Less self or selfless?

Let’s pretend that you decide to become an Uber driver. You have a passion for meeting people’s needs and you love to drive, so the profession seems like a great fit. You do not own a vehicle, so you decide to go to a dealership and purchase an automobile that will really ‘wow’ the customer. Luckily for you, the dealer has just the right vehicle, fully equipped and in your favorite color. You are so excited about purchasing the car you don’t even bother negotiating the price. Within the hour they hand over the keys and you’re off to begin your new career with Uber!

Now there are regular maintenance issues that every car owner must know about: changing the oil every 3-5k miles, replacing filters, wipers and tires, periodical inspections, etc. As a responsible driver, you know that your vehicle needs to be well maintained, but you routinely fail to meet your automobiles needs due to your busy schedule. Sure, you keep the interior and exterior clean for your customers, but what’s going on under the hood is another story. You constantly say to yourself, “It can go a few more miles, it’s a new vehicle! Plus, I’m saving money by not taking it into the mechanic. The more time I spend in maintenance the less time I am out serving my customers!” At the same time, Uber may take notice of your efficient-obsessive work ethic, and begin assigning more clients to your already cumbersome workload. 

It doesn’t take a genius to know how this scenario ends. The car eventually quits and the driver is left by the roadside completely distraught, discouraged and defeated. 

If you were raised in church in the 90’s and 2000’s, you probably noticed the emphasis on becoming a “freak” for Jesus. This meant listening to DC Talk (of course), studying your Extreme Teen Study Bible, reading about Christian Martyrs, while being admonished to forgo the lusts of the flesh (don’t drink, smoke or chew or go with girls who do). During those days, Christian publishers exhorted the youth to not waste their lives, become Wild at Heart, join the Irresistible Revolution, and Kiss Dating Goodbye.

Ok, maybe I am being a little facetious. Many of the messages, books and songs that I heard growing up were solid. I am eternally grateful for my parents, ministers and Sunday school teachers. Because of their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, I was able to believe the gospel at an early age. 

However, due to this emphasis on becoming “radical”, I mistakenly learned early on that following Christ meant hating myself. I probably would not have agreed with that statement at the time, but it was certainly my mindset. To be faithful was to suffer, abandon, refrain, forsake, and deprive. I believed in order to become a real disciple, I must abandon my desires, ambitions and needs in order to prove myself faithful. Essentially, I had conflated the cost of discipleship with an unbiblical form of self-degradement.

Proof texts for this understanding weren’t hard to come by: Jesus called His disciples to abandon their homes, occupations and families in order to follow Him (Just as God did with Abram). Jesus instructed His listeners to deny themselves and take up their crosses daily in order to follow Him. (Luke 9:23) Jesus even told His disciples that nobody should love their families or even their own lives more than Him (Luke 14:26).

Before going further I want to be clear: I am not denying the validity of Jesus’ words, or attempting to make light the severity of His teachings. To be a disciple is to repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ; submitting to His Lordship while clinging to the cross. 

“Selfless” was the term used often in the churches of my youth. I was instructed to become selfless, which is the opposite of being selfish. This meant placing the needs and desires of others before my own. Selflessness is a good thing. One could argue that it is a Christian virtue. My understanding of selflessness, however, was not good. In my mind, being selfless meant more than simply providing for others, it meant forsaking me in service to others. It meant self-deprecation. It meant pursuing suffering in order to prove myself faithful.  Here are a few pastoral examples:

  • Prioritizing church ministry over my family. 
  • Ministering and counseling others when I desperately needed counseling.
  • Allowing others to prioritize my schedule.
  • Constantly seeking to placate the desires and expectations of the entire congregation.
  • Enlisting my wife in church activities she’s not comfortable with. 
  • Constantly sacrificing my time, energy and money for others, even when I had little to give. 

Because I mistakenly believed that God cared little about how I cared for myself,  I would feel ashamed for doing things that brought pleasure. Like the ancient monks who would “mortify” their flesh by whipping themselves, I would punish myself with negative self-talk for being “selfish”. Of course, in my mind, being selfish included saying “No” when I was already over-stretched, spending time with family and friends, pursuing hobbies I enjoyed, forgoing ministerial activities for my own sanity, etc. What’s more, there are plenty of churches that will gladly take advantage of ministers willing to do everything. 

The irony in all of this was that my spiritual life was in the pits. I rarely prayed, privately studied scripture or led my family in worship. I would feel ashamed for spending too much time in my office. In my attempts to prove myself faithful, I would forgo spending time with God.

Ministry became an idol for me. And I was willing to sacrifice my life, and the life of my family, on its altar. That’s exactly what I did for eight years before suffering a nervous breakdown. My so-called “radical” faith had turned me into a people pleaser. I was ministering to everyone except myself and my loved ones. I’ll never forget my wife coming to me and asking, “Honey, where is my minister?

Introducing Self-Care

What is self-care? Self-care is the pursuit of physical, emotional, mental and relational healthiness. To put it simply, it means loving yourself. I’m not talking about self-exaltation or self-indulgence, I am talking about making a concerted effort in protecting and maintaining who you are. 

Now before you accuse me of being a hedonist, consider Paul’s admonition to husbands in his letter to the Ephesians:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. -Ephesians 5:28-30

In this passage on Christian marriage, Paul profoundly illustrates how believers are to treat their bodies. We are to both nourish and cherish the bodies the Lord has given. We are to love ourselves. Indeed, Paul’s admonition wouldn’t make any sense if we didn’t. In my experience, this is not something many churches like to teach. In our efforts combating self-indulgence (which is so prevalent within our consumeristic/individualistic society), we forgo teaching the importance of self care. 

Remember the Uber driver illustration? I wonder how many of my brothers and sisters are burning themselves out in order to prove themselves faithful to God and their church. Do you recognize the folly in this? First, you are playing God by attempting to be omnipotent. This will not work. You are created. Your tires will eventually fall off. Second, you are attempting to earn God’s favor by your “radical” faithfulness. But this is not how discipleship works! We are justified by the works of Christ, not our own pitiful efforts. The apostles left everything to follow Christ because they knew He was their salvation. The only person’s faithfulness we should seek to emulate is that of Jesus Christ.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 33:

Q: What is justification? 
A: Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

If this resonates with you, I want you to begin to think of ways you can begin taking care of yourself. Start small. Take an inventory of how you use your time. Try evaluating the reasons why you do the things you do. Become an observer: notice your internal dialogue. Try and combat distorted ways of thinking. Set realistic short and long term goals. Pick up a hobby. All of these things have helped me tremendously. 

Brothers and sisters, you were made in the image of God. You are Imago Dei; the pinnacle of God’s creation. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body! -1st Corinthians 6:19-20

Charles Stover is an MDiv student at Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the P.C.A.

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