love you.” Our expe­ri­ences, emo­tions, and sit­u­a­tions in life lie before him, exposed and vul­ner­a­ble. We come with famil­iar­i­ty and trust and in this we are changed as we co-labor with Christ as he has his way with our lives. 

As is often the case in my writ­ing I find myself grav­i­tat­ing towards top­ics I need to learn. This top­ic is a big one for me. So often I find myself con­fess­ing that I don’t know how to live, I don’t know how to nav­i­gate life well. And of course the ten­sion of know­ing what to do and actu­al­ly doing it remains. 

May the still­ness of God pour out from our lives to a des­per­ate and hurt­ing world.

Originally published January 2016

Starting Soon: The 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

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