It was the beginning of my summer of healing. Looking back, there were many events and ideas that prevented me from becoming, as my doctor put it, “a burnt out Proverbs 31 woman.” But the idea I wrestled with most was self-care.
“Self-care.” The phrase actually made me uncomfortable when I heard it in some Al-Anon literature. It sounded like a facade for selfishness. And it was certainly opposed to that word so crucial to my faith: “sacrifice.”
In all areas of my life, I was hearing the word “sacrifice.” “You need to be more sacrificial and spend time with the family.” “You need to be more sacrificial in your teaching so the students will learn better.” “You need to sacrifice more of your time to be involved in church.” I was told more than once that I was selfish–that I wasn’t sacrificing enough for my family or for my job.
But I felt that I couldn’t give more than I was giving. I was bone weary and soul weary. I was always striving to be perfect–to be everything in every role. And suddenly it was not enough. I was failing. After being told numerous times to be more sacrificial, I finally decided I was just plain selfish. But I did not have the strength to be anything else, so I just accepted it. I accepted that I was too lazy, too bad, and too tired to be any other way.
I felt significant failure in my spiritual life. Sacrifice–what Christ did for us in a grand, ultimate way I couldn’t even do for others in a small way. Thus began my journey to understand the seeming tension between sacrifice and self-care.
What Sacrifice Means
The word used most often for “sacrifice” in the Old Testament comes from Hebrew word zabach. It means to slaughter an animal, to kill, offer, slay. In the New Testament, the Greek verb thuo is used (sometimes in the thusai form). Similarly, it means to sacrifice (by fire), to slaughter for any purpose, to kill, slay.
Tracing this word through Scriptures, the goal of sacrifice involved an offering (often the slaughter of an animal) to please God and appease His wrath. The instructions throughout the Old Testament regarding sacrifice are detailed and specific. But man’s sacrifice is never enough. Eventually Christ offers Himself as a sacrifice, and “it is finished” once and for all; the curse is lifted. The word now comes in a different context. We are to offer our bodies to God as a sacrifice (Rom. 12:1) and offer a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15). But though we are called to lay down our lives for our friends, our sacrifice is always to God, not others. I was sacrificing myself not as an offering to the Lord but as an offering to my own gods–to power and people and being well-liked. I wanted to be everything. There was good intermixed with it all; a chief motivation was to show Christ’s love to others. But my measure of how I was doing was the praise (or lack thereof) of man.
I was empty. I was giving and giving and giving to try to make everything okay and everyone happy. I was often trying to smooth over the pain in my life and in the lives of those I loved. I carried their burdens and my own. I thought I was sacrificing for them. But it wasn’t a sacrifice to God.
How Self-Care Can Be Loving
The airplane oxygen metaphor best elucidates self care for me; you are supposed to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then put it on your child. What a silly “sacrifice” for both to die because the parent didn’t want to seem selfish by putting on the mask first. But that’s what was happening to me.
This concept is illustrated in Ephesians when Paul talks about marriage:
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Eph. 5:28-30)
The metaphor for marriage–for becoming one flesh–first points a man to how he nourishes his own body. Then, just as he does that, so is he supposed to love his wife who becomes his flesh. If we don’t nourish and care for our own bodies, then we don’t know how to nourish and care for others. Sometimes loving others well is loving myself well so that I can then have time, energy, and love for them as opposed to resentment or exhaustion.
Whose Sacrifice Matters and Wants vs. Needs
At the beginning of the passage I just quoted from is this:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph. 5:1-2)
The world does not depend on my sacrifice; it depends on His. I am made right with God through his sacrifice and only through his sacrifice (not mine) will others be made right with God and find peace. In light of His sacrifice, I offer up my own life as a sacrifice, not to others, but to Him. And this means loving others well. But it also means taking care of myself so I can be the person He has called me to be.
I understand it most clearly in terms of wants and needs. I should be willing to sacrifice my wants and needs to serve the needs of others. In loving others, there will even be times when I put their wants above my wants (honoring them above myself). But I burn out quickly when I consistently put the wants of others (like the desire for me to be at a family gathering) above my own actual needs (like my health).
Often when one starts the process of self-care, he or she will swing too far in the new direction. I did this. I started saying “no” to everything and everyone. I slept a lot. I shut off my guilt and maybe even my conscience. But slowly I am returning. And when I put my wants below the wants or needs of another, I usually don’t see myself as a martyr, I see myself as loving–as walking like Christ did. He made the sacrifice once and for all, and now my life is a sacrifice for Him–for His glory. This includes all parts of who I am–not just in the context of other people–but my emotional, physical, and mental self as well. And He wants it all.