You think you’re going to have a good day don’t you? You’re determined to not get angry like you did yesterday, to not fall into that habit of sin that you often struggle with, or to not waste time like you have been recently. These things are all great to desire, but what do you think of yourself when you fail? More importantly, what do you think God thinks of you when you fail? Are your judgments and expectations of yourself stricter than God’s? What do you think God says to someone who’s struggling with anger, doubt, fear, shame, and guilt as they desire to get out of a sinful habit? Maybe these messages are sadly familiar because you imagine God speaking them to you…
“You again? I can’t stand you, clean yourself up, quit being an idiot, why do you fail so often?”
Our intention is to grow and cultivate change when we tell ourselves this stuff. The problem is, these messages don’t motivate growth, but death. They have the exact opposite affect that we intend for them to. Here’s the deal; God is not surprised by our failure, and more importantly, his love for us doesn’t change at all when we fail! If God truly doesn’t say those things to us, what right do we have to say them to ourselves? Are we a more accurate judge of ourselves than God?
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, “It is of little importance to me that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I don’t even judge myself… It is the Lord who judges me.” Our high expectations of ourselves never help us in our sanctification because they turn into judgements when we fail. We tell ourselves “I better do better today”, then we don’t, then we beat ourselves up, then we run to our sins for comfort, say sorry, and go to bed discouraged, wondering what kind of willpower it will take for transformation to happen tomorrow. This cycle does not build us up in the gospel. It’s closer to resembling the toilet flush that the law perpetually keeps us in when we try to justify ourselves by it. The law only has power to condemn, not to transform (Gal 3). What’s worse, our expectations and judgements of ourselves are not even God’s law, but ours!
Something risky for me to think about as an acclaimed self-critic is the phrase “self-empathy”. Now I know that sounds revolting to some people, I’m actually revolted as I type right now. Why? Well, we have to be hard on ourselves, we need to have our eyes wide open to our own mess and micromanage it, sanctification only happens when we’re beating ourselves up a lot right?
Actually no. We can love others only insofar as we have received God’s love for us. “We love because he first loved us” 1 John says. We can only love if we’ve received God’s love for us. His version of our story in Christ is the true one, not the one that we make up to “make ourselves better”. Consider this from Puritan pastor Richard Baxter…
Sorrow is overmuch when it hurts and overwhelms nature itself, and destroys bodily health or understanding. Personal self-government is for edification, not destruction. God will have mercy, and not sacrifice; and he that would not have us kill or hurt our neighbor on pretense of religion, would not have us destroy or hurt ourselves; being bound to love our neighbors as ourselves…sorrow for sin is too much when it does more hurt than good.
If we don’t see ourselves as God sees us then we’re just blind.
Not only do burdensome expectations and judgements of ourselves debilitate our relationship with God, they also keep us from connecting with others. This is because we write the rules no one else knows about. We justify ourselves when we perform well and hypocritically judge others when they fail us. If they outperform us we get insecure.
Since this false standard comes from within our own hearts, the old adage “you spot it you got it” rings true. In other words, when we judge others for something, we are blind to the fact that we often have the same problem. Here’s an example. I have often been insecure when I have people over because I never think I have enough to offer. I’m over-apologetic, point out the problems in my house, etc. I do that only because I imagine that they’re internally doing it to me, NOT because they’re really doing it! Why do I imagine that? Because I sometimes judge people when I visit them! I’m the jerk, not them! I judge that people are judging me because I project my judgmental nature on others, then I judge myself, get insecure, and then try to escape by judging others to make myself feel better. Does that make sense? Of course not. We must take out the proverbial log in our eye before we attempt to remove the speck in another (Mat 7). The cost to not doing this work is isolation and disconnection from meaningful relationships.
What’s the solution? We must be anchored in the unconditional love of God, and not seek validation, security, or power anywhere else. Looking outside of God’s love for these things will always be our downfall. Let go of demands to change situations, people, or even yourself (“demands” is the key word here). Take what’s in front of you, knowing that the sovereign God has placed it there for your healing and for your good. Although it’s terrifying, walk with the open hand of faith, knowing that God will provide all you need. When you fail, remember that Jesus died for your failure, and the failure of others. May we never attempt to qualify God’s verdict of “righteous-in-Christ” with our expectations and judgements of ourselves and others.