You Can't Give To Others What You Don't Already Have

A woman reading a book on a deck that overlooks the ocean. Her feet are up.
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I'd like to start our discussion about self-care by rehearsing what Jesus called the greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39). You might not realize it, but these words point us to the heart of good self-care.

Take a look at them again. First, Jesus teaches us to value God above everything else. We are to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength (Luke 10:27). Jesus refers to the four key areas that make us human: the spiritual, the emotional, the intellectual and the physical. More on that in just a bit.

In the same breath, Jesus also teaches us to highly value our neighbor in the same way that He expects us to highly value ourselves, as God's very special creations. Jesus assumes that we want the best for ourselves; that's how He created us. He instructs us to pursue the best interests of others with the same energy that we pursue our own best interests.

When you love God with every part of your being, He fills you up to overflowing with His amazing love. Out of that overflow, you give to others. This is the balanced life, the only kind of life worth living.

But notice something crucial: If you don't take care of yourself, you have no overflow. Without an overflow, you find it hard to take care of others — and almost impossible to obey Jesus' command. If you and I want a healthy and satisfying life, all three pursuits must remain in balance: loving God and loving others with the same energy that we love ourselves.

Self-care is not selfish

If you're like many people who come for counseling, you're feeling some specific emotions right now — annoyance, confusion — maybe a little alarm.

"I see what you're saying," you might begin, "but isn't all this talk about self-care a little, well, selfish? And doesn't the Bible condemn selfishness?"

Good questions. The short answer is this: Far from being selfish, good self-care is a godly thing. The truth is, Jesus practiced good self-care, as did Paul and the other apostles. Let me show you what I mean.

Throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus tended to His own needs. When He needed some alone time, He took it (Matthew 14:23, John 6:15). He gratefully allowed supporters to meet His physical needs (Mark 15:41). He made it no secret when He felt hungry or thirsty (Matthew 21:18, John 4:7). He did not allow others to control His agenda (John 2:24, 11:6). He didn't shrink from asking His friends to support Him in a dark time of need (Matthew 26:36-38). And He didn't hesitate to remove himself from danger before His God-ordained appointment with a Roman cross (Luke 4:28-30). In short, Jesus practiced excellent self-care, yet He never allowed it to degenerate into selfishness. That's how He could eventually march without hesitation to His crucifixion.

If Jesus wanted us to overlook our legitimate needs, it's hard to see why He would tell His disciples that God already knows about their need for things like clothes and food and drink (Luke 12:30). And why would Jesus have instructed them to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28), if He didn't think they needed it?

You can't give to others what you don't already have

Second, consider the godly counsel of the apostle Paul. If Paul had really meant to condemn good self-care, he never would have written, "For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church." (Ephesians 5:29). The apostle commends those who feed and care for their bodies; he doesn't denounce them. And that's nothing but good self-care! No wonder he could tell his young protégé Timothy to "no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" (1 Timothy 5:23). It's as if Paul said, "Timothy, I want you take better care of yourself. I'm concerned for your health, and I think you can do some things to avoid getting sick so often. It concerns me that your stomach causes you so many problems. Don't ignore it or try to 'tough it out.' How can you be of any use to others if you're constantly feeling ill? So let's make some changes in your diet, OK?"

It's only when you allow your cup to be filled that you can fill the cup of others. If you have nothing in your cup, you can't give anything away.

Or consider another illustration, familiar to anyone who has done some flying. What do the airlines tell adult passengers traveling with children? In case of an emergency, the adults are first to take care of their own needs — by firmly strapping an oxygen mask over their mouths — before attending to the needs of their children. Why? Because the airlines like to encourage selfishness? Because they want squealing kids to suffer oxygen deprivation? No! They give these instructions because they know a functioning adult can help a child better than an unconscious or dead adult. What if all the adults on a plane blacked out due to a mistaken bias against good self-care?

In fact, healthy self-care sets you up to give generously. If you take seriously God's direction to "be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18), you don't have to worry that God will drive you to give until nothing's left. And you don't have to wait to give until somebody does something for you. If you take responsibility for yourself and attend to your own self-care, you can act from a position of wholeness, not neediness. And that sets you up for relationship success.


Dr. Gary Smalley is the co-founder and chairman of the board of the Smalley Relationships Center, and he is the author and co-author of more than 40 books, including The DNA of Relationships.

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