“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:31)
Maximal self-sacrifice is a powerful theme of the New Testament:
“So then, none of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” (Luke 14:33)
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.'” (Matthew 16: 24-25)
“We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (I John 3:16-18)
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2: 5-8)
The epitome of all examples of self-giving is the sacrificial death of Jesus, who though innocent and without sin, submitted to betrayal, torture, ridicule and crucifixion for us. We are taught to emulate this beautiful and unfathomable saving action.
At times, however, it seems that we mistakenly practice self-depletion and self-abuse as a distorted form of life-giving self-sacrifice for others, woefully neglecting the commandment of Jesus to love ourselves. “Love your neighbor, as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:31) Evidently, therefore, self- sacrifice does not mean self-neglect, though self-sacrifice is often practiced in this manner. It may prove beneficial to reflect on this aphorism: “In adulthood, there are no victims, only volunteers (who play at being victims).”
If we read the New Testament carefully it is possible to discern how Jesus practiced self-care. He chose to be raised in a loving, nurturing and faithful extended family, supported by the joy and the love of His mother, step- father and cousins. He gathered around Him disciples to support Him in His saving work. Martha, Mary and Lazarus were dear friends. He especially enjoyed a friendship with John, the beloved disciple. When he was thirsty, He asked for a drink of water. He went to at least one wedding celebration and ensured that those present truly enjoyed themselves. He permitted Himself to feel and to exercise righteous indignation when He cleansed the temple. He dined with the wealthy, undoubtedly partaking of the best food that the house could offer. He allowed the woman to anoint Him. He went away by Himself in the hills to pray.
Yet all of these examples of self-care pale in comparison to the true reservoir of His sustenance, comfort, joy, exultation and nourishment, which was and is the perfect communion He experienced with Father and Holy Spirit. Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) writes in The Orthodox Way, “At the very heart of the divine life, from all eternity God knows Himself as ‘I and Thou’ in a three-fold way and He rejoices continually in this knowledge.”
This ineffable Trinitarian mystery transcended even Jesus’ greatest human agony, the death upon the cross. So very often is His apparently shocking exclamation, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” mistakenly misinterpreted as His Father abandoning Him. This shout can only be understood as He meant it to be understood. It is the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm that would have been well known to all those illiterates in the crowd who committed scripture to heart and memory. It is a hymn of victory, praising God:
They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded. (Psalm 22:5)
Self-care, therefore, must be practiced by all care-givers in church service. Authentic sacrifice for the benefit of others always brings joy, replenishment and salvation. Those who are served also nurture and sustain the care-giver if self-care is factored into the relationships.
God is the ultimate care-giver but we also bear a responsibility for self-care. Here is a suggested prayer for practicing genuine self-love and biblical self- care: “God, help me to love myself, forgive myself and accept myself as You love me, You forgive me and You accept me.” There is a direct correlation between a person’s capacity to love and accept himself or herself and the capacity to love and accept others. A second suggestion is to at any point in the day or evening, list some ways that you are practicing self-care. If these are difficult to identify, then this should give cause for reflection. There are too few soldiers in the field already. We cannot afford to lose those who self- implode.