Self-Sacrifice vs. Self-Care, or…?
On Carrying Your Cross in a Therapeutic Culture
I recently discussed with a student about his (mostly conservative evangelical) clients that seem
tragically disconnected from their bodies,
unable to practice rest,
and they feel selfish if they pursue self-care.
And Cyd (my wife, for new readers—who is a trauma-informed coach and spiritual director) regularly works with people at war within themselves between self-denial (which often doubles as boundary-less people pleasing) and self-care (which they bared know how to do even if they give themselves permission to do it).
Many leaving evangelicalism move to the other extreme. They now champion the therapeutic necessity of self-care, self-compassion, and finding their “true” self within their bodies and emotions. On this view messages of self-denial lead to internalized shame and self-hatred, and created communities of abuse and trauma.
All this led me to ask about whether self-esteem (having a “self”) is a prerequisite of discipleship, and how we often get tricked by language and therapy into thinking that Jesus commanded us to “love our neighbors as we love our selves.”
A little too selfish?
But part of the larger culture (beyond the enclaves of conservative Christianity, which we need to remember is quite large) is asking if we haven’t moved too far to the other side of the selfless-selfish spectrum, that perhaps too much therapy is making things worse.
Some are asking, “Is therapy making us selfish?” In this article Rebecca Fishbein relates a story of a friend getting dumped via text. Wrapped in the therapeutic language of self-care, needs, and alignment, one friend texted another saying,
“I’m in a place where I’m trying to honor my needs and act in alignment with what feels right within the scope of my life, and I’m afraid our friendship doesn’t seem to fit in that framework,” the friend wrote. “I can no longer hold the emotional space you’ve wanted me to, and think the support you need is beyond the scope of what I can offer.”
To the conservative-minded Christ-follower, this sounds like a selfish use of therapeutic language for which the antidote is to forget the self. After all, Jesus called us “deny yourself and carry your cross daily” (Luke 9:23).
Round and round it goes between being selfless and selfish, between self-sacrifice and self-care, between self-denial and self-actualization.
Does the Gospel Require Self-Sacrifice?
Biblical scholar John Barclay has recently argued in “Does the Gospel Require Self Sacrifice? Paul and the Reconfiguration of the Self”, that we have gotten into an all too modern and individualistic view between self-denial and self-care. And we have dragged the Bible into the fight.
Certainly, there are many verses that support an ethic of self-sacrifice modeled after Jesus.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8)
“Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” (Eph. 5: 2)
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16)
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
The Philippians Hymn has pride of place in this ethics of cruciformity (as biblical scholar Micheal Gorman calls it, being formed by the cross of Christ). We are, after all, called to have the same mind as Christ (Phil. 2: 4-8),
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!
So, obviously, the Bible argues that we should live self-sacrificially.
Not so fast…
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It isn’t “all or nothing”
But Barclay puts his finger on a problem. What we—modern individualists—mean something different by self-sacrifice than what Jesus, or Paul, or John would have meant. We think of self-sacrifice as “exclusive altruism”. This means that when we act for the benefit of others our action has to exclude of any benefit to ourselves. In this view, actions might seems even more virtuous if the self comes to some kind of deprivation or harm.
Barclay points out, however, that the ancient view understood relationships as reciprocal and mutually beneficial. While writing the letter to the Philippians, Paul had a view that the well-being of the self is found in the well-being of the other, and the well-being of others found in oneself. Paul regularly speaks of co-workers and co-soldiers (2:25), of companions, co-helpers, and co-sharers (4:3-4). Paul rejoices in the Philippians because they have become “partners in the gospel” (1:5) and share in God’s grace even as they share in his suffering (1:7; 4:14). All these words and phrases in Philippians make us of the preposition or prefix meaning “with”.
If Paul speaks of self-emptying it is one so that all would be filled-in-Christ (1:6; 4:19). And any self-sacrifice is overturned by the fullness-of-joy in one another (2:2).
Beyond Selfless/Selfish is being Self-With
In light of this, Barclay proposes that beyond seeing discipleship as a balance between being selfless or selfish, it is one where we grow in becoming self-with. Rather than the self being given away to others or fighting against others, the self is “given into relationship with others.” (18)
As Barclay sees it, Paul does not have a competitive view between the self and others, nor between the self and community. Instead, for Paul, “the self is reconfigured and redefined, so that the competitive self, the self-in-contrast-to-others, is left behind, but the self-in-community, the self that is identified with the interests of others, and they with it, is secured and enhanced, as the community shares collaboratively in love, comfort, and mutual encouragement.” (16)
Of course, this view holds that the “desires of the self require to be pruned or purified” in relation to this mutual love and benefit, i.e. in community. And modern individualist, especially without our therapeutic culture, don’t like to hand over the “self” to a community of others.
But what that pruning and purification might mean in community, how it moves beyond the self-sacrifice vs. self-care dichotomy, and how this ancient view aligns with contemporary neuroscience, is for a later post. Subscribe so you don’t miss it