Jared Witt l December 29, 2016
Self-help gurus are really big on positive self-talk. More conservative Christian leaders get nervous about it—smacks too much of self-justification, I suppose. Either way, it doesn’t really work for me. I’ve tried it.
I’ve positively self-talked into the mirror while brushing my teeth, into the windshield on the way to a public speaking engagement, and a couple times I’ve even tried writing in a journal, which I quickly bury under a heap of old magazines the second I hear my wife pull into the garage.
The problem is: the more positive things I say about myself, the more I begin to question the source. Were I a pretty good judge of character, that might be one thing. But like the soprano in the choir, who can’t carry a tune but sings the loudest anyway, every bad judge of character thinks they’re a good judge of character. Even barring that pitfall, I suspect I’m pretty biased when it comes to myself. New age spirituality doesn’t give us any answers for a crisis of authority like that. Besides, at this point, I’m so unpracticed at saying nice things, that it always comes off a little forced.
Fortunately, I’ve invented another technique that bypasses any potential lack of credibility on the part of the self-talker. I can’t promise that it will work for you, but you’re welcome to use it. I call it “melodramatic self-negging.”
It’s pretty simple: stand in front of a mirror, feet roughly shoulder width apart, and then bring to the surface all those reasons why you’re subconsciously certain that you’re unworthy of love. I mean just lay into yourself in a way that you never would another human being or most any sentient life form for that matter. For instance, one of my sessions might look like this:
“No one likes you because of how bad your halitosis was as a kid. You think it’s taken care of because you started using mouthwash and moved five states away, but you’re not fooling anybody. They know. Everybody knows. But they’re probably less offended by that than they are your personality. Abrasive is an understatement. Remember that joke you tried to make last weekend? Crickets. Sure, they laughed at the thing you had said earlier but probably out of sympathy more than anything. Either way, you couldn’t just rest on your laurels, could you? No. You always have to take it a step further and say something stupid. Probably, everyone got silent for a second because they were hoping that if they stood perfectly still, you’d lose sight of them like a T-Rex and go away. Also, who has pimples on their shoulders? They don’t even sell acne meds for shoulders because you’re the only one. Freak! That’s why everyone at the beach always looks like they're having more fun than you. Because they are. Shoulder confidence…”
The idea is, by the time you finish, your litany of perceived offenses against the cosmos should be so hyperbolic and overwrought, that even the most garbage, useless, carbon-waste of a humanoid could never live up to it. There is no prescribed length of time, but you should at least stick with it until it becomes funny. You’ll gradually start to see that the most exacting deity imaginable could never concern his or herself with the things that your subconscious does on a daily basis.
It’s important that you not lean too heavily on bald sarcasm and hyperbole. These should be real insecurities that had been bubbling under the surface and seemed more credible until you actually spoke them out loud .
This is not far from what Lutherans do when we publically confess as a group in worship, which is maybe the exact opposite of positive self-talk.
Drawing from the epistles of John, a leader will stand up and say to the gathering, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…”
As a group, everyone will respond with these words: “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your holy name.
To be sure, there is nothing melodramatic about these confessions. We are real killers, liars, and thieves. We’ve hurt people in ways that go well beyond a bout of bad breath. And we actually are guilty of what we say we are, which is everything. With almost absurd redundancy, the confession makes all of us both personally and collectively responsible for everything that is wrong with the world until not one person’s sin compares favorably or unfavorably to any other’s, and no other scapegoat can be blamed.
Here’s the twist though: the leader then stands up again and tells us not that we’re better than we actually are, not that the hurtful things we do to each other and the world really aren’t that bad, not that our sin is negligible but that these things have been rendered irrelevant when it comes to assessing our core worth.
Our worth does not in fact depend on our goodness but on God’s goodness revealed in Jesus the Christ. In him, we see that God’s assessment of humanity is so generous that it can’t even be measured on the same scale as our sinfulness or sinlessness. It’s as if we're all busy measuring how far ahead or behind we are in feet and inches, when God suddenly busts in and starts loving us in light-years.
Try it. Nobody is really an atheist. We all bow down to a harsh and implacable deity at the end of the day, the deity named self. And that god needs to go.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
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