Each of us has had times where there was something we wanted to improve in ourselves, we made a conviction to change, and then we failed to keep that commitment.
And it is hard to know how to react to failure like this. I’ve had times where I was too hard on myself, berating myself in ways that were abusive and unhelpful. I also have had times where I’ve been too nonchalant about it, just shrugging it off with lip service and never making actual progress.
My belief is that failure should be devastating…but not soul-crushing. It should make us sad, but not hopeless. And my question is, how do we walk that line? How do we deal with failure in a way that is kind and compassionate, but also firmly committed to improvement? How does God react to us when we let ourselves down, and what can we glean from that example?
Personal Example #1
I want to explain a little more of my personal experiences, and the two conundrums that inspired this particular topic of study. The first of these deals with the steps of repentance I was taught to follow as a child.
I understood that to repent I must sincerely feel sorrow for what I had done wrong, confess my wrongs to God and anyone else I had harmed, make restitution as possible, and then not do that behavior anymore.
Now I actually think this description for repentance is fine, when understood as a process, and not a singular event, particularly in regards to that last step. I do believe that there are times that you can swear off a certain behavior forever, but far more common is that even when I feel genuine sorrow for my wrongs and wish to never do them again…I probably will at some point.
Thus there were times that I was told I needed to repent of a misdeed, and if I did it again, was asked why I hadn’t really repented, as I was still showing the same wrong behavior. And this was quite disheartening, and eroded my confidence in my ability to repent and become a better person.
Yes, at times, I needed to be more sincere in my efforts to improve, but also there were times when I actually was improving, I simply had not attained perfection yet. In those moments I believe I would have been greatly helped by an understanding that sometimes repentance means not repeating the wrong behavior…eventually. It means we try again and again, recommitting after each slip, doing the wrong thing less and less, soldiering on through the process of letting God change our hearts, until finally we no longer are subject to that sin.
Personal Example #2
As I have just pointed out, I have noticed in myself an unhealthy guilt in regards to trying to improve myself. I have had many times of berating myself for failing to be perfect, even though I was actively improving overall. No, I was not yet in the perfect image of Christ, but I was getting closer and closer to it.
But today I want to talk about the other side of that coin. Because I have also strayed into a unhealthy lack of guilt when I have done wrong. I have found it all too easy to do what I know is wrong, and then immediately ask forgiveness for it, fully knowing that my heart was still unchanged. I have even apologized before doing the wrong thing, making a promise that “this will be the last time.” A promise that of course never holds true.
It is possible to beat ourselves up for not being perfect, but it is also possible to give ourselves a free pass, defending ourselves with the argument that it’s enough to just “want” to be good.
But what has always given me hope is that my conscience has never been at ease with either extreme. I may have thrown over to one side, and then whiplashed back to the other, but in both cases my heart knew that God was not in either. Because neither of these is the way that God treats my mistakes either. He does not berate me for my errors, but also He does not ask for “lip service” only.
And now, with this established, I will spend the rest of the study considering how God (and the godly) do respond to failings, and how I can emulate that pattern with myself.
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Peter said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Jesus saith unto him, not until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Each of us must learn in life how to deal with those that disappoint and offend us. And while often we speak of that in terms of other people sinning against us, the truth is that the person who most often upsets us is our own self.
And in return, we usually are also our own worst critics, giving ourselves self-talk that is far crueler than what we would say to any other person. When we do something that lets us down, we mentally shake ourselves and ask when we’re finally going to get it right!
But I feel that Jesus’s counsel in this verse condemns withholding forgiveness from ourselves, as much as from another. And eventually, I started treating myself better after I felt God say to me: “Hey, don’t be so hard on Abe. I love that guy!”
We can forgive ourselves, be kind to ourselves, and still ask ourselves to grow and improve. In fact, our behavior is most likely to improve, when we set our expectations for ourselves with a heavy dose of self-love.
Proverbs 3:12, Doctrine and Covenants 121:43
For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth
Reproving betimes with sharpness
God is love. God is willing to forgive. God does not stop being a caring Father because of our mistakes, He still accepts the sinner, and seeks for the sheep that is lost.
But that does not mean that He does not correct us. Nor does it mean that He will just sweep our sins under the rug. When we do something wrong, it matters, and He expresses this in no uncertain terms.
This is a quality I’ve come to appreciate a great deal from Him. He does not beat around the bush, He does not speak in cryptic riddles. When I have done something that is offensive, He makes it known in clear and direct terms. When He corrects us it is extremely sharp. Not in the sense of harming, but in the sense of being very precise and direct.
I have realized that many times when I have been offended, and I try to express it, I tend to be very blunt. Not in the sense of being straightforward, but in the sense of being broad and imprecise. I try to hint at my feelings without actually being plain and vulnerable.
So, too, when I try to correct myself. I speak to myself in exaggerated, end-of-the-world terms, splashing criticism over a broad area, most of it landing far from the actual core of the problem. But I am learning from His example how to pause, collect myself, and then speak sharply (directly and precisely) to the heart of the matter.
Luke 15:20, Isaiah 54:8
And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.
He arose, and came to his father. And his father saw him, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him
There is a great myth in our society that we cannot love a person unless we also sweep all their misdeeds under the rug. It is believed that if we call a behavior wrong, then by extension we must hate all people that participate in that behavior.
The parable of the prodigal son shows a father that loves his son perfectly, is eager to forgive, and accepts his son’s return without question. But at the same time, he never condones the boy’s wayward behavior. He never claims that sin is not sin. He is able to both disapprove of the boy’s mistakes and also retain his love for him.
In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee
I believe a major reason for the myth that we cannot be opposed to sin but still love the sinner is because anger is so often coupled with hate. As small children anger quickly becomes associated with things like neglect, cruel criticisms, and even physical abuse.
But anger, in and of itself, is not hate. And while hate is never a correct response to failure, sometimes anger is. When we let ourselves down it is possible to be upset with our behavior and call ourselves out for it, while also still immersing ourselves in self-love and care.
Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
If you’re like me, then this verse alone can describe the majority of your self-disappointments. It isn’t a question of not knowing what is right , or not wanting to do what is right, or not striving to do what is right. It’s simply that while part of me yearns for what is right, another part would rather be lazy, or sensually satisfied, or just revert back to what it already knows.
And I feel it is important to understand and acknowledge both sides of this. When I went to addiction recovery, I already hated my sinful cravings and I didn’t need to be taught to just hate them more. What I did need was to appreciate that I was already fundamentally good in my core desires, and now needed to learn to master the flesh.
And this was why my recovery program stressed the importance of making–and keeping–daily commitments. Even little things that were entirely unrelated to the addiction, such as brushing my teeth for a full two minutes or being to work on time. Because little by little I had to teach myself how to follow through and just do the things I already wanted to do. At last my flesh wasn’t overrunning my naturally good soul.
Proverbs 3:5, 1 Corinthians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 2:5
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
Lean not unto thine own understanding
The weakness of God is stronger than men
Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God
I have previously spoken of how I have sometimes been too hard on myself when I slip, and as I’ve considered that negative self-talk, I’ve realized that it is a misguided attempt to control my behavior through fear. I am trying to force myself to be better via the tools of shame and embarrassment.
And this is me relying on my own strength, trying to control things according to my own power. In this effort I am utilizing the same forms of coercion that mankind has relied on through all of history to get what they want. Fear and shame are techniques that we continue to fall back on even though they are hugely ineffective. Techniques that we use as a substitute for genuine power and confidence.
But as these verses suggest, there is a better way. There is another source of strength that each of us has access to, one that is greater than any mortal strength. So now the question is, how do we stop relying on our own power to improve ourselves, and utilize God’s instead?
Personal Example #3
I am sure Satan is pleased when I do not commit to improve myself and instead accept complacency. But I also believe that he is pleased when I do make promises, but they are ones I cannot keep.
So many times I have tried to commit myself to perfection–“I will never do this thing again”–and so many times I have failed. Then I have said to myself “okay, so apparently last time wasn’t the last time…but this one has to be! So this time I’ll just have to screw up more moral resolve than before. I just have to grit my teeth and draw up more spiritual energy than last time to make this the most excellent commitment I can, one that would carry through forever!”
But then…I have slipped again. And what did I think then? Well, clearly I had to somehow find another great well of spiritual resolve within me, one even greater than the “even greater” last on…or else I obviously wouldn’t have a chance of succeeding this time either.
Over and over this pattern continued until I was all dried up. I simply could not find any more “even greater” wells of spiritual resolve. I couldn’t keep outperforming myself endlessly. So I became disheartened. I didn’t believe myself and the promises I made. It seemed that the best pledge I could come up with was meaningless, and I began to believe that I simply couldn’t improve. Other people could, but I couldn’t. I was stuck.
And I remained stuck until I was until I realized there was a better way. God interrupted my spiral to show me there was an “even greatest” well that I could be making use of. One that wouldn’t ever fail me.
Isaiah 53:10, Psalm 55:22
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed
If you’re like me, you struggled to accept the notion of God’s forgiveness being free. I wanted to pay Him back for the things I had done wrong, overcome my addictions by my own pure grit, and earn my place in salvation. After I failed to do this many times over, I finally humbled myself, and let Him win the victory for me. At long last I felt clean again.
Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee
And if you’re like me, once you were washed clean you went straight back to believing it was only up to you to keep yourself clean. I had accepted that I had to rely on God for the “big” stuff (forgiving serious sins and healing very deep wounds), but I was still on the hook for the “smaller” stuff (day-to-day obedience and managing stress).
But this verse in Psalms simply says to “cast thy burdens upon the Lord,” with no qualifier for only the ones of a sufficient size. Slowly I’ve been realizing that God wants me to surrender the “small” stuff too.
And I need to. Because when I rely on myself I fail at the “small” stuff all the time. I try to grip tighter and tighter, but still slip, and wonder why I can’t make myself do it right. And you know what? I don’t think that’s a question I really have to answer right now. I think right now I just need to accept the fact of it and surrender it to God.
I need to say “I really can’t make myself do it right. Simple as it seems…it’s beyond me. So I’ll stop trying to do it alone, and open up my heart to you, God, instead. Will You please come inside and win this battle for me? I will let it be Your victory now, not mine.”
Daniel 9:4-6, 10-11
And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments;
We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments:
Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
Neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.
Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice; therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him.
And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession
I have just considered how I can respond to my daily failures by surrendering to God and inviting His strength instead of relying on my own. And like Daniel I have found that one of the first steps to doing that is to make a full and honest confession to Him.
Yes, He already knows everything that has transpired. He know perfectly well how I have failed and let myself down. But still taking the time to recall it has had a very purifying effect on me. It feels like taking it out and laying it all on the altar before Him. Anything I’m not ready to put out there He isn’t going to be able to heal.
We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled
Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets
Neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in his laws
Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law
And now consider the wonderful example of specificity in Daniel’s prayer. He does not merely say “we sinned, forgive us,” he calls out that they rebelled against God…and did not listen to his prophets…and broke Gods laws. Israel needs reconciliation for all of these parts, not just one, and so he elaborates them all.
And so I have tried to be very thorough in my confession to God as well. And honestly, sometimes that has meant saying “this is what I did God…and to tell you the truth, I don’t feel as heartbroken about it as I think I should. I’m sorry, I just don’t….So could you help me to feel more? I think that’s what I really need right now.” A prayer as honest as that is far more likely to be answered!
Psalm 51:1-3, 6-7, 1 Peter 5:6
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness
According unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions
I am continuing to examine the need to surrender my shame and burdens to God. Rather than always trying to make myself be better, I ought to let Him make me better.
But how do I do that? What are the steps to surrendering? What are the words that I must say to better invite God into my life?
I started asking myself these questions before I realized that I was making the exact same mistake as before! I was looking for some specific quota to fill that would bring God into my life. I wanted to be told “say these special words, pray this many times, help this many people.” And at its core this was all about having my healing be in my own power again. God will save me, just as soon as I earn His saving.
And as before, that’s just not how it works. As the psalm quoted above explains, it is according to His lovingkindness, and it is according to His mercies. It has to be His way, done on His own terms, and in His own due time. His will, not ours.
Humble yourselves under the hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time
The only formula that I should maintain is to try my genuine best, keep an open heart, hold out hope, trust that He will come, invite Him with sincerity, and be totally honest with Him and myself.
After all that, at what point along that journey will He show up? I have no clue.
When will He decide that I’m ready for His grace? Totally up to Him.
How and when will He heal my heart? Not for me to say.
I just trust that in His own time, in His own way, and by His own criteria…He will be there.
Mosiah 4:27, Isaiah 28:10
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order
It is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength
Line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little
I greatly appreciate the pragmatism in these verses. There is sincerely committing to improving ourselves one step at a time, and there is overextending ourselves with unrealistic promises.
When we start to feel the reality of God manifesting in us it is a very exciting experience, and we can easily get carried away with all the good things we intend to do. In a moment of rapture we might very well promise God everything. We will be His perfect, faithful child now, never to stray again. And in that moment we fully believe we can deliver on such a promise. To be fair, if we were to maintain that same state of rapture forever, we probably really could keep that promise, too!
But we don’t…and we don’t.
No, after each spiritual awakening there follows an awakening back to the old us. And it is that old us that needs to be changed. And that change is not accomplished by demanding perfection at once, but by line upon line. Yes, demand change of yourself, but also be practical about it!
Psalm 82:3-4, Matthew 18:10
Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.
Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones
Obviously these verses have an obvious literal interpretation, to protect and defend the helpless and the young. But also, as I considered the topic of this study, I thought of a figurative interpretation for them also.
The fact is, when I do something that I know is wrong, something that causes harm to my heart, I have a sense like that of a child crying inside. There is a youthful and needy soul within me, delicate and sensitive, and it has to be protected.
Indeed, every wrong action is an act of self-harm in some way, for we are fundamentally composed of a divine spirit, that cannot help but be wounded at the presence of vice. Self-correction, therefore, ought to be considered act of self-protecting love.
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
If a man be overtaken in a fault, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness
I just spoke of how self-correction can be an act of love and protection, where I endeavor to preserve my delicate and spiritual nature from the more callous and worldly part of me. However I have also learned that rushing to the defense of the spiritual does not mean that I must become harsh with the flesh. When one shouts at oneself, one tends to shout at all of oneself, both the offender and the offended.
Yes, the flesh does need to be subdued and bridled. And yes, when I stand between it and the spirit, I must be firm and direct. But as this verse suggests, I can also have a spirit of meekness and compassion during that stance.
This might seem like a contradiction of terms, but it makes sense when I remember the times I have corrected my own children from a healthy, grounded state. A good parent will firmly enforce rules and boundaries to a child, but in the same moment will hold them, express love, and patiently explain the reasons for the rule.
Because in the end, my worldly, misbehaving self often feels like a small child himself. A young, naïve boy who is trying to get what he wants by misguided means. He is a manipulative boy, even a bully of a boy, but rather than be hated for it, he just needs someone to instruct and correct him. Firmly and directly, but also compassionately.
1 Thessalonians 5:5-6, Ephesians 5:14
Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.
Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.
Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
Therefore let us not sleep, but let us watch and be sober
Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light
Recognizing your flaws, making efforts to improve on them, failing to do so perfectly, and picking yourself up to try again can be a hard and wearying process. But…it also means that you are spiritually awake and your discipleship is alive!
Of course it is possible to not feel the pain of trying, all it requires is that you give up. I was there once. I used to be oblivious to the areas of my life that needed improvement. I was asleep to the gospel and content with mediocrity.
As I found out, though, ignorance was not bliss. Sleeping through my own great story only meant that I was dissatisfied without understanding why.
Now I feel agitated to become the best version of myself that I can. Yes, at times it can feel overwhelming, but it is a genuine privilege to shoulder that burden. It is far better than to remain asleep.
This has been a very helpful study for me. Actively striving to be more Christ-like has been a wonderful experience where I have seen found real growth and increased happiness. Many behaviors have organically improved all on their own, far more easily than I ever would have thought possible.
But while there have been areas of quick growth, there have also been other areas that are far more difficult to grow in, and behaviors that have proved far more resistant to change than I had expected. And in response to those complications I have seen the rise of my old, familiar inner critic.
Through this study I have found some important lessons for how to deal with these growing pains, and having this understanding has already brought me a greater sense of peace. I guess this was just another area I needed growth in! Here are the main points that stood out to me from my study.
Keep Pressing Forward)
I have never had a time where I didn’t want to improve myself, but there was a period where it was more of an idle wish than an actual intention. And even that idle wishing was incomplete, because only some flaws did I care to improve on, while others I just didn’t care about.
Eventually I was woken up to my desperate need for God and a path to follow. I realized that my existence was lifeless, and would remain so unless I was actively chasing for a better me. And at that same time I realized that if I was going to give myself over to this journey, it needed to be all the way. Now I knew that I must improve myself in every area.
It simply wasn’t going to cut it to overcome lust and deceit, but leave myself a guarded recluse. Nor would it do to only build meaningful relationships, but not improve the way I cared for my body.
And the outcome of this is that I can take glory in the failures I experience, because it means I’m actually trying. It means I’m no longer accepting a half-lived life. Friction, after all, is not felt until one starts moving.
Luke 9:62- And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Ephesians 5:14- Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
Be Direct, But Kind)
One of the most surprising epiphanies that came to me through this research was that the healthy way to treat someone else when they let me down is the same way I should treat myself when I let me down. It seems such a simple concept that I’m honestly embarrassed to say that this was a revelation, but really it answered so many of my questions and frustrations.
Or to put it another way, the golden rule flows both directions. Yes, I should do unto others as I would have others do unto me…but also I should do unto myself as I would have others do unto me!
If I do something to let someone else down, I would not want them to scream at or hurt me. Nor would I want them to deny that it was wrong of me, either. I would hope that they could be honest about their frustration, express it without hate, give clear direction as to which of my behaviors is causing the pain, and still reassure me of their unconditional love.
It takes effort to do that. It can by very hard to get into a mental state that can be so vulnerable and kind. And I am sure that there will be many who never treat me that way. But at the very least, I should.
Doctrine and Covenants 121:43- Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
Galatians 6:1- Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
Ask For Help)
The final takeaway from my study was the need for surrendering. My default behavior is to believe that I have to do things myself. I am reluctant to ask for help, or to accept kindness when it is offered. Even when I was at school and didn’t understand a difficult concept, I was more likely to beat my head against the wall trying to figure out on my own instead of raising my hand and asking a question.
It seems a simple logic that if I got myself into this mess, I should be able to get myself out of it. If I was able to do the behaviors that led me here, I must also be able to do the opposite behaviors to get myself back.
But that just. Isn’t. True.
Yes, some steps can be undone, but some make you fall down a hole that you don’t have the gear to climb out of. And it isn’t a question of if this will happen, Adam and Eve set the pattern for this Fall and each of us will follow it.
So I will do my best, my absolute, genuine best. But then, as always, I will rely on grace. For there are many parts of my heart that are too deep for me to reach, and only God can change them.
Psalm 55:22- Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.
1 Corinthians 2:5- That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
2 Nephi 25:23- For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.