I used to think being a good Christian was like exercise: get a plan, get serious, and get to work. Spiritual disciplines, church attendance, and service were the cardio, ab workout, and flexibility training for our souls. Neglect anything, and you’d get spiritually flabby.
But I was terrible at my exercise regimen. I could not for the life of me read my Bible regularly, and prayer made me panicky as often as it connected me to God. My community at church disappeared after I had kids, and I often felt cynical about sermons and devotionals.
Was it possible for spiritual ‘exercise’ to weaken me?
Honestly, worrying about sin felt beside the point. If prayer, Bible, discipline, and church weren’t working, what else was there to try? I wondered if Jesus had given up on me.
My ideas of becoming a good Christian had a lot of truth in it—and some very poor assumptions. I could not see how my own good intentions often hamstrung me.
Here’s how we get turned around when it comes to battling sin.
1. We Try to Fight Sin by Shaming Ourselves for Our Weakness
For years, I thought that shame was helping me repent of sin. The lower I felt, the humbler I assumed I was. After I married, I began regularly telling my husband, “I wish I were somebody else!” I felt sure my current self was so horribly broken that it would be better to chuck myself in the trash and start over.
Years later, I came across Brené Brown’s definition of shame: “…the intensely painful…experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Importantly, she insists shame cannot be used to change people or behavior—it’s so destructive that it’s like using a blowtorch to light a match.
As I began finding freedom from shame, I realized it was disobedient. Shame kept me yearning for a different self, rather than seeking contentment with how God created me. My shame insisted I was a mistake, not, as Jesus promises, a beloved child.
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But God Prompts Us to Feel Guilt and Repent
Brown contrasts shame and guilt, pointing out that shame tells us to hate who we are, while guilt focuses on disliking what we have done. Guilt, though uncomfortable, is the conviction of the Holy Spirit to guide us to repentance and grace.
When I struggle with anxiety, for instance, the old me would tell myself how faithless, lazy, and ridiculous I was. I’d order myself to quit sniveling—but my anxiety, unsurprisingly, only increased.
As I began to focus on changing my choices rather than shaming myself, my approach shifted. If I felt anxious, I learned to gently repent of poor choices. Had I avoided a hard conversation? Had I gotten enough rest, food, and quiet? Had I talked with God about my worries, or sought wise counsel about how to manage problems?
Shame sent me running away from my sin, convinced I was unfixable. Guilt leads me towards my poor choices, urging me to align them with Christ.
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2. We Try to Fight Sin by Hiding Our Problems, Hoping They’ll Disappear
Four about 10 years after college, I dreaded opening my Bible. I tried different reading plans, devotionals, and times of day. No matter what, the discipline felt like carrying a leaden weight. I assumed my dread was bad and wrong, so I soldiered on anyway.
But the problem didn’t go away—it only got worse. After 10 years of carrying lead, I wondered if I was a Christian at all. Wouldn’t a real believer enjoy God’s word?
I prayed about the problem, of course, but I only asked God to take my dread away. I never asked why I felt that way, or what else I could do. When God didn’t erase my pain, I tried to hide it from Jesus and myself.
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But Jesus Calls Us to Tell Him Everything
One night, after my latest failure to read Scripture peacefully, I cried out to Jesus in despair. Please don’t leave me, I prayed, sure that my faith was on the ropes.
To my surprise, I sensed God’s power and presence. Suddenly, I realized how long I’d hidden my dislike instead of facing it. That night, I began to give myself permission to take my struggle seriously and ask God for help with it.
It took a few years, but I realized that my Scripture aversion had roots in spiritual abuse. I began to heal and learned to read the Word in life-giving ways. Now, though I still don’t read Scripture every day, I find deep strength within it, instead of condemnation.
Being absolutely vulnerable with God changed everything.
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3. We Try to Put on a Brave Face and Pretend We’re Fine
For a long time, I thought being “fine” was the mark of a good Christian. I took this to extreme lengths. At a beautiful tea put on years ago by the parachurch ministry I was involved with in college, I shared how much my faith was blessing me. In the very same period, though, I was having regular panic attacks at night. (I didn’t mention them in my happy testimony.)
I assumed putting a smile on my face and my best foot forwards was trusting God, not pretending. I was wrong.
If “good” Christians have an Achilles heel, it’s well-intentioned pretense. Too often, I have looked at the promises in the Bible—peace, contentment, purpose, joy—and thought that acting as if I had those fruits was the same as actually possessing them. I really didn’t understand the difference.
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But Jesus Leads us to Radical Honesty
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul tells us in Galatians 5. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” All the things we assume make us “good Christians” can be yokes of slavery if they do not legitimately bring us joy.
For instance, I was terrified to stop attending church when I began feeling bitter and cynical every Sunday. What would people say? What would God say? But despite my fear, I felt God calling me to stay home. When I finally obeyed, the break helped me uncover the wounds of spiritual abuse I’d experienced at my church in high school. Being a ‘good’ churchgoer prevented me from healing. After a long break, though I was able to reconcile with my church and return with joy.
We should not presume that any activity, no matter how ‘Christian’, is a substitute for actual joy, actual peace, actual freedom. God might call you to sacrifice idols you thought were the foundation of your faith. Church, the Bible, and other spiritual disciplines are GOOD—but not if we use them to deceive ourselves.
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4. We Try to Fight Sin by Working Harder to Change Ourselves
In college, I struggled with looking at porn online. I knew God called me to stop, so I got to work. I began fasting every week, got a book on spiritual battles, sought accountability. I spent time in fervent prayer calling on the power of Jesus to break the habit. Nothing worked.
I felt betrayed. I was working my butt off to seek God’s power. Were all the verses about victory in Christ just hokum? Where was Jesus? Why couldn’t I change?
It wasn’t until I got counseling that I realized my hard work was a dog chasing its tail. I had been using porn, and the shame I felt about it, as a way to avoid deep pain from previous abuse. All my hard “spiritual” work kept me from facing root issues.
Though Christ calls us to active engagement with faith, he promises us an easy yoke. Often when we work hard for Jesus, we’re distracting ourselves from honest engagement with pain.
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But God Gently Calls us to Depend on Christ
Healthy guilt, radical honesty, and deep authenticity foster intimacy with the Divine. Rather than clinging to our ideas about who we should be and what our Christianity should look like, we drop our defenses. Empty handed, we then realize that Christ loves us no matter how “good” we look. It is in that moment of nakedness that God’s power fills us, teaching us to gently repent in every moment.
It’s not weightlifting. It’s a flower unfurling without human help.
Jesus isn’t joking when he says his burden is light. It’s true. He tells us to abandon all our schemes to become “good”. Once we do, Goodness itself moves into our lives—and leads us to the peace we are so desperate for.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
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Originally published Thursday, 17 January 2019.