What I’m about to launch into is a raw look into how people regard themselves. Deep down, we see ourselves through a lens shaped by our pasts, people in our lives, and our culture. The goal is to change that lens out for the one Jesus provides, and that process can look unique to everyone. Essentially, a way to start is to simply ask, “How do I see myself?” and in that honesty, truths about what you really believe about God begin to emerge. I’ve asked myself this, and some really gnarly things started to crawl out of my heart. But I’m glad they’re getting out of there to make some room for all God has or me.
Self-criticism can take a lot of forms for me. Sometimes it disguises itself as humility- I comfort myself that at least I’m not one of those people who can’t even see their weaknesses. I see my weakness, I call them by their names. But occasionally I fall in love with my weaknesses and try to romance them into doing whatever I want them to be. I lust for self-actualization and pride myself in realism. I end up identifying myself as my weaknesses, then I criticize myself. This form of self-criticism is raw, it’s nasty, it makes me feel disgusting, because it tells me I’m not the Christian I should be. Then there is a self-criticism that is like a constant wave- a daily, subliminal beating like the ocean against a rocky shore- grinding my stoney resilience down to a smooth nothing.
On a constant daily basis, my thoughts revolve around the idea that I am really not well-liked. People must be forcing themselves to interact with me, they must be anticipating the moment they get to break away from me and go talk to the people they really like. I’m not one of those smiley ladies who giggle and laugh at every hello. I occasionally suffer from RBF (if you don’t happen to know what that is, Urban Dictionary is a great resource). I don’t always smile when people talk to me, or I don’t feel like I know when is the right time to laugh or comment in a conversation. My tone can be negative, my comments can be random or awkward, and I don’t talk ”cool”.
From noticing all this in myself and having a deep desire to change, I usually just end up despising myself on the inside. “Why am I not likable?” “Why aren’t I one of those spiritual, kind, cool people?” “Why does my face always look like that?” “Why was I so awkward?” “Why can’t I just be happy?” This becomes a cyclical narrative in my heart. So I put my efforts to becoming likable, acting more “spiritual”, teaching myself how to be kind, being more aware of the messages my expressions are sending, and acting like I’m happy. But this will never be enough.
We can live in a very emotionally intense culture that tells us to work on ourselves, to fix our own problems, to pull ourselves up by our emotional bootstraps. We live in an “empowerment” culture that preaches that you, and only you, can do the things that will make you successful, happy, or even emotionally stable. There are myriads of podcasts, books, Ted Talks, and Instagram accounts to instruct and inspire us how to live our best lives. This same culture will shame you when your own decision-making pushes you to interfere with anyone else’s self-actualization or step beyond the bounds of what is acceptable, but ultimately, “You do you, boo!”
Where is the line drawn between self-responsibility and self-criticism? We are to take responsibility for ourselves and what we do- only us, as individuals, can control our decisions and there is incredible power over what we tell ourselves and how we treat ourselves. On the flip-side, when the weight of criticism is damaging to the ability to participate fully and meaningfully in the life around us, this self-awareness and examination is not actually enhancing our lives at all. Luckily Jesus gives us the perfect third option to crushing self-responsibility and self-criticism:
“Loving me empowers you to obey my commands. And I will ask the Father and he will give you… the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be to you a friend just like me—and he will never leave you. The world won’t receive him because they can’t see him or know him. But you know him intimately because he remains with you and will live inside you.”John 14, 15-17 TPT
Here’s the new formula that Jesus lays out: Loving God + Holy Spirit Help = Doing what’s Right. To those who have grown up hearing about “loving God” and choosing the right moral path, this is a big DUH. But let’s look at the formula life and culture lays out for us:
Loving Self + Doing what’s Right = Good Life.
How culture sets this up is if you are self-actualized (Maslow’s top hierarchy of needs), and you just be a good person, your life will end up being good because you’re doing good. Which in contrast, sets up an equal opposite: if you never fully realize your own self, and you aren’t a good person (the definition of a “good person” is very arguable), your life will end up being not good because you’re not doing good.
Taking the semantics out of this, culture’s formula for life ends up contradicting itself in not-good people leading seemingly “good” lives. We get stuck in a pursuit of self-actualization (and being acutely aware of all our flaws) and teaching ourselves to do “good” things so we can lead a life full of the goodness we want. So all the pressure lies on the individual if their life is good or not. If your life isn’t good- you must be doing something wrong, right? Then we criticize ourselves for not being good enough, and on and on it goes.
So here is where I address all the people like me. If you are dominant, if you don’t feel likable, if you feel abrasive to those around you, if you don’t feel accepted, if you just feel like something must be wrong with you: Jesus is here to rewrite how we judge what is good and acceptable. The pursuit of self-criticism leads to false truths about yourself and inherent loneliness. But the pursuit of Jesus leads to life-giving truth and the instant knowledge that you are not by yourself in this.
As simple as it is, if we just love Jesus, he will give us what it takes to do the good he has called us to. He won’t be waiting up in heaven for us to complete a divine list of good tasks, he bends down to give us a daily friend to stick with us and tell us when to turn right and left in this path to goodness. The Holy Spirit won’t just up and leave us if we are on an absolute spree of wrongdoing. I know I’ve struggled with this truth when church culture emphasizes leaders who “have the Holy Spirit in them” because they get a congregation riled up about God emotionally. But let’s get this straight: the Holy Spirit is still in you even when people aren’t having an emotional response to your speaking, your worship, or your actions. The Holy Spirit is still in you even when you are not acting like a “good” or “spiritual” person.
We can have a gloriously intimate and healthy relationship with Jesus in the middle of our inclination to wrongdoing. Does this mean that Jesus enables us to keep living in the wrong? No- because by Jesus’ nature, an incredible phenomenon starts to occur. The more time we spend with him, the less we desire to do wrong. While we still may commit wrongs, our trajectory is no longer placed in our wrongdoing, but in Jesus’ righteousness. In non-church-talk, even when we keep doing all the things we criticize ourselves for, those things are not the end of the story. Our focus no longer needs to be in self-criticism, but just in getting our selves next to Jesus where his right-ness and his goodness can seep into us.
For me, this means that I will embark on a life-long re-wiring of the way that my mind reaches “Doing what’s Right”. Day by day, the cyclical thoughts obsessing in criticism towards myself can be re-routed to start thinking about Jesus. Little by little, my rage, my negativity, my lack of confidence, my awkwardness, my lack of warmth will be replaced by Jesus’ peace, positivity, confidence, kindness, and light. When in moments I doubt if this will ever happen, I can cling to the knowledge that it already is- I can be sure that Jesus has already been working the relinquish me of the crushing weight of my own self. He’s slowly replacing me with every good part of himself.