As we understand our failures and the mindset we have when things don’t go the way we expected or hoped for, there is also the issue of how my personal faith in God impacts my failings. How do I look at my failures with the eyes of faith?
As a disciple of Christ, who has personally struggled with negative thoughts and feelings (see video here), this is something I have been personally very interested in.
In the mid 1990s, I was introduced to teaching on cassette tape (remember those?) by Tim Keller that very helpfully articulated how to bring these negative thoughts and feelings to God. What I began to learn was that the default mode of my heart is towards religion rather than a dynamic living relationship with God. This is not something that I can ever in this life be completely cured of, but the exciting truth is that I can and am gradually changing. Part of me wants to go God’s way and another part of me wants to avoid Him (see post How to Avoid God). Here is how Keller practically explains our self-talk. Although this is only a synopsis, the outworking will take a lifetime as we strive towards spiritual maturity:
1. On what basis does God accept me?
With a religious perspective, my mindset tends to be ‘I obey God and therefore He accepts me.‘ This is very much the perspective that comes naturally and is the basis of all religions (even often what gets called Christian). However, the essence of the Biblical Gospel is that because of Christ’s death on the cross ‘I’m accepted and therefore I obey.’ An apparently subtle difference with far reaching implications. My self-worth is not now based on my performance. Otherwise when I am doing well I can end up having a too high view of myself and when I am doing badly I can slip into despondency and despair. This new paradigm changes everything.
2. What is my motivation?
With my religious mindset my motivation is based on fear and insecurity. In other words, I better be good or I will get into trouble. As I understand the Gospel, then my motivation is based on grateful joy for all that God has done for me in Christ. He has shown how much He loves me by dying for me and the only appropriate response to that is grateful obedience.
3. Why do I obey God?
The natural tendency in obeying God is to try to get good things from God. With the Gospel I obey God to get God – He is the One I delight in and want to become like. Of course I still want good things from God, but I begin to understand that He knows what is right for me much better than I do. I trust that He truly has my best interests at heart and that the best is always with Him and not without Him.
4. When things go wrong in my life how do I react?
When things in my life do not go the way I want, it is so easy to get angry with God or myself (which can lead to depressive and negative thinking). The reason is that deep in my heart I want to think that by being good I then deserve a comfortable life. In contrast the Gospel teaches that when circumstances in my life go wrong, I can still struggle. Jesus’ own life was one of perfect service and obedience and He had a far from comfortable life. I know that while God may allow frustrations and disappointment into my life for my training, He will still manifest His fatherly love to me. Therefore, I do not need to fret or worry. I can still rest and relax in His love.
5. How do I handle criticism?
My temptation when people criticise me is to either feel devastated or extremely annoyed and upset. The reason? Because when I think with a religious mindset then it becomes essential for me to think of myself as ‘good’. I do not have the emotional strength to look at my own weaknesses or failings. However with the Gospel guiding my heart, I can still struggle with criticism, but I find the resources to look more objectively at myself. I don’t have to see myself as ‘good’ and my identity is not based on my performance, but on God’s love for me in Christ. (See also Wisdom, Emotional Intelligence and an Appropriate Godly Fear).
6. What does my prayer life largely consist of?
With a religious mindset then my prayers are mainly about getting the things I feel I need.When life gets tough then my prayer life becomes more fervent and my main purpose in prayer is to control circumstances to get what I want. As the Gospel controls my heart my prayer life becomes more and more about praising and adoring Him. I want to know Him more and more.
7. How do I view myself?
Naturally my self-view tends to swing between two extremes. When I am doing well and living up to my own standards then I feel good and confident. However, that also means I am prone to being proud and unsympathetic to those who are not doing as well as me. Also when I don’t live up to my own standards then I lose my confidence and can feel like a failure. With the Gospel controlling my heart, my self-view is not based on a view of myself as a moral achiever. In Christ I am at once sinful and lost, yet accepted. The Gospel teaches that I am so bad He had to die for me, and so loved He was glad to die for me. This leads to a paradoxical deeper humility as well as deeper confidence without either grovelling or gloating.
8. What are my identity and self-worth based on?
A religious outlook causes me to base my identity and self-worth mainly on how hard I work or how moral I am. That means I must look down on those I consider lazy or immoral. The temptation is to disdain and feel superior to others. In contrast the Gospel teaches me my identity and self-worth are based on the One who died for His enemies, and that includes me. Only by sheer grace am I what I am. That means I can’t look down on those who believe different from me. I have no need to win arguments and can freely listen to other points of view.
9. What do I need to be happy?
The religious default of my heart causes me to look to my reputation or my performance to feel acceptable. Keller explains how this causes us to manufacture idols such as our talents, moral record, personal discipline or social status. I absolutely have to have them as they are my main hope, meaning, happiness, security and significance – whatever I say I believe about God. With the Gospel I see I have many good things in my life, such as health, career and family. However, none of these good things are ultimate things to me. I realise I don’t absolutely have to have them, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness and despair they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost.
I appreciate that is lot to take in! This requires almost a moment-by-moment degree of self-awareness.
(To understand more about what the cross of Christ means see the posts A Day that Changed the World and 4 Personal Implications of the Resurrection. For more on idolatry see the posts Do You Work to Live or Live to Work? and Third Culture Kids and the Search for Home Part 2.)
Please feel free to share your thoughts and reflections on this.