“Wellness” is the big trend these days.
And if you don’t know what wellness is, I can show you with a simple equation: it’s New Age thought + capitalism + our culture’s soul-deep hunger for wholeness and satisfaction. It’s crystals and vitamin supplements and practices like “grounding” (walking barefoot!) and monitoring your aura. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop brand, specializing in pseudo-scientific (read: quack) cures for all sorts of ailments imagined and unimagined. It’s longevity diets and strange ingredients and promises of contentment, well-being, personal growth, and deep spiritual satisfaction.
If any of that sounds familiar to you from decades ago…well, it’s the old made new again. “Wellness” is a modern re-purposing of practices and ideologies that have been around for a very long time, many of which have permeated even Christian culture in surprising ways. (For a history of this with an emphasis on how it influences Christianity, check out L.L. Martin’s book Positively Powerless). The difference between then and now is that wellness has become more of an economic juggernaut than ever before: hundreds of “gurus” and “thought leaders” are offering products and philosophies and making an obscene amount of money doing it.
The problem is that lately I’ve found Christianity and the wellness movement intersecting in ways I don’t expect. I ran across an article the other day that was advocating daily Bible study as a “path to self-fullness and embracing one’s healing energy.” And in my browsing through Pinterest recently I discovered a Pin that encouraged believers to read the Bible as a series of “affirmations meant to celebrate the divine self.” I’ve glimpsed prayer rooms (“war rooms”) decked out like spa retreats (and, indeed, I’ve written about those before) and meant to provide a “shelter” from the harrowing day-to-day. Art and coloring Bibles encourage believers to express themselves in marker, pencil, and crayon all over the Word with pictures and words that occasionally obscure the actual text: the Bible as therapeutic coloring book.
Now, certainly not all of these things are negative in specific contexts. I like to pray in pretty rooms full of my favorite things. And I’ve written in my Bible before and I’ve even seen examples of Bible “doodling”/coloring helping people to understand and emphasize the text. But in other contexts, these practices can at times resemble what you see in the wellness movement, and here is why:
The “wellness” movement places a fundamental emphasis on self and the fulfillment of the self through “holistic” and “spiritual” means.
In other words, wellness is about you. Everything that happens is to benefit you. Every practice, every crystal, every coloring book, every affirmation, every supplement: they all exist because you are special and sacred and you deserve everything wonderful. You are your own god/goddess. The result is that at least theoretically, in the wellness movement, everything is a means to an end: the betterment and deification of you.
Any time we take a Christian spiritual practice and make it solely about our own benefit – any time we use a Christian practice to deify ourselves as sacred and holy – we’ve dipped into the wellness pool. More simply put: any time we use God as a means to our own end, any time we make God a “tool” that serves the same purpose as a crystal or a supplement or a coloring book – we’ve lost the plot.
Because Christianity is not about self. It is actually a faith about setting yourself aside in order to love others because you’ve come to understand the love of Christ. As Christians we believe that Jesus is special and sacred and the embodiment of love, and so we set ourselves aside to serve Him. In Christianity, everything we do is a means to an end, and that end is Christ – not the self. Yes, we are the ultimate beneficiaries of a relationship with God – and, in the end, our relationship with Him is what offers the fulfillment, joy, and replenishment that the wellness movement purports to offer. But our satisfaction, our desires, and the glorification of our selves is not the end goal. It is not the highest good nor the inviolable sacred. It can’t be, or God isn’t God.
So if coloring on a page of the Bible is getting you closer to God, you color. If that spa-bedecked prayer room is where your relationship is growing and evolving with Christ, get on in there. Meditations and affirmations from the Bible can be really useful if they keep you focused on living in Christ. But if you’re using Christianity in the same way that you’d use yoga or herbal tea or reading your aura – if you are making it a means to the end of glorifying and fulfilling yourself – then you’re changing the fundamental nature of what the Gospel is about.
In his books, Timothy Keller frequently reminds readers that a great deal of sin and separation from God stems from our desire to control God – to make God something that is ours, that we use, that we control in order to please ourselves. The problem, Keller points out, is that a relationship with God is antithetical to that way of thinking: the triune and dynamic God has invited believers to join into His great dance of love on His terms. He is not there to submit to us; we are there to submit to Him. The danger of the wellness movement is that it can encourage us, if we are not careful, to do exactly the opposite: to embrace God not as a deity, but as a neat and helpful technique to make our lives better. To deify ourselves rather than Christ.
So feel free to go have some herbal tea or spend some time in your candle-lit “quiet space.” I might even join you. But in the process, don’t get suckered into the great lie of the wellness movement: that with enough time and energy (and boatloads of money), you can save yourself.
Christianity is not a wellness practice. It was never meant to be.