We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
- James 3:2 (NIV)
When it comes to our performance, many of us tend to think in absolutes. We're either doing well or we're not.
That can be true in any area of life - in our performance as spouses, as parents, as bosses, as employees, as students, as athletes, and so on. When we’re measuring up to our self-imposed standards or the standards imposed on us by others, we feel justified, sufficient, and therefore satisfied. However, when we fall short, even to a slight degree, we might invalidate any shade of accompanying success. We’re crushed much more easily by our failures than consoled by our successes. It’s easy to reduce life to polarity - black or white, all or nothing, pass or fail.
Predictably, this pattern of thinking can maintain or even deepen patterns of depression. It places our minds on a pendulum, swinging between two extremes: delight (when our efforts seem sufficient) and despair (when our efforts seem less so). Sadly, for all-or-nothing thinkers, despair eventually becomes a much more common extreme. After all, it’s relatively easy to invalidate any experience of delight as undeserved when we so harshly judge repeated failures.
All-or-nothing thinking places tremendous pressure on ourselves, others, and our relationships. Perfection is a beautiful ideal, but a cruel taskmaster.
One of the surest ways to identify this treacherous thought pattern is to listen more carefully to our internal and external dialogues. Consider some of these all-or-nothing statements:
I’m an awful person.
She is a perfect mom, unlike me. I’m the worst.
That was an unmitigated disaster.
He is always patient with his kids.
I’m never like that.
They are so smart. I’m just an idiot.
Do you find yourself thinking and speaking along these lines? Are your internal dialogues full of indictments? Do you feel like your inner prosecutor is a fully caffeinated graduate of Harvard Law while your defense attorney is backlogged and can’t work fast enough?
Why is this? I don’t claim to know all of the reasons, and heartily recommend anyone struggling with these things to enjoy the ministry of a licensed Christian counselor. However, let me pass along a few ideas to consider.
We expect too much.
One of the reasons we often feel so bad is that we expect far too much of ourselves. We shouldn't.
For one, human beings are finite creatures. We can’t do it all. We can’t be it all. There is simply no way to know all the right things, say all the right things, and do all the right things. Our lives have a “load capacity” of sorts. Beyond a certain point, we just can’t do more. Successes are attainable; complete success in every area and opportunity of life is not.
Admitting limitations is exponentially more difficult in our technological world. Technological advancements promise to help us transcend our limitations by multiplying our capabilities. Cell phones, laptops, power tools, appliances, and more all promise increased productivity and efficiency. And they deliver, along with an avalanche of new responsibilities we’re expected to meet with their help.
Beyond this, human beings are also fallen, prideful creatures. This makes it difficult for us to admit and accept our limitations. We don’t want to admit that we’re finite. In our pride, we want to believe that we have limitless potential. We also want to believe that we can get things right, and make everything we do perfect. We’re surprised and frustrated by our weaknesses, and do everything in our power to overcome them. We want to believe that with enough knowledge and the right tools, we could overcome what limits us and break the bonds of our finitude and fallenness. We expect too much of ourselves because we think it’s up to us.
We rest too little.
However, the deepest reason that we expect too much of ourselves is probably that we rest too little in God. We feel the need to be perfect because we don’t trust that Jesus was and is perfect for us. We don’t trust that his grace is sufficient for our struggles and failures.
Attempting to be one’s own savior is frustrating, futile, and exhausting; but most of all, it’s completely unnecessary. We have a perfect Savior, so we don’t need to worry about being perfect. We have an all-sufficient Savior, so we don’t need to worry about doing it all. He’s perfect for us, and he’s done all that’s ultimately and truly necessary for us. According to him, “It is finished!” We can rest.
Don’t be so hard on yourself.
So, don’t be so hard on yourself. Do what you can, the very best that you can. You'll be blessed and be a blessing. When success comes your way, in whole or in part, enjoy it. Don’t negate your successes - big, small, or partial. Praise and thank God for them. Your Father rejoices over them; rejoice with him!
When you fall short or simply can’t get to it all, remember that God isn't keeping score anymore. God’s grace covers your sin and satisfies your shortcomings - perfectly. Jesus took the test for you, and you got an A+. If you try to do it all yourself, you’ll end up with nothing. If you trust that Jesus did it all for you, you already have everything you need.
You're loved. Don't forget it.