By Will McNeese, LPC, LMFTA
In my life, I find myself vacillating between two extreme modes of operating. One is to relentlessly beat myself up over my mistakes and failures. I am quite skilled at this. All manner of mistakes feeds this mode of operating equally. I will feel the same amount of degradation for “little” sins as I do for “big” sins. I languish over the classically “Christian” sins—like not reading my Bible or avoiding the homeless people—to the same degree as relapsing from sobriety or despising my wife and child.
The other extreme mode of operating gets triggered when I become fed up with beating myself up. At this point, I throw my hands in the air and say a colorful version of “I don’t give a flip!” I then indulge in what I have been fighting against for so long and attempt to numb myself to feeling any form of guilt.
For years, I believed that the first extreme is the way we should live as Christians. However, as I have had more encounters with Jesus, I have become increasingly disillusioned by the effectiveness of either extreme. Neither brings me peace with God, others, or myself. When I beat myself up, the predominant emotion I live with is shame. My shame sends me the message that I am fundamentally flawed—even more so than my fellow humans—and that I am completely unlovable by God. I am unsure of what the appropriate response to shame is; however, I know that the typical response is to hide. This is clearly illustrated by Adam and Eve. When they saw that they were naked, they felt shame and hid from God. Shame drives me away from God, away from community, and into isolation. This isolation is paralyzing and debilitating.
Beating myself up is also very self-focused. My attention is completely absorbed by my own evaluation of my performance. I withhold affection from myself unless I feel like I have performed well enough to deserve it. This mode of operating tends to fixate on some truths and neglect or ignore other truths. Perhaps the most dangerous flaw in this operating mode is how often it leads to self-deception, denial, and delusional thinking. At our core, we want to avoid feeling shame and we will go to great lengths to accomplish this. I hide my shame by “paying for my sins” through good deeds or acts of penance.
The flaws in the “not giving a flip” mode of operating are more self-evident. Living without care for our actions or consequences is self-destructive. We were created to live healthy and pure lives. The moral structure God has given us reflects what is good and healthy. When we abandon this, we embrace and invite further suffering. In my life, this mode of operating becomes triggered as a response to feeling bad all the time. In this way it can be a self-protective response, similar to an abused child fighting back against his abusers. As I have gotten to know this part of me, as destructive and misguided as it is, I have some compassion for what it is trying to achieve—stopping the pain.
These two extreme modes of operating, which may appear to be polar opposites have many similarities. I have used both modes of operating to help me avoid the painful truth that I am truly broken. Like Adam and Eve, I sew fig leaves to hide my naked shame. Sometimes these fig leaves look like holding on to the hope that if I shame myself enough, I will stop behaving badly. Other times, these fig leaves take the form of denial and emotional numbing. Both modes of operating keep me from Jesus.
The truth is that Jesus operates out of neither extreme. He neither pretends that we have no flaws, nor does he beat us up about our mistakes. One of the most poignant illustrations of this is in his parable of the two sons. The father in this story allows his youngest son to take his share of the inheritance and spend it on prostitutes, drinking, and gambling. When the son realizes that he is hungry, he returns home. But his father, seeing him from a long way off turns towards his unrepentant son and lavishes him with love.
It is this kind of love that changes hearts—love that is truly not deserved. Jesus loved me first. He turned towards me when I was sitting in my unrepentant shame and he loved me. As painful and uncomfortable as this is, it is my only hope. My most tangible experience of this truth has come from being honest with fellow believers who have a firm grasp of how radically they are loved by Jesus. Being exposed and loved in their presence has opened my ears to hear my savior say, “Son thy sins are all forgiven.” If only I would treat myself, and my friends, as Jesus has treated me.
Will McNeese, LPC, LMFTA, is a counselor at Summit Counseling with experience working with families and individuals, including children and adolescents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.