“I’m a failure.”
“I’m a screw-up.”
“I’m a terrible person.”
How many times have we heard people say things like this, in times of hopelessness? How many times have we said them ourselves? When, as believers, we realize the impact that our sin and selfishness have had on other people, it often leaves us in deep despair. We wonder how we could do such terrible things. We believe that our actions define us. We can even question the legitimacy of our relationship with God.
The chicken or the egg?
Usually we believe that sinful actions cause us to believe that we are terrible people, and we project a myriad of negative traits onto ourselves. But could it be that our belief that we’re terrible actually contributes to some of the terrible things we do? Which is the chicken, and which is the egg? How much does negative and untrue self-talk affect how we behave?
I get to walk in relationship with many men who are in recovery from sexual addiction. Almost to a person, they struggle with this. They know what is the right thing to do, and they don’t do it. They put life in the ditch, crawl out, keep walking, and invariably put it in the ditch again. When they fail, they heap shameful and condemning words onto themselves. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I believe an important question to ask in the midst of any sin struggle – not just ones with addiction – is which of these phrases is more accurate:
- Our behavior shapes what we believe.
- Our belief affects how we behave.
I think that practically, most of us who struggle with sin would say that the first is more reflective of our lives. And if it is, then it is no wonder that we so often find ourselves in places of despair and doubt. If our belief – about ourselves and about God & how He relates to us – is shaped and determined by how well we measure up or how obedient we are, then our beliefs will be constantly changing. On “good days” we’ll have an easier time seeing our relationship with God in a positive light, more consistent with Scripture. On “bad days” everything goes in the toilet.
Is it about us, or about God?
The danger with behavior driving our beliefs is that it reveals not only what we believe about ourselves, but also about God – and about who we really think is stronger. If our identity and/or our standing before God (whether questioning our salvation or simply assuming His displeasure with us) are based on how well we behave, then what was God thinking when He devised His plan to send His Son to die on the cross? And is our power to screw things up greater than His power to heal, restore, and sustain?
The Gospel tells us that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” And, that “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And, that “…the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Because, “…while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (from Romans 3:10-11; 3:23; 6:23; 5:6, 8)
At every point in those Scriptures, the assumption is that we were lost. We were sinners, unable to behave or work in a manner that would overcome our separation from God and our nature of depraved lost-ness. We were hopeless.
God knew this, and made a choice. His action – of sacrificing His Son Jesus on the cross to satisfy His demand of blood-for-sin – made the way for us to be brought into relationship with God. We enter this relationship simply by believing in what He did; by trusting that this provision was made for us and placing our faith in Him to save us.
Why then, after having entered this relationship through no merit of our own, do we expect to keep the relationship through our own efforts? How prideful to assume that Christ died for us to bring us into relationship with God (“Thanks for the help, Jesus…”), only then to hand over all power for sustaining the relationship to us (“…but I’ll take it from here.”) ?
Reversing the trend…
Our tendency to let our behavior drive our beliefs can change. Not easily, and usually not as quickly as we’d like. It changes for most of us through a gradual process in which we learn to evaluate our feelings against what Scripture tells us is true.
It’s natural to feel guilty when we fail. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Scripture tells us that His work is to guide us in all truth and to convict us of sin. But we take over and go too far when we interpret His loving conviction as condemnation. When we allow our feelings to morph our legitimate guilt into unhealthy and unhelpful shame.
Whenever we fail and feel condemned it is important to immediately do two things:
- Acknowledge what we feel. Don’t stuff or ignore it, or it will silently grow stronger.
- Compare what we feel to what Scripture tells us is true. Truth will either validate our feelings or refute them. If our feelings are shameful and self-condemning, then they need to be refuted in order for us to experience joy and peace in our relationship with Christ.
Very early on in my own recovery, a friend told me “Your feelings are real; they’re just not necessarily true.” Remembering this can help us spare ourselves from unnecessary torment and shame.
It’s harder when we do this alone.
We were made for community, and it’s in community that we can more effectively experience truth that counters the lies we believe about ourselves. Hebrews 3:13 says that as believers we are to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We need encouragement so that we’ll be able to remember what God says about us.
So how do we, in community, help one another remember our true identity? To avoid allowing our failures and continuing struggles with sin to paint who we believe ourselves to be?
One way that we do this in our recovery community is through reading truth together every time we meet. In our meetings, we read Scripture, excerpts from good books and recovery resources, and several questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. One that particularly resonates with those struggling with identity is Question 60, which says:
Question: How are you righteous before God?
Answer: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. 1
Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them,2 and of still being inclined toward all evil,3 Nevertheless, without any merit of my own,4 out of sheer grace,5 God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,6 as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, 7 as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.
All I need to do is accept this gift of God with a believing heart.8
1Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:8-11 2Rom. 3:9-10 3Rom. 7:23 4Tit. 3:4-5 5Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8 6Rom. 4:3-5 (Gen. 15:6); 2 Cor. 5:17-19; 1 John 2:1-2 7Rom. 4:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:21 8John 3:18; Acts 16:30-31
Who God says we are…
Here’s a closing thought/reminder of just how significant it is that God has called us His sons and daughters – despite how unworthy we were. Watch this video of an amazing new song by Steven Curtis Chapman, called “Who You Say We Are.”
Rejoice and rest, Christian, in the truth of who your Father says you are…because of what He’s done.
Awaken offers several groups that can help you wherever you are in the recovery process. We have weekly support for men and women who struggle with addictive sexual behavior, and for women who have been affected by their husbands’ or boyfriends’ addictions. We also have Twelve Step groups dealing with issues of addiction and control. CLICK HERE to get information on all of our group offerings. Or contact us with any questions you have.
Greg Oliver was a worship pastor for 15 years before his secret addiction to pornography and sex was exposed in January of 2009. Since then he has been on a journey of recovery, coming to know God better and experiencing His grace like never before. He and his wife Stacey have experienced deep healing & restoration within their marriage, and through the ministry of Awaken they walk with individuals, couples, and ministry leaders to help them experience connection and healing in the midst of sexual brokenness.