“You’re too hard on yourself.”
I’ve heard this so often that after a while I took a strange kind of pride in it. Such perfectionist tendencies must be good, I thought, and surely this is much better than the other extreme.
Unfortunately my obsessive compulsive perfectionism spilled over into my spiritual life, with very bad consequences. Only last year did I start to realize how much pressure I put on myself spiritually; how I scrutinise my “performance” and analyze my track record; how I strive to earn the favor of a Father who already loves me unconditionally. That mindset makes it incredibly hard for me to receive God’s grace when I mess up, and I often wallow in guilt long after I have confessed and asked the Lord for forgiveness.
A recent experience showed me again how I’m quick to hammer myself but slow to accept the grace God gives me so freely. It left me ashamed, but also reminded me how bad it is to beat yourself up–for these three reasons in particular.
1. Beating yourself up displays immense spiritual arrogance.
The writer of Hebrews says that, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:11, 14).
We read this amazing truth, but stubbornly persist with our guilt parties and intensive penance programs–and what are we saying to Jesus?
Whether we say it in so many words or through our actions, our underlying attitude is the same: actually we’re telling him that his sacrifice wasn’t enough.
“Yes, Lord, I know you died on the cross to take away sins once and for all. I know God was pleased with what you did. I know your sacrifice was enough, and your forgiveness covers my sins completely. But I’ll add to what you did. This sin of mine is so huge that I don’t think even your flawless sacrifice is enough to atone for it, so let me contribute to what’s already been done by beating myself up and feeling guilty.”
Who are we to speak to God like that?
2. Beating yourself up steals your focus.
Constantly agonizing over your sins and shortcomings is not as pious a mindset as you might like to think. You are actually just focusing on yourself.
Your past. Your failures. Your guilty conscience.
It’s hard to notice those around you if you keep gazing inward. The people in your life might be exhausted, hurting, or just running on empty. But how will you know if you keep focusing on yourself, keep replaying all those things you’ve done and wish you could undo? How can you be God’s hands and feet if you can’t get over yourself?
Take your eyes off your dirty laundry. Turn them outward to those around you, and upward to God. Think of the sacrifice of Jesus–the wonderful, perfect, unbelievable sacrifice that has given you, “confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.” (Hebrews 10:19).
Don’t let your past keep you from glorifying God and reaching out to those around you today.
3. Beating yourself up breaks the Father’s heart.
Part of me always thought God is pleased when we feel (moderately) guilty, because it shows we are truly sorry and have really repented. I figured it was easier for Him to forgive us if we showed Him how bad we felt over what we had done.
But recently I had a very profound experience of the grief we cause God when we refuse to forgive ourselves and move on.
A few months ago, guilt over something I did years back came to plague me with a vengeance. I shared it with my mom, but instead of feeling free afterwards, I felt bruised. Beat up. Like a gladiator bleeding in the arena. God’s grace was huge, but the battle with my conscience left me battered on the ground.
I had this incredibly vivid picture of God looking at me with tears in his eyes. There was such sadness in his voice as he spoke.
“Please can we never have this ever again? Can you please never carry something around for so long and beat yourself up so badly over it? My sacrifice on the cross was enough. Can you live like you believe it?”
Can you imagine the pain we cause our Father? He has done everything possible to show us his indescribable, endless love. And here we drive ourselves with a whip of guilt and shame, inflicting wounds that scar our hearts for years.
So to my fellow perfectionists who are your own worst critics–there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your best and improve yourself. But don’t take a perverse pride in your perfectionism and let it become an idol.
The Father has forgiven you. Completely and utterly. Set aside your pride, your stubborn insistence that you must always work to deserve something that is given to you. The very definition of grace, beloved, is that it is undeserved.
Don’t manacle yourself to guilt and shame for years like I did. It is prideful and arrogant; it takes your eyes off those around you, and off your Savior. Worst of all, it breaks the heart of your heavenly Father.
It is so not worth it. Let us rather “come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water.” (Hebrews 10:22).
Remember what Jesus said on the cross.
“It is finished.”