From providing self-care to receiving soul care

January 25th, 2022

When did I last eat? Is there even any food in the fridge? Do I have any clean clothes? Have I laughed recently? When did I last enjoy a hobby? Should I actually have said “No” to that request? Why didn’t I say “Yes” to that bit of fun?

These are questions that caregivers are forced to ask—perhaps of themselves or by a trusted friend—when a healthy rhythm of life is lost in the rigor of caregiving. Like all caregivers, pastors can ignore their own condition. They really do forget when they last ate (or ignore that it was not that long ago). They really do lose track of their emotional condition. (Am I feeling sad? Am I feeling worn out? Do I even know what I am feeling?) Slightly complex habits necessary for personal upkeep (laundry, meal preparation, etc.) can be abandoned (or left completely to another friend or family member).

In response to the stresses and challenges of care-giving, there has been an emphasis on self-care. Caregivers are (rightly) reminded of their own limits, needs, and desires; of their own value, worth, and significance; of responsibilities to themselves and other personal relationships. The analogy of the airplane passenger putting on their own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers comes to mind. 

But even if the spirit of self-care is healthy, the language is more indebted to the therapeutic emphasis of the twentieth century than to the theology of the first century (or, as we will see below, the fourth). Ironically, self-care—when wrongly but not unreasonably considered—might even perpetuate the problem: the overwhelmed, off-balance caregiving person might consider self-care as just one more thing to do! 

That’s where I consistently found myself (and can still find myself) when trying to practice self-care. But a bishop from the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) changed my mind—and, while my practices might not be that different, my attitude certainly is.

As a response to the strains of COVID, religious leadership, and higher education, my employer provided employees sessions with a Christian counselor. During the same season, I also sought out the guidance of a spiritual director. During these sessions, I started to see God’s grace for me personally. While I had been reading and reflecting upon Augustine’s Confessions for the previous two years as part of my work, I began to see how God had actually been providing a pastor for me, even if he lived over 1500 years ago. I saw God’s care for me through the riches and depth of Augustine’s Confessions, and I began to shift from using the language of self-care to the language of soul-care. While I am not arguing against self-care, I started to understand the care that I need—and that all of us need—differently.

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1. Shifting from self-care to soul-care changed my perspective.

Rather than focusing strictly on the moment, soul-care allowed me to consider my whole self—including not only my body, my relationships, my work but also my whole self over time. For Augustine, time is difficult to describe. He knows what time is until he tries to explain it! (XI.17; note: unless otherwise noted, the reference most clearly connects to Maria Boulding’s translation and matches her larger numbering of chapter and section). We can think of time as the soul’s extension—the whole self through its existence. For Augustine, the past and the future do not exist; there is only the present and we relate to each timeframe differently: we remember the past; we attend to the present; we anticipate the future (XI.26). But this doesn’t mean we should only live for the moment! Instead, we recognize that we can only live in the moment. 

Historian Garry Wills (1999) says that Augustine’s Confessions is a review of his own life and experiences “drenched in God’s grace” (p. xx). Shifting from self-care to soul-care let me know that I, too, could drench my memories in God’s grace! How beautiful to know that there has never been a point in life when God has not been active—and then to receive that grace and treat myself graciously, as a result! How comforting to recall memories without fear and as testimonies to God’s grace (II.15)! 

Here’s an example. A decision that I made 10 years ago would frequently rise in my memory and grind me down. There was guilt, dismay, regret. Drenched in God’s grace, I could revisit the memory, not in condemnation but with fresh perspective. The result was seeking and experiencing God’s healing. Soul-care with my past drenched in God’s grace meant allowing myself to ask, “What does 40-year-old Aaron know that 30-year-old Aaron didn’t? That 30-year-old Aaron couldn’t?” I was experiencing soul-care by a gracious and loving God and applying that same grace to myself. 

2. Shifting from self-care to soul-care changed my posture.

The very language of self-care is, well, about the self. The implication is that the self needs to care for the self.This is hardly a position that our ancestors in the faith in the ancient world could have understood. Yet, Augustine is sometimes said to have invented the autobiography. Certainly, there is a measure of self-reflection in Confessions that is beyond any of his predecessors. He writes, “People go where they can marvel at mountain heights and massive waves of the sea, and immensely wide waterfalls, and the ocean that encircles the continents, and the orbits of the heavenly bodies—but these same people leave themselves behind” [Ruden, 2017, p. 290 (X.15)].

But Augustine’s inward turn is not an isolating turn. While he is moving out of the pre-modern world, he is not truly a modern. The very first words of Confessions reveal that we are not overhearing a private conversation but are being called into a prayer. Augustine confesses for all of us when he says that our heart is restless until it finds rest in God (I.1). For Augustine, coming to rest is what an object naturally does. Objects move until they come to their points of rest by nature of what they are. Outside of God, human beings are restless, unquiet, antsy, frenetic and fretting. And, just like Augustine, without God each of us is a “guide to [our] own downfall” (IV.1). But with God’s love, our weight, our love, is carried upward, carried forward, and glows aflame (XIII.10). 

Self-care had become, for me, a kind of competition, a zero-sum game, a battle for attention and affection. I was just another combatant, and I was losing the battle. If I was going to care for myself, it would be by defeating an enemy. How strange when the people I was so willing to care for on one day became my enemy the very next! But the shift to soul-care changed my posture. Instead of care being something I provided myself, it became something I received from God. Soul-care was something I couldn’t provide for myself. If I tried, I might just be leading myself astray. Instead, I received soul-care from the One who gives meaning to my life and guides me truly.

“Come to me all who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you more work” is not what Jesus said. He did not even offer more personal responsibility. He offered rest. Soul-care is receiving care and wisdom and affection from our Lord. 

3. Finally, shifting from self-care to soul-care changed the purpose of care. 

Augustine concludes Confessions with a reflection on Genesis. He says that souls—whole persons—who search after God are in need of refreshment. But this isn’t refreshment disconnected from work. Augustine seeks the refreshing springs of God so that, just like the earth, the soul may produce fruit according to its kind: including mercy, compassion, love (XIII.21). Self-care allowed me to make work the enemy of rest and rest the enemy of work. But work and rest aren’t enemies who need reconciling; they are friends who live at peace! Work and rest are both part of the world’s rhythm given by its wise Creator because they reflect God’s glory

Life always involves a “flow,” a river-like current. We can pursue things like arrogance and conceit and deceit, and before long we are caught up in these things. And when we are caught up in these currents, we become slaves—slaves of those even more enslaved to the flow. (For only the one who is more enslaved can actually enslave another.) But Augustine urges the soul not to be caught up in these currents: "The soul lives by leaving alone the things it dies pursuing" (XIII.30).

To leave these things is to enter a different flow. This could be a flow of humility, generosity, and truth. Another flow is that of work and rest. This is the way of Jesus. Not just the way he calls others to live, but the way Jesus actually lived. In humility, the Son took on flesh; in generosity, he offered his life; for truth, he entrusted himself to the Father who vindicated his humble and generous life. He worked while it was day; he now invites us into his Sabbath rest. Is it work to live humbly, generously, and truthfully? Yes. But it is not toil. It is work made possible by the rest given through Christ. 

Soul-care is not simply about managing work or energy or emotional health. Soul-care involves both resting from work and refreshment for work and working. We rest and work at separate times because we cannot do both at the same time. But Augustine says there is One who is ever working and ever resting (XIII.52). The purpose of soul-care is about coming to know God. If I am only ever working, then I do not know God who is ever resting. If I am only ever resting, I do not know God who is ever working. 

If self-care presents a challenge to you—a wrong focus, a false competition, a misguided aim—then perhaps these shifts to soul-care may direct your attention, even in this moment, back to the One in whom we find meaningful work and enduring rest.



Boulding, Maria, translator. The Confessions. By Augustine, New City Press, 1997.

Ruden, Sarah, translator. Confessions. By Augustine, Modern Library, 2017. 

Wills, Garry. Saint Augustine: A Life. Penguin, 2005.

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