You cannot own your triumphs
Until you own your failures
You cannot own your triumphs
Until you own your failures
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.
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.
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.
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. We will all be down in that pit in life, in fact we’ll be there several times.
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.
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 one…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 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.
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.
In my last entry I spoke of 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 held 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 overcorrected 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.
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.
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?
I’d be curious to hear if you’ve ever dealt with these issues as well. Do you ever find yourself giving yourself a pass when you shouldn’t? Do you find yourself holding onto guilt to an unhealthy degree? How do you make your recommitment sincere after you’ve let yourself down so many times before?
We all have wished that we more consistent at doing the things that we know we should. If each of us was able to be our best self each day, the world would already be a divine place to live. Indeed, one might argue that the best thing any of us can do to right the greater wrongs of the world, is to simply improve our own selves instead. How can we help the world live by the principles that we think are important, if we’re not even fully living them ourselves?
Doing this study was a great help to me. It helped me to understand why it is so hard for me to consistently be my best self and what I can do to be more successful. It also has helped me to be more patient with my own imperfections.
Not only have I better understood these principles by conducting this study, I would say that I have seen my behavior improve as a result. By implementing these principles and practices in my life I have found I am more successful at doing the things I already know I should be doing. Let’s take a look at what some of the principles and practices are.
One truth that stood out to me was the need to put first things first. Forming ourselves into our best self is a very monumental undertaking, not unlike trying to erect a great building. And as when trying to erect a great building, it is absolutely necessary to begin with a solid foundation. One might stack toothpicks up very high for a brief moment, and for that brief moment it might appear quite impressive, but sooner or later a tower of toothpicks is destined to fall. So too with heroic efforts to be morally perfect one day, only to then binge on all of one’s indulgences the next.
Jesus, himself, taught the importance of establishing a solid foundation before building upwards. He spoke of storms of life that will try to blow down our progress, and how they will succeed unless we are rooted on something sure.
So before we try to tick off our personal-perfection-checklist we need to get down into the basement and see what the conditions are like. Are we prone to addictions? Do we have unconfessed sins adding unnecessary strain? Are we desecrating our homes and bodies (our temples) with things that degrade the soul? Are we trying to found our success on our own strength only? If the answer to any of these is yes, then we’re never going to make any long-term progress. We need to establish a far better foundation first, and only then we can start building in earnest.
Matthew 5:23-24- Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Matthew 7:26-27- And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
Of course, even after we’ve got our foundation taken care of, that doesn’t mean the act of building ourselves higher is an easy process. Even those that have bridled their appetites and established a core of strength still make mistakes, still doing things that they know they shouldn’t, still leave undone that which their conscience tells them they should do.
And as we look at the scriptural narrative it has always been this way. At the height of their work the prophets and apostles were still making mistakes. Moses struck the rock, Peter was reluctant to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul got into heated disagreements with his fellow missionaries. Yet none of them are defined by their failures, because they continued trying to do right in spite of them.
If we try and fail and then give up, then yes, that will be the final, defining note in our journey. But if we try and fail and retry, then it is the “retry” which defines our legacy instead. It isn’t about reaching the full destination in this life, it’s about staying on the road.
Galatians 6:9- And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
Philippians 3:12, 14- Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after.
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
The final principle I realized was that, ironically, that which we call “self-improvement” is most likely to fail when it is performed only by the self. I believe many of us have a personal pride, and want to make ourselves into the ideal man or woman without any help from anyone else. Or perhaps we might feel that humbly relying on God is only meant for that first step, the one where we were trying to sort out our foundation, overcome our addictions, and confess our major sins. We might feel that God needs to save us, but once He has, now it is all on us to make something beautiful out of the new life we have been given.
But that simply isn’t the case. The steps that take us from sinners to the repentant turn out to be the exact same steps to take us from the repentant into saints. Just as much as we needed to plead with God to sponge away our guilt and shame, we again need to plead with Him to give us the strength to become more like Him. It is a dangerous journey before us, and we were never meant to take it alone. This has to be a partnership, for that it is the will only it will ever succeed.
Isaiah 40:31- But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Isaiah 41:10- Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.