The False Dilemma of the Sinfulness of Self-Care

Two prominent authors are influencing Reformed Christian women now on so-called self care. One author describes self-care as a form of self-idolatry. For her, the remedy is repenting and turning to individual obedience to the Bible. Another author describes self-care as a form of radical individualism. For her, the remedy is communal obedience to the Bible. This forms a false dilemma of sinfulness in self care. It stems from a false dilemma regarding self-love. What is a false dilemma? A false dilemma is where an either/or choice is given when there is at least one more valid option. It’s also a false correlation where one inference must be true and the other false.

How are these views of self-care a false dilemma?

First, both demand a sinful form of self-denial that is not required of Christians. In the first author’s view, your choice is between self-care and faithful obedience to God. In the second author’s view, your choice is between self-care and living in community. These are both false dilemmas because there is a third option. One can practice self-care, in accordance with the Word of God, and with respect to one’s numerous relationships.

Second, having to choose between these two, pits the individual against the community (and vice versa). God created both individuals and communities. To say that one is opposed to the other is to say that God created such enmity. Not true! The individual and community are not at odds. Society can’t be either individualistic or collectivist.

It’s erroneous to say, “we need to balance individual and communal interests.” If one is bad and the other is good, then balancing the two, is neglecting the good for the sake of the bad. If they’re both bad, then balancing only bad things doesn’t lead to anything good. If they’re both good, a “balance” of the two could be anywhere on the spectrum.

Likewise, we don’t need to “sacrifice the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.” Individuals comprise the community. Needs don’t arise in the community independent from the needs of individuals. Putting individuals and communities at odds are false ways of thinking about the world. Why? Because we are all individuals! And as individuals, we live in community. Without individuals there would be no communities; without communities, individuals could not survive.

Consequently, both authors appeal to obedience, rather than faith, as key to the Christian life. This fundamentally misses the point of obedience in Scripture.

See my critical review of,
You Who? Why You Matter and How to Deal With It
.

What exactly is self-care?

We must define our terms! Neither of these authors define self-care. The International Self-Care Foundation uses the World Health Organization’s definition of self-care. One might say, this is the “world’s definition.” In short, self-care is defined as a broad concept that describes in general terms how people establish and maintain their health and wellness. It encompasses hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, and environmental, social, and economic factors, and self-medication.

Both authors concede that Christians are responsible for taking care of themselves. However, both effectively gaslight their own readers into questioning whether their self-care is sinfully motivated.

Am I caring for myself because I’m idolizing myself and disobeying God?
Am I caring for myself because I’m a radical who rejects my community?

This is gaslighting for three reasons:

  1. it causes people to second guess their own mind and reality.
  2. it’s a subtle denial that the Spirit indwelling the believer is not doing His job by making the believer aware of their own sin.
  3. it results in a confusion that suggests the safe thing to do is to stop caring for oneself.

Second guessing oneself is not pious self-examination

A pious self-examination wouldn’t entail endless confusion about sinful motivations. Gaslighting on the other hand, causes confusion with no clear resolution. Martin Luther suffered from over-agonizing about his sinful nature. Though it was Luther’s struggle that providentially led him to finally learn the Gospel, and ignite the Reformation, it is because of the Gospel that we need not be crucifying ourselves for our sin. We were crucified with Christ, once and for all.

The Christian life is certainly one of repentance, but it’s not one that demands abject denial of life’s pleasures or who we are as individuals in relation to our communities. It is a beautiful thing that God created us to reflect his image in individual ways.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit convicts the believer of sin.

It is the Spirit’s role in the believer’s life to convict one of sin and to sanctify the believer. It is not the job of discernment bloggers to make you worry about whether the Spirit has all your sinful bases covered. It’s true God puts people in our lives to aid in recognizing sin in ourselves. But this is necessarily accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit. And just because a person perceives something as sinful, doesn’t necessarily mean their assessment is correct. They don’t know your heart like the Spirit knows your heart.

Do we believe in the work of the Holy Spirit? Do we trust the Spirit to convict us of our sin? I can’t emphasize Colossians 2:6-23 enough! The mortification of sin in the believer’s life is the process of sanctification, which is directed by the Holy Spirit. It is not denying God’s blessings to you as His redeemed child.

Avoiding self-care won’t save you

One of the authors mentioned above actually promotes the idea of not doing self-care.  It’s as if to say, “Well, the safe thing to do is not do this at all!” In other words, someone applying the vain wisdom of these two authors, over against actual conviction by the Holy Spirit, their tendency will be to “avoid the sin.”

Well, if I could be sinning through my self-care routines, then I should stop my self-care routines.”

This is especially dangerous given we are called by God to be stewards of the gifts God has given us – and one of those gifts is our own body and life. One of the messages of the Book of Ecclesiastes is that even productive work is ultimately hevel, and so it’s not sinful to slow down, rest, and enjoy life.

Christian self-care rejects the false dilemma

Nothing about the world’s definition of self-care is obviously idolatrous or egocentric. Human beings can make anything idolatrous and egocentric; even public worship. Should we stop participating in public worship, because we can err in sin? Of course not. In fact, Scripture has something to say about the elements of self-care to one degree or another. Furthermore, every facet of self-care necessarily involves communities to varying degrees.

So really, this false dilemma – idolatry vs pride – is baseless if we’re trying to blame “self-care” as some sort of toxic ideology. (Seriously, guys! Not everything has to be ideological.) This raises a question about why these two false views of self-care have been proposed in the first place. Christian self-care is necessarily Christocentric, not egocentric. But that doesn’t negate self-care one way or the other.

Is self-care sinful?

Maybe the arguments offered by these two authors are poorly reasoned. But isn’t self-care sinful because its corollary is self-love?

Godlessness in the Last Days: But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, … Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” 2 Timothy 3:1-7 ESV

The argument that self-love is sinful comes from a dubious interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:2. See? It’s right there in the text, right? Even women are especially vulnerable, right? If what is meant by self-love is the same as what Paul means by lovers of self, then Christ contradicts Paul when he gives the second greatest commandment:

“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:31 ESV

So, which is it? If lovers of self is sinful, something to be avoided in yourself and other people, then the command to love your neighbor is something to be avoided. Are you seeing the false dilemma? Pitting Christ against Paul? The better way to address this, is assume that Paul is not speaking about what Christ is speaking about. And that is the case.

Christ uses the word, agapaō (ἀγαπάω). Paul uses philautos (φίλαυτος). Agapaō means “to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly.” Philautos means, “too intent on one’s interest, selfish.” So Christ commands us to welcome, entertain, be fond of, and love dearly our neighbor as we welcome, entertain, be fond of, and love dearly, ourselves. Paul is saying, don’t be selfish. Ie. Don’t keep your love to yourself. So, Paul and Christ are actually in concert on this issue. They’re saying the same thing.

What is self-love?

“Self love has a few definitions. For example, self love is sometimes defined as having an appreciation for one’s own worth or value. It is also thought to include paying sufficient attention to one’s own happiness and well-being. Self-love is closely related to self-worth, self-esteem, self-compassion, and self-confidence.” – Tchiki Davis, MA, PhD, Berkely Well-Being Institute

Davis goes on to describe ways in which you practice self-love which includes: forgiving yourself, be self-compassionate, let go of ruminations, empower yourself, be mindful, express gratitude, be loving towards others. Literally an element of self-love, is doing this for others. So, forgive others, be compassionate towards others, encourage others to let go of their ruminations and be mindful, grateful, and also love others in their spheres as well. Looks like Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. Of course, doing this does not mean humans can save themselves.

Does “the world” recognize the distinction that Christ and Paul are drawing?

Yes, they do! But their nomenclature is different. What Paul is talking about, psychology calls narcissism. “Narcissists seem to love themselves extremely, to the exclusion of others.” Narcissists leverage their self-love against others. They have a preoccupation with how others see them vs how they actually act toward others. They have an external locus of control; bad things that happen to them are a consequence of others not validating them. Their emotions and attitudes are black and white – ie. a false dilemma.

By contrast, self-love is a necessary element of the second greatest commandment – The first being, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The second is just like it. Mark 12:30-31. How is this? 1 John 4:19, we love because God first loved us. God, who is love, loves us, and we in turn take the love God fills us with, and love God by loving our neighbor too. Without self-love, there is a break in this chain. Christ doesn’t tell us not to love ourselves; he tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Paul warns us not to love ourselves at the expense of others (narcissism) because this is not how God loves us, and the excess of narcissism breaks the chain as well. These two ways of breaking the chain, pits the first commandment (Mark 12:30) against the second (Mark12:31). It creates a false dilemma between Christ’s commands. This cannot be.

Here’s a visual of the distinction between self-love and narcissism to help you see the difference.

false dilemma self care love vs narcissism

We need understanding about the concept of the self

The concept of the self is not immediately obvious. If it were, the idea of self-care would neither be enigmatic, nor the source of a false dilemma among Christian writers. But many more ideas we take to be obvious by definition, ie. self-evident, are simply not. In addition to self-evidence, some other concepts include: self-knowledge, self-ownership, self-esteem, self-denial, self-awareness, self-abasement, self-government, and about 200+ others.

When Christians speak of the self, they inevitably do so in a negative way. But we Christians also speak of ourselves as being image bearers of God, which is positive. The image of God in mankind cannot be relevant to us in anyway, if the concept of the self is presumptively negative to the Christian. In fact, redemption cannot even be relevant to us in anyway, if the concept of the self is presumptively negative to the Christian.

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B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)
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