Today’s question is from a listener named Elliott. “Pastor John, hello! Would you say there’s such a thing as a Christian being too harsh with himself? I’m often told by others in my secular job that I am too hard on myself. Recently, my wife has mentioned several times that the standards of excellence I try to achieve at church are too high. I don’t deliberately view life or myself like this. But wouldn’t low standards lead to acceptance of sin in our lives? I guess, more generally, my question is, Is it possible for a Christian to be too hard on himself?”
Since I don’t know the details of what being hard on himself looks like, I’m going to address this issue in principle like this: What might it mean to be too hard on oneself in regard to justification? And what might it mean to be too hard on oneself in regard to sanctification? And what might be some guidelines to help us be appropriately hard on ourselves, but not too hard on ourselves — not sinfully hard on ourselves?
No More Striving
So, it is really crucial to nail down in the Christian mind and heart, every believer, how we got right, or get right, with God as sinners, so that our sins are all forgiven, our guilt is totally removed, God’s wrath is taken away. There is no condemnation. Before him, our consciences are clean. We enjoy peace, peace, peace with God. And we are in Christ, and God is one hundred percent for us and not against us in anything that happens to us, whether it’s the most horrible suffering or the greatest pleasure.
“We are in Christ, and God is one hundred percent for us and not against us in anything that happens to us.”
Now, that really matters to nail down: How does that happen? The answer of the New Testament, the glorious gospel, is that we are justified before God in that way by faith alone, apart from any works of the law of any kind. In other words, when the Holy Spirit awakens our dead hearts to see Christ crucified, risen, as true and beautiful and valuable and sufficient to cancel all our sins and provide all our righteousness — when we see him like that, by grace, as our supreme treasure, our great love — we receive him like a child. And when we receive him like that, in that instant, we are made right with God on the basis of the blood and the righteousness of Jesus, who died to bear our sins and provide our righteousness. Jesus is the final, decisive basis of our acceptance with God — his being one hundred percent for us.
So, what would it look like to be too hard on yourself in regard to justification? It would mean demanding from yourself
- that you be the one who earns your justification,
- that you be the one who deserves your justification,
- that you be the one who must suffer sufficiently in order to bear some of the punishment of your sins,
- that you be the one who deflects God’s wrath away from you,
- that you be the one who is brilliant enough in the courtroom of heaven to get an acquittal,
- that you be the one who figures out a way to wipe your conscience clean before God.
All of that would mean you don’t grasp the gospel. You don’t receive God and what he’s done for you. You’re being too hard on yourself by demanding that you do what only God can do and has done for his people. That would be a great sin to load yourself down with that hard burden.
High Standards Aren’t the Problem
Now, what about being too hard on yourself with regard to sanctification; that is, not “How do I live to get right with God?” but “How am I supposed to live because I already am right with God through justification by faith alone? How am I to bring my life into conformity to what I really am in Christ?” That’s the sanctification question.
Jesus spoke of the Christian life as a life of self-denial. Is that hard on yourself? Bearing a cross — is that hard on yourself? Hating one’s own life (Luke 14:26), that’s pretty hard on yourself. Paul said that, in order to enjoy life with God, we must put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). He said that he gives his body a black eye, keeping it under control, lest after preaching to others he should be a castaway (1 Corinthians 9:27). He said, “We commend ourselves . . . by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4–5).
Now, based on those passages from Jesus and Paul, I conclude that there’s a sense in which we ought to be hard on ourselves. The question, then, rightly posed by Elliott and his wife and his colleagues, is, Is there a too hard? Is there a too hard on yourself? The answer is yes. But I don’t think a yes answer necessarily means that the person who is too hard on himself has set his standards too high. That’s not my diagnosis of what too hard means.
For example, a car salesman might set early standards for himself for selling a car a week. Then he might up the standard to a car a day. Then he might up the standard to two cars a day. Now, I would venture to say that neither his employer nor his wife would have any problem at all with these standards becoming increasingly unrealistic. What they would have a problem with is whether his failure to meet the standard produces hurtful, sinful effects toward himself and others, and whether his success in meeting the standards produces a hurtful and arrogant demeanor in him. Very high standards are not the essence of the problem. How a person responds to success and failure in meeting his standards is the problem, and the essence is much deeper.
Three Warning Signs
So, what would be the evidence that a person is being sinfully too hard on himself? I’ll just mention three things.
First, you’re being too hard on yourself if your failures to meet your standards result in a depressed loss of joy in the Lord. If you become brooding and gloomy and sullen, and if you, in general, lack the hope-filled joy that Christ gives, you’re not handling your failures in a faith-filled, Christ-exalting way. You are being too hard on yourself in the sense that the hardness on yourself is producing sin, not holiness.
“Christ has made you his own. That changes everything about how you run your race.”
Second, it’s evidence of a person’s being too hard on himself if his failures result in hurtful anger: hurtful toward himself, inclining him toward habits that are self-destructive, or hurtful toward others. Because very often we take out on others our frustrations with our own sense of failure. In either case, he’s being too hard on himself in the sense that his hardness toward himself is producing unkind or damaging behavior to other people.
Third, it’s evidence that he’s being too hard on himself if his failures produce paralyzing fear or anxiety about approaching the tasks of his life. If he feels like he’s fallen short so often that he loses the capacity to attempt anything of significance, it’s evidence that he’s being too hard on himself in the sense that he’s not trusting Christ for the ability to keep him going.
Christ Made You His Own
What would I counsel, then? I would say look to Philippians 3:12–14. Paul deals with his own failures and imperfections like this:
Not that I . . . am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. . . . One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal.
I think what Paul means is this: In my running the Christian race, the Christian life, I do not burden myself (that would be the too hard) with the paralyzing effects of the memories of past failures, nor do I burden myself with the killer weight of pride at my past successes. Anything that would hinder my humble, loving, godly, holy race for the good of others and the glory of God, I forget it. I lay it aside. I don’t let it produce sinful effects in my life.
So, that’s what I would call Elliott to: You don’t need low standards. That’s not the problem. You need humble, gracious, loving, kind responses to your successes and your failures in meeting those standards. So, remember: Christ has made you his own. That changes everything about how you run your race.