Galvin and Associates

Self-Neglect and Self-Absorption



About a decade ago I had lunch with two Christian leaders who were a study in contrasts. The first was a pastor who became ill and was forced to go on disability leave. His illness was the result of years of poor diet and neglect of his physical needs. While on disability, he was not allowed to do any ministry-related work. As we looked at our menus, he told me choosing what to eat was a challenge because he was still new at trying to eat healthier. This pastor was sidelined by self-neglect. The second was the leader of a local Christian ministry. He liked travel and spared no expense when a meal would be reimbursed by his organization. He was good at finding ways to make things benefit him personally. When we had lunch, I ordered a side salad. He then picked up the menu again to order something smaller and avoid embarrassing himself. This leader was a prisoner of self-absorption.

Most of us struggle with one of these two patterns. Either we put others before ourselves and neglect our own needs, or we are heavily turned inward on ourselves and fail to even notice the needs of others. To make it worse, we are caught in a web of expectations, habits, and relationships that make behavior change difficult.

The core issue is how we go about meeting our own needs. Aren’t we supposed to put others above ourselves? Aren’t we supposed to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice?

The airlines give us a helpful analogy for thinking about this dilemma. “Please make sure your oxygen mask is correctly fitted before assisting others.” This only makes sense. You can’t help many people after you pass out from low oxygen. All you do is cause a burden by requiring other people to assist you. Worse, if you fall into the aisle, you actually get in the way of people trying to make a positive difference. Here are a couple Bible verses that speak to this issue.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8). This verse does not teach us to neglect our own needs. If we love ourselves in a very low level, does this mean we can get away with loving our neighbor at an equally low level?

“Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:4). Again, this verse does not teach us to neglect our own needs. It does warn us to avoid being terminally selfish.

“No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church” (Ephesians 5:29). Think about how much Jesus loves and cares for the Body of Christ, and how much he loves and cares about you and your needs.

Self-neglect is just plain stupid. Why reduce your own ministry effectiveness? Why make yourself a ministry casualty? Why burden others when you eventually burn out?

Striving for balance in life is problematic. We all have busy seasons, emergencies, holidays, and situations where we are called on to work overtime. A better solution is to pay attention to the ebb and flow of our lives. There is a time for putting out and a time for taking in. There is a time for serving others and a time for self-care. Paying attention to the ebb and flow means avoiding the tendency of self-neglect and also avoiding the trap of self-absorption. The life of Jesus gives us a good example.

“Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” Luke 5:15-16.

So what do you need now? What would be a good way to address this need? What positive action could you take today as the first step?

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