[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
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This article was written by Jane Born, a graduate of Regent College, where she completed an MDiv with an emphasis on mental health and spirituality. Jane has been involved in ministry for over a decade, and she currently serves as the Program Development Coordinator for Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.]
Self-care is a hot topic these days. When you type the term into Google, the search engine returns nearly three billion results. With such an overwhelming amount of information, where is a Christian to begin?
Googling Christian self-care provides little help. One article promises to reveal the ten self-care techniques every Christian should practise, another asks whether self-care is selfish, and a third labels self-care as “insanity.” Clearly, followers of Jesus are divided on this topic. And if you look up self-care in a Bible concordance, you are bound to be disappointed. It isn’t included in the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes, and it isn’t featured in Proverbs or any of the New Testament virtue and vice lists. In other words, we can’t point to a single verse or narrative and say, “This is what the Bible definitively teaches about self-care.”
For some, this raises significant concerns—concerns that may be heightened by common misconceptions about self-care and the nature of stress. It’s no wonder, then, that so many Christians respond with confusion or even criticism when the topic of self-care is raised.
I was highly suspicious of self-care for many years. It took a mental health crisis followed by a lengthy recovery journey to teach me that self-care is not about being selfish or indulgent; it’s about helping the mind and body function in healthy and sustainable ways. Once I understood this, I realized that, although the term self-care does not appear in the Bible, there are many examples of care being extended towards people who are experiencing mental or physical distress.
Self-care is about helping the mind and body function in healthy and sustainable ways.
The story of 1 Kings 19 is one such example. The Old Testament may not be the most obvious place to go searching for self-care tips, but when a coworker recently encouraged me to take a closer look at this chapter, I was surprised by the extent to which the purpose and practices of self-care were reflected in the text. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that 1 Kings 19 is a self-care manual! But in a narrative concerned with national failure and divine faithfulness, we find the story of a burned-out prophet who meets with God just as he reaches the end of his rope. (Perhaps some of us can relate to these feelings, given the events of 2020?) Let’s take a look at the ways in which Elijah experiences care and see whether this text has anything to say to us today.
First, a bit of context: 1 Kings 19 immediately follows one of the most dramatic showdowns in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah calls down literal fire from heaven, massacres the prophets of Baal, and then declares an end to the drought plaguing the land! This does not result in his promotion, however. Jezebel is enraged by the deaths of her prophets and vows to end Elijah’s life. And this is where 1 Kings 19 begins—with the desperate flight of Elijah.
Here, in these opening verses, we see Elijah literally running for his life. Have you ever heard of the fight or flight response? When we are in a dangerous or highly demanding situation, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, releasing adrenaline and preparing us to respond. Our pulse quickens, our breathing grows more rapid, our senses are sharpened, and we are quite literally ready to either attack or flee should the situation require it. If you think that this sounds rather technical and physiological…that’s the point. Stress may affect our emotions, but it isn’t actually an emotion. It’s a biological response to increased pressure, designed to help us survive the moments in life when more is demanded of us.(1)
It seems reasonable to assume that Elijah’s stress response was activated when he heard about Jezebel’s vow to end his life. He flees to the wilderness outside Beersheba—with adrenaline racing through his system, no doubt—and then collapses under a broom tree.
Stress is a biological response to increased pressure, designed to help us survive the moments in life when more is demanded of us.
So far, his response to the situation makes sense. But then he asks God to end his life. What is happening here? Why would he fight so hard to save himself, only to turn around and express a desire for everything to end? It’s important that we recognize the ambiguity of the text and acknowledge that the biblical author doesn’t provide answers to these questions. While we can’t know for sure what prompted Elijah’s desperate prayer, a deeper understanding of the body’s reaction to stress may provide helpful context.
We are not designed to remain in fight or flight mode for extended periods, so when acute levels of stress become chronic, our bodies and minds are affected in a number of negative ways.
Physically, the hormones produced when we’re under stress wear the body down, compromising the immune system, elevating the blood pressure, and causing symptoms that can range from headaches, indigestion, and fatigue to heart disease. Mentally and emotionally, chronic stress is linked to increased anxiety, panic attacks, and burnout—a complex phenomenon where our ability to think rationally or clearly is limited, our emotions are unusually fragile and volatile, and the smallest events can overwhelm us or cause us to come to a crashing halt.(2)
When Elijah cried out to God to end his life, he probably wasn’t just “being emotional.” It’s likely that his body and mind were worn out from a long series of confrontations and crises. (Keep in mind that his dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal was preceded by three years of living as a fugitive in the middle of a drought.) Self-care skeptics often believe the common misconception that stress is a feeling or mental bad habit that can be shaken off or shifted with a little effort. However, for Elijah and others experiencing chronic stress or burnout, shaking it off isn’t an option. Instead, steps must be taken to counter the stress response biologically and psychologically.
When Elijah cried out to God to end his life, he probably wasn’t just “being emotional.” It’s likely that his body and mind were worn out from a long series of confrontations and crises.
In these next verses, Elijah does several simple things: he sleeps, he eats and drinks, he walks, and he takes time. Here we are getting close to the purpose of self-care. Although many of us may associate self-care with bubble baths, shopping sprees, and general indulgence, in actuality, it’s about intentionally caring for the body and mind in order to counter the stress response and promote resilience. Significantly, God initiates this care when Elijah appears completely overwhelmed, sending a divine messenger with food and water to encourage the prophet to pay attention to his physical needs.
When it comes to physical needs, evidence-based self-care practices include taking time to rest, practising deep breathing, following healthy nutrition guidelines, and exercising regularly.(3) (Notice that Elijah first sleeps, then eats and drinks to regain his strength before beginning to walk.) Sleep and deep breathing help to counter the stress response and activate the relaxation response in our nervous systems, while nutrition and exercise can regulate hormones and release endorphins. Once stress levels begin to lower, additional practices can help the body “remember” how to relax while a new normal is being established. (This is where massages and bubble baths can actually be very helpful!)
Tending to the mind and emotions is equally important. For people experiencing severe burnout, stepping away from stressful environments and engaging in activities that are distracting or playful is usually the first step. The mind can only handle so much, after all, and it needs to rest before it can start to recover. Other helpful self-care practices include grounding exercises that focus our thoughts and senses on the present (thus counteracting the tendency to worry about the future), and activities that encourage emotional awareness, such as journaling, making art, or listening to music. All of these practices can help us cope with stressful moments and build resilience over time, thereby decreasing the likelihood that we will experience burnout.(4)
So far, we have looked at practical techniques that counter the stress response biologically and psychologically. However, our intentions also matter. You see, the goal of self-care is not to fix ourselves as quickly as possible so that we can be productive again. Instead, self-care invites us to align our hearts and actions with the truth that we are deeply loved by God, and that we are called to extend grace and compassion to ourselves as well as others (Mark 12:31).
Self-care invites us to align our hearts and actions with the truth that we are deeply loved by God, and that we are called to extend grace and compassion to ourselves as well as others.
Isn’t it amazing that God speaks to Elijah in a whisper? When the exhausted prophet finally reaches Mount Horeb, he presents his complaint before God. While he seems to have recovered physically, Elijah is clearly still troubled by recent events. It’s difficult to say whether he is expressing fear, anger, or despair in these verses, but most commentators agree that there is at least a hint of accusation. The declaration that he has been “very jealous for the Lord” and that he is the only remaining faithful Israelite certainly sounds pointed.
You would think such a complaint would elicit a sharp rebuke. Instead, God speaks gently.
The divine voice is not in the hurricane-force winds, the earthquake, or the raging wildfire, but rather in a quiet question. Self-compassion is defined as being kind, gentle, and understanding with yourself. Here, however, it is God who demonstrates compassion, responding to Elijah with great kindness and understanding. During some of my darkest moments, God’s compassionate response to my brokenness was the only thing that gave me the strength to keep going.
Recovery is not for the faint of heart, and it requires us to radically rely on the love of God. Self-care is just one of the many ways that we can lean into this love.
As I said earlier, 1 Kings 19 isn’t a self-care manual. At the close of the chapter, attention shifts again to the bigger historical narrative. Kings must be appointed, prophets must be anointed, and idolatry must be judged. In all this business, however, God informs Elijah that he is not the only faithful Israelite. In fact, there are at least seven thousand others. Why does this information matter?
It matters because the core convictions of our faith matter. Somewhere along the way, Elijah seems to have lost sight of his own finite nature, as well as the infinite nature of God. (How easily we can do the same!) This is why God offers a reminder that he is still in control, and that the fate of the nation is safe in his hands. Elijah does not need to continue pushing himself to the point of breaking. Instead, he can rest in the knowledge that God is at work.
There is an invitation for us here—an invitation to ground our self-care in this same faith-filled perspective. In his love and wisdom, our Creator has designed us to need rest, as well as physical, mental, and emotional care during seasons of heightened stress. Knowing this frees us to engage in the practices of self-care as a form of testimony, declaring to ourselves and the world that God is at work even when we are not. In this way, our self-care can become a truly spiritual and uniquely Christian practice.
- Dan Mager, MSW, “What You Need to Know About Stress and Self-Care,” Psychology Today (August 29, 2017), accessed November 10, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/some-assembly-required/201708/what-you-need-know-about-stress-and-self-care.
- “Understanding the stress response,” Harvard Health Publishing (July 6, 2020), accessed November 11, 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.
- Tchiki Davis, PhD, “Self-Care: 12 Ways to Take Better Care of Yourself,” Psychology Today (December 28, 2018), accessed November 13, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/click-here-happiness/201812/self-care-12-ways-take-better-care-yourself.
- “On World Mental Health Day – do we need to take burnout (and our minds) more seriously?” Mind & Soul Foundation (October 2020), accessed November 10, 2020, https://www.mindandsoulfoundation.org/Articles/589499/Mind_and_Soul/Articles/On_World_Mental.aspx.
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.