I once told a friend of a recurring temptation of mine. Over the next month, he shared my secret with a dozen other friends, spicing up the tale with the fib that I had yielded to the temptation—even though I hadn’t. His betrayal shocked me. I skipped several lunch and dinner appointments, unsure who had heard and what they thought.
His disclosure also angered me. I obsessed over his treachery: How could he have divulged my secret temptation? And why worsen my shame with the sneering proclamation I had done it! I would never have betrayed a friend like that.
One day, as I fumed over his relational-adultery, I sensed God’s voice speak into my seething self-pity: Sam, why are you so angry? I thought the answer obvious: My friend had stabbed me in the back! Then I remembered a verse:
“I tell you, when one sinner repents, there is joy among the angels of God.” (Luke 15:10)
I thought, Sure, I suppose there would be joy in heaven if this jerk (I mean, friend) repented. His public confession might even bring me a bit of joy here on earth.
And I sensed God say, “I’m not talking about his sin; I’m talking about yours.”
Over the last month or so, I have heard of, witnessed, and (sadly) perpetrated several damaging acts of offering advice, examples where the counsel backfired and the recipient was worse off than before.
And I’m talking about examples of good, sound, wise, practical advice. Instead of strengthening the listeners, the guidance pulled the rug out from beneath them; instead of encouraging, it discouraged:
A grown man told me how his father’s advice on how to handle school bullies made him feel like a lifelong coward;
I saw a man offer his wife excellent principles for dealing with her incompetent boss, and his advice shriveled her spirit;
I suggested to a friend three guidelines for strengthening a daily prayer habit, and the man’s prayer time went from ten minutes to two.
How many times have you received unsolicited advice and you wonder, Do I really look that stupid to you? Why does advice—and I’m talk about good, practical guidance—so often boomerang?
Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). I think it was prophetic.
Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.
Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.
On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.
My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!”
The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.
The Times of London once asked leading British intellectuals to write an article that answered this simple question: “What is the biggest problem with the world?” G. K. Chesterton submitted his essay on a postcard,
Dear Sirs, I am.
Over the last thirty years, therapists have taught us to “like ourselves a lot” and to hold a “high opinion of our capacities.” They taught us that people with high self-esteem tend to be socially well-adjusted and those with low self-esteem tend toward social deviance. (Their teachings came in the form of proclamations not proofs.)
Yet cracks are forming in the self-esteem movement. Lauren Slater, a leading psychologist and writer, casts doubts on today’s self-esteem crusaders,
There is enough evidence from 20 years of studies to conclude that people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to people around them than people with low self-esteem, and low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems (The Problem with Self-Esteem).
Chesterton would whole-heartedly agree with Slater’s observation, that “Low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems.”
Last Sunday night my mood turned ugly. I was talking with a friend and he said something that lit a fire in me. I ranted and raved; I said harsh things about someone not present, and the best efforts to silence me merely aggravated me.
I went to bed angry, and I woke up remorseful.
Why had I said those things? I was embarrassed, contrite, and a bit ashamed of myself. I was in a mood to repent. Then I read My Utmost for His Highest,
We trample the blood of the Son of God underfoot if we think we are forgiven because we are sorry for our sins. The only reason for the forgiveness of our sins by God is the death of Jesus Christ.
Chambers’ words aggravated me more. (Maybe my anger hadn’t dissipated completely.) Here I was genuinely sorry for my sin—in the mood to repent—and Chambers said my sorrow plays no part in my forgiveness. Not one tiny morsel.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with someone who felt horrible about forgetting a commitment. She felt her accidental negligence caused unnecessary stress for a good friend. And it probably did.
She felt bad (understandably) and kicked herself (metaphorically) for her mistake. She couldn’t shake the pain of disappointing a close friend. The oversight overwhelmed her thoughts and dreams. She couldn’t find a faucet to turn off the fountain of self-condemnation.
I suggested that her pain was triggered by an unrealistic expectation of her own perfection; that this one omission was possibly not an anomaly; and that she probably makes dozens (maybe hundreds) more mistakes every week. Her problem was a false, high opinion of her perfection.
I’m always good for a pick-me-up when you need it most.
I suggested that she make a list of every sin (and mistake) she had committed in the last week. A month would be better. I partly proposed a list to shake her self-punishing perfectionism, but mostly to help her recognize God’s unshakeable love of her in her imperfection.
That same day—literally a few hours later—someone sent me an email that condemned the “horrific practice” of listing our sins, claiming sin-lists are evils that rob us of freedom in Christ.
Who’s right? At the risk of making a mistake (that I could add to my own list later); I am.
Several months ago I wrote an article about the joy of pausing in the moment of confession; telling God about my total unworthiness, acknowledging my wrongs, and even admitting ways I acted wickedly. I suggested we stop right there in that moment.
A Christian leader canceled his subscription and emailed me to explain. He said my suggestion that “we chronicle our wrongdoing” is “just wrong.” His approach in life is to remember he is made in the image of God and that he has been given a new heart.
Then he explained how he deals with criticism. When friends say he “seems arrogant,” he says that they confuse his confidence with arrogance; but they can have his high level of confidence if they would just realize their own goodness. He suggested I try it.
My inner response was a bit different. I thought, “What a jerk! Doesn’t he know the difference between gospel confidence and worldly arrogance? Can’t he examine himself honestly when others criticize him?”
The more I thought about it, the more confident I became that his approach is just wrong. And the more I thought of him, the more I became … arrogant.
Like my friend, and many before him, in my attempts to feel good about myself, I abandoned grace. I realized I often really misunderstand grace.
Many of us misinterpret grace, because grace is an ecosystem.