Q: I sometimes get so down on myself. Even though I want to do good, I keep messing up. The problem is: I know that it is my own fault, so I feel bad about asking God for help.
A: I am really glad that you asked about this. The primary reason is because we can often be worse accusers of ourselves than anyone else. I remember hearing someone once ask, “If you heard a person talk to their friend the way you talk to yourself, would you think that they liked each other?” That notion struck me. We can use language on ourselves that we would never utter to another person. Some people make “beating themselves up” their constant past time. The negative way they speak to themselves is like the ticker that is constantly running across the bottom of the screen on a 24-hour news station; it never stops.
It’s funny. It would be one thing if beating ourselves up actually worked. In that case, it might be a viable option to utilize sometimes. But when was the last time you grew after a self-inflicted beating? More often than not, our self-inflicted pain comes to nothing more than making us feel weaker and more inclined to mess up again than it does give us strength and confidence to do it right the next time.
So why do we do it? In a strange way, I believe that we think we are beating someone else to the punch. If I can punish myself, then no one else will. We think that we are sparing ourselves more pain if we are actively punishing ourselves. And the demon of perfectionism reigns when the God of the Bible is forgotten.
…the demon of perfectionism reigns when the God of the Bible is forgotten.
There is a scene in the Gospel of Mark that highlights this whole situation. The scene begins with the fact that the disciples are in a boat, they are hungry, and they forgot to bring bread. At first, Jesus tells them to guard against the “leaven of the Pharisees”. The disciples think that this is because they forgot to bring bread; they think that Jesus is scolding them.
Let’s press pause on this. Have you ever been in a situation of your own making? A bad situation when it was pretty much entirely your wrongdoing? Like the apostles, you are stuck, you don’t have what you need, and it is your own fault? I mean, looking at the text, it says that “they forgot to bring bread”. This doesn’t mean that they hadn’t thought to bring bread, or that they could have brought bread but didn’t…it means that they were supposed to have brought bread, but they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. They had done something wrong. They are in a bad situation and it is their own fault. It is possible that Jesus had even told them, “Hey, we are going to be out on the water for a while…make sure you remember to bring the bread”. And now here they are in a situation of their own making. It is their own fault. We would say: they screwed up.
How does Jesus treat them? We will get to that, but first we can ask: how are they treating themselves? We have less certainty, but we might have some idea. Jesus warns them against the leaven of the Pharisees. What could that mean? I want to admit that there are a number of possible meanings here. But Jesus might have been pointing to how the Pharisees saw the Law and perfection; how they viewed mistakes and sins.
The Pharisees believed that the long-awaited Messiah would come when the whole Jewish people followed the Law to the letter. Now, clearly, Jesus is not “anti-law”. In other texts, Jesus makes the point of saying that he had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. And he even ups the ante by giving an even stricter perspective on good and evil in the Sermon on the Mount. But the Pharisees seem to have had a certain “quickness to condemn”. Could it be that Jesus noted this severity planting seeds among the apostles? As they were possibly accusing themselves (or each other) of screwing up, Jesus steps in with this cautionary phrase: do not allow those seeds of perfectionism to find root in your hearts!
God is the one who makes us holy. We do not make ourselves holy
Jesus goes on to remind the apostles of two times before when he fed thousands upon thousands of people with very little to start with (and an abundance left over!). What is he up to?
Could it be that Jesus knows our hearts far better than we know our hearts? (Yes.) And could it be that Jesus loves us far better than we love ourselves? (Yes.) And could it be that Jesus wants us to look to him rather than to ourselves when we find ourselves messing up? (I think so, yes!)
Essentially, I believe that Jesus is saying (in response to the Apostles’ self-accusation and self-condemnation), “Do not allow perfectionism regarding yourself to obscure the fact that you can trust me.” Jesus points out that, when they had no food, he gave them food. When they had so little, he gave them more than enough. He is reminding them that they can trust him!
I’m going to drop a little knowledge on you right now: God is the one who makes us holy. We do not make ourselves holy. Our prayer doesn’t make us holy. Our good works do not make us holy. Our “perfection” does not make us holy. God is the one who makes us holy. Now, all of those things (prayer, work, striving) open us up to God’s grace and all of those things are our way of cooperating with God’s work…but he is the one who makes us holy.
God cannot make us holy when we are too busy condemning ourselves and staring at ourselves to look at him and receive his love. The next time you find yourself getting down on yourself because you have messed up again, rather than cuss yourself out and hide your face from God by staring at your imperfections, mistakes, and sins…turn to the face of the Father and trust that he knows how to deal with it.
God loves you. Let him love you even when you realize that you don’t deserve it.