Every Thanksgiving, my family puts on our annual football game and invite friends and neighbors to come play. I specifically remember a few years ago, a little guy named Mike was playing. He couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven, so playing with the adults was a bit above his skill level.
Unsurprisingly, he dropped the occasional pass or got tackled after only a few steps, as would be expected from any prepubescent boy playing with the grown-ups. What I noticed about Mike though, is that whenever he would drop the ball or mess up a play, he couldn’t seem to get over it.
He would hit himself in the head and yell, “I’m such an idiot!” as if he had just dropped a baby instead of a football.
Over the course of two hours, Mike continued to beat himself up relentlessly, despite the encouragement from the rest of his teammates. No one else was pointing fingers at him or telling him he did a bad job, in fact quite the opposite. We would encourage his good plays and if he dropped it, shout It’s okay, Mike! Don’t worry about it! Good hustle!
What I realized during that game was by beating himself up and putting himself down, Mike did not become a better football player. His constant self flagellation didn’t make him catch more balls or run faster.
You could say his shame was unproductive. You don’t become a better football player by telling yourself how awful you are at it.
But I saw a lot of myself in Mike. Whenever I screw up, I tend to bash myself in the head and tell myself how awful I am, as if this will make God or my pastor happy.
Don’t worry, God. I screwed up but I can punish myself. (Stupid! Stupid!…)
I realized that when I take it upon myself to make myself feel bad for screwing up, I really am not that productive. I don’t become a better Christian by beating myself up whenever I fall down.
In regards to pornography, Michael Cusick calls this “the shame cycle.” You screw up; you feel bad and beat yourself up; you feel worse; this shame leads you to believe you’re not good enough for a real spouse; you escape the pain with pornography; and the cycle repeats…
When we beat ourselves up for any sin, we are not living out the gospel. The gospel tells us that all of our sin and shame has been taken to Golgotha and pinned to the tree with Jesus. When we try to take some of the punishment for our own sins, we are in essence telling Christ that He is not strong enough to bear all of it Himself. Not only that, but beating ourselves up does nothing to help us quit any sin or addiction.
A few weeks ago, my pastor gave a great message, and toward the climax, he ended with this line. “The key to being a good Christian minister is to learn how to be gentle with yourself.”
I was kind of surprised, as most of my life, I had been told that Christianity is learning to put others before yourself. I think this is true, but we also must recognize that we cannot effectively minister to others if we are not being loving to ourselves.
Jesus said to love one another as we love ourselves. The problem today is, many of us do not love ourselves. By that, I do not mean a sort of egocentric, narcissistic bloated sort of affection for our own reflection. I mean that we genuinely must love ourselves and be gentle to ourselves. I think that when we love ourselves, we cultivate a deep well from which to pull in order to give to others; when our cup is full is when we can pour into other people’s cups.
Shame doesn’t allow for this. Shame convinces us we have nothing to give to others and ironically keeps us very self-centered. People who are full of shame can only think about themselves and how bad they are.
I’ve spent a lot of time telling other people Jesus loves them without believing it to be true of myself.
Today I was washing the dishes and had a related thought. I realized I am very tough on myself when it comes to sin and trying to keep a rigid set of rights and wrongs. Then I realized that because I am this way with myself, I often act this way toward others. Because I cannot give myself grace, I have a hard time showing it to others.
But I think people who can learn to forgive themselves and grow from their mistakes end up being more gracious to others. They become human magnets who draw others to them because grace is a magnet. It reminded me of a passage from one of Henri Nouwen’s books:
We spend countless hours making up our minds about others. But imagine your having no need at all to judge anybody. Imagine having no desire to decide whether someone is a good or bad person. Imagine being completely free from the feeling that you have to make up your mind about the morality of someone’s behavior. Imagine that you could say: “I am judging no one!” Wouldn’t that be true inner freedom? The desert fathers from the fourth century said: “Judging others is a heavy burden.”
When we carry around guilt and shame, I think that’s what we ‘send’ to others. But Jesus said that He takes our burdens and struggles and replaces them with His: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” He tells us. This doesn’t mean our lives are pain-free or that we will never work hard. It simply means that we get to exchange our shame for freedom. We trade Him our guilt for joy. We trade Him our sorrows for lightness, and our sin for grace.
Because when we experience these transactions, we become more gracious and loving people, and that is the whole point of the gospel. To become people who realize we are loved so that we can show that love to others.
May we be people who love ourselves in order to love others. May we forgive ourselves in order to show grace to others. And may we give up the burden of judging ourselves in order to give up the burden of loving others.