A few decades ago, you might have found me taking pot-shots at John the Baptist’s “I must decrease” (John 3:30). Having witnessed the havoc it wreaked upon Christian women prone to self-abnegation, as well as the license it gave to authoritarian leaders prone to spiritual abuse, I was not a fan of this particular phrase.
That changed when I happened upon my 12-year-old daughter’s Pinterest board titled “Self Care” (alongside “Cute Animals” and “Cool Outfits”). I opened it and discovered bubble bath recipes, sassy girl-power quotes, yoga poses, pampering skin care routines, and promos for self-care products (read: luxury goods). Harmless? I wasn’t so certain.
It made me wonder if I had traded in John the Baptist’s camelhair tunic for luxury camelhair boots.
Christian theologians have always had revolutionary messages about the self, which are often paradoxical and profoundly countercultural. They take their cue from Jesus, who talked about losing one’s self in order to find it. About coming to serve, not be served. About death being the doorway to life. In none of these messages is Jesus downgrading the self. He is simply giving our selfhood a new foundation.
The early church followed in his footsteps, baptizing people and proclaiming the termination of a selfhood that was already leading to death. They remodeled Roman mausoleums into baptistries, sending a clear message through the architecture: You are going here to die. A deceased person is being buried here. Sin killed you—you were already dead—you are just enacting a death that has already happened.
When the convert rose from the clear waters of baptism, they were raised into a revolutionary idea of what it means to be a self.
For early theologians, this symbolic death of the self was the discovery of the true self in Christ. They believed they could “be” themselves while being a self-for-others. The secret to this fully developed selfhood was neither self-care nor self-abnegation—which, it could be argued, are simply different sides of the same theological coin.
Instead, when a person’s life “is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3, KJV), their identity is fully stable, for it’s connected to the one who truly knows us, loves us, and doesn’t change. Knowing oneself and being oneself can only happen in relationship with knowing and being known by God and others. And to go one step further: Truly caring for oneself only happens when we have something bigger than ourselves to care about.
This is the secret to Lent. The early church, like a good parent, wanted to direct its children annually into a journey that would remind them of their primary selfhood: in Christ.
Historically, Lent arose from the 40 days when baptismal candidates fasted and prayed in preparation for their baptism on the eve of Easter. It didn’t take much time, though, until the whole church realized it wasn’t just the new converts who needed this cleansing process. Everyone needed it again and again. The entire early church, then, committed itself to remembering baptism and the new identity that it offers. Lent was not so much about self-hatred or self-punishment but the rediscovery of the self in Christ.
The problem with the self-care movement today is that much of it rests on a false dualism: that my selfhood and God’s are in competition, and that choosing something good for myself comes at the expense of God’s glory and vice versa. But this is just a modern dilemma, foreign to the church of earlier centuries.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a gentle pastor and abbot from the 12th century, helps us ground self-care in its proper relation to God and ourselves. For him, the love of self was a fitting and necessary part of being human and even a key part of our survival. At the same time, he understood that it was equally vulnerable to our disordered desires.
How is it possible to have a rightly ordered care for ourselves? Bernard took his monks on a pilgrimage of love, in which they moved beyond disordered self-love to one that was truly free for God and others.
Bernard begins by describing the first stage of love (self-love) as what he calls “natural human affection,” where we are weakened and nearly “compelled to love and serve ourselves first.” For Bernard, there is no intrinsic problem with having a self, but unfortunately, that self often gets infected with desires that lead to enslavement. This stage Bernard calls “love of self for self’s sake.”
In the second stage of love, we discover something larger than ourselves—God!—who is worthy of our love and delight. We begin to experience freedom from our disordered desires, even though this stage is still a subset of self-love, or the “love of God for self’s sake.”
But true growth in God comes at the third stage of love, when we begin to love God for who he is and not for what he can give us. This stage brings liberation, as our disordered desires begin to find their deepest calling in loving God and our neighbor.
“Once God’s sweetness has been tasted,” writes Bernard, “it draws us to the pure love of God more than our needs compel us to love him. Thus we begin to say, ‘We now love God, not for our necessity, for we ourselves have tasted and know how sweet the Lord is.’”
But Bernard isn’t done with us.
There is the fourth stage. Here, we come around full circle to a purified love of ourselves. Bernard calls this the stage of “love of self for God’s sake.” At this level, we engage in the most difficult spiritual discipline of all: seeing ourselves with God’s eyes, knowing ourselves as beloved, and loving ourselves as one of God’s beloved creations—warts and all.
“Such experiences are rare and come only for a moment,” says Bernard.
To those of us accustomed to believing that my self and God’s are in competition, this truth comes as a shock: What brings God glory is not our self-denigration but rather humble gratitude and freedom in knowing ourselves as loved by him and made in his image. This is true self-care, where we’re given the gift of seeing ourselves as God sees us and loving ourselves with his unalloyed love (1 Cor. 13).
When you remove God’s love from the picture, self-care is not part of the fourth stage but the first. It doesn’t attend to things that truly satisfy, nor does it convince us of our lovability. Ironically, the first stage is tyrannical, because the love of oneself is a devouring monster. It will never be satiated. I call this kind of self-care a luxury form of despair.
By contrast, Bernard’s fourth stage is a truly purified love of self that reflects God’s own enjoyment and acceptance of us. This radical message is what we’re unsuspectingly baptized into. What masquerades as “healthy” self-love without also demanding the Cross offers only a false identity.
A spirituality that begins with the death of the self (that our baptisms proclaim) is worlds apart from the kind abnegation of the self that many have suffered. Baptism puts us in touch with our real needs, by plunging us into the much larger reality of God and his love of us.
“I am not certain that the fourth degree of love in which we love ourselves only for the sake of God may be perfectly attained in this life,” writes Bernard. “But, when it does happen, we will experience the joy of the Lord and be forgetful of ourselves in a wonderful way. We are, for those moments, one mind and one spirit with God.”
With this freedom, we are able to move into a “disinterested” love of ourselves that is neither dependent upon self-care practices nor eschews them as worthless. For all its help, self-care can never take the place of being loved unconditionally.
The season before Easter is the space when we get to lean into God’s love. Lent did not originate out of a desire to self-punish or to focus on our sinfulness. It’s even more black and white than that: Lent is about death. But this crazy Christian message goes even further: It’s only through death that we begin to live.
Lent is when the whole church remembers our origins—origins that began in our baptism and Jesus’ baptism, too, where he heard the word that we can hardly believe: You are my beloved.
We have been baptized. We have been plunged into Christ. We can leave behind anything that keeps us from knowing we are loved by God and anything that prevents us from loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Lent is not an endurance stunt. It’s about reclaiming the idea that we are loved long before we enter the wilderness.
Julie Canlis is the author of A Theology of the Ordinary (2017) and Calvin’s Ladder (2012), winner of a Templeton Prize and a Christianity Today Award of Merit.
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