We live in a time when self-help, self-compassion, and self-care are embraced and encouraged in many Christian spaces – whether it’s defended in a podcast, suggested in a Christian therapy office, or championed between friends in small group together – the previous hesitancy to adopt self-focused compassion and care by Christians is quickly fading. Rather than biblical and theological arguments for or against self-focused care (cue Philippians 2…), research from the worlds of psychology and sociology are the primary endorsement for Christians to accept and engage self-focused care in their lives.
While I am so grateful for the ways that counseling and therapy are now normalized and trusted by many Christians and faith communities, in the last couple of years, I’ve wondered if the pendulum is overcorrecting in an unhelpful direction. It’s becoming more common for Scripture to be dismissed in how we approach self-focused care, and even when it is engaged, it’s not hard to find examples of how Scripture verses integrated with self-focused care are not always… shall we say, relevant…?
The more I chew on what we do with self-focused care as Christians, the more I sense we’re heading down a problematic road. As a counseling professional, I know the research behind how impactful self-focused care like self-compassion and self-care is. As a Christian, I believe every single person – whether it’s our own self or another person – is to be treated with full human dignity as God’s image. It might seem simple to say – ok, simply adopt self-focused care to offer yourself human dignity, this doesn’t need to be selfish, it can simply be honoring a person God created. While these things might appear compatible at first, I wonder if we’re majorly missing the mark and accepting categories that are actually less life-giving when compared to what our faith tradition has to offer. It makes me think of the C. S. Lewis quote about how we are far too easily pleased, enjoying mud pies in a slum when we could be enjoying a joyous holiday at the sea.1
So, if self-compassion and the like are mud pies in a slum, what’s the holiday at the sea? I think it’s a shift that comes from understanding who we are as people, grounded in our identity as image bearers – a biblical theology of anthropology. Academic words aside, it’s simply who we are based on who God is, the One whose image we bear. I’ll start to parse this out here and we’ll continue to go deeper in future posts…
If we ground ourselves in understanding God’s compassionate mercy and how this is central to who He is as He reveals Himself throughout Scripture, then instead of self-compassion, we have a richer and sweeter option available to us. We can marinade in the central facets of our being as a representational presence of God on earth.2 If we represent God’s presence on earth as God’s image, and His compassionate mercy is foundational to who He is, then what we embody is not a self-compassion, but instead, God’s compassion. The difference between self-compassion and God’s compassion is nothing less than the difference between a faint hint of smelling chocolate and savoring the richest chocolate cake you can imagine between your teeth. This makes me think, no wonder self-focused care, especially self-compassion, has exploded in Christian and non-Christian spaces — it gives a taste, a hint, of God’s goodness that our soul craves.
When we look at who God is and who we as His created people are in Scripture, lavishly tender categories start to open up. Rather than the self-focused categories of self-help, self-compassion, or self-care where we are directing things out of our own strength, we have God’s compassionate care straight from the merciful and gracious God of all creation. We get to embrace and embody His merciful compassion, not having to muster up or guide our healing process on our own. What a sweet and relieving thing to imagine.
Of course, this can feel much harder to experience and live out when compared to talking about the idea of embracing and embodying God’s mercy. We’ll continue to explore a helpful roadmap that steers clear of spiritual bypassing and moves toward authentic rest in God’s goodness in embracing and embodying His mercy. We’ll explore how it unburdens us to embrace and embody who God is, and how this brings us to our most authentic existence as God’s created ones.
For today, I wonder what comes to mind as you think about the difference between self-compassion and God’s compassion. Spend time in quiet prayer, closing your eyes to imagine a visual of the differences between self-compassion and God’s compassion.
- Full quote: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.
- For a helpful discussion of being a “representational presence” as God’s image, see Carmen Imes’ new book, Being God’s Image.