Self-care has become a lucrative industry. We spend billions of dollars on oils, apps, and fitness programs that claim to enhance our physical, spiritual, and emotional wellness.
Observing the results of these products and these techniques among her patients, psychiatrist and author Pooja Lakshmin concludes that the self-care business doesn’t deliver on its promises. Her patients are at least as stressed and insecure as they’ve always been. Maybe more so, given the extra time and money they’ve invested in self-care stuff.
In her book Real Self-Care, Lakshmin urges us to move beyond the superficialities of self-care commodities. She’s got nothing against oils, bubble baths, and yoga classes. They can be pleasant and even helpful. But on their own they touch only the surface of our lives. Their effects are fleeting.
Authentic self-care is deeply transformational. It requires serious inner work. She outlines four pillars that support genuine wellness: setting boundaries, self-compassion, aligning your values, and exercising power.
In this space we’re going to limit ourselves to talking about what it means to align our values as disciples of Jesus. More specifically, we’ll begin by sketching a common secular approach to values alignment. Then we’ll turn to Jesus-shaped self-care.
Sociologist, Columnist, and MacArthur Fellow Tressie McMillan Cottom encourages us to ask ourselves what truly matters to us. We need to reflect on our beliefs, our priorities, and what gives our life a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Practicing self-care involves aligning our lives with our core values.
Jesus challenged his followers to do precisely the same thing in parables and in his personal example. Build your house on rock not on sand, for instance. Give all you have to purchase the pearl of great price. Let the dead bury their own dead. In other words, make first things first. Align your actions with your highest values.
But Jesus goes a crucial step further. He teaches us to align our values , and hence our lives, with the divine care for all things. That is to say, with the moral order of reality.
You see, one of the basic assumptions of secularism—at least one broadly held brand of secularism—is that objective reality is what you can observe with your senses. What you can weigh and measure. Values are subjective. They’re in the individual’s heart and head. Your values and my values may happen to agree. But there is nothing out there beyond us that justifies or invalidates what we prefer or hold dear.
By contrast, Jesus teaches that God wove a moral order into the universe. This is not to say that God merely gave us a set of rules to follow robotically. God did not give Moses the Ten Commandments to turn us into rigid, unreflective rule followers.
Instead, those ten laws, and the hundreds of directives found in Leviticus, are examples of what it can look like, in various circumstances, to live a caring life. That’s why Jesus summarized the law as the law of love. Love God with every fiber of your being. Love your neighbor like the quality of your own life depends upon their well-being.
In other words, real self-care cannot be entirely self-centered. Practicing self-care requires aligning our values with reality. The reality that this universe is the creation of the divine love. To live fully and meaningfully in this world involves caring for others.
In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Jesus illustrates the tragic consequences of aligning our personal lives with values that conflict with moral reality. (Matthew 21:33-46) The parable goes like this:
A landowner set up a vineyard and leased it to some tenants. When harvest time came, the landowner sent members of his staff to collect his share of the produce as payment for the lease. Instead of paying up, the tenants brutally assaulted his staff, wounding some and killing others.
The landowner then sent another group to collect, and they received the same violent treatment. Finally, he decided to send his son, reasoning that a family member’s status would be enough to bring these tenants to their senses. But they killed the son and claimed the vineyard for themselves.
At this point in the telling, Jesus turns to his detractors and asks, “So what do you think that vineyard owner will do to these tenants?”
They answer, “He will crush them and toss them aside.” In other words, we may be able to go a long way down the road tending to our own private passions without regard for or at the expense of others. But eventually this will prove a self-destructive pattern of life.
God wants wellness, well-being for us. That’s why God gave us the Law of Love. That’s why God gave us love in the flesh: Jesus.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 21:23-32 from Proper 22, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up October 8, 2023). As usual, I’m posting in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.