“Why hast thou smitten thine ass?” Numbers 22:32
Call this weird, but I like to do a warm up routine before my counseling sessions. Yes, I know I don’t really need to do it to sit in a chair all day. But none the less, I do it if only to feel like I’m ready for whatever my clients have to bring that day. It lets my body say, “Bring it on!” So I sprawl out on my carpet stretch my legs and back. I do a few push ups, a couple squats, shake out my arms, pump my fists, maybe a little shadow boxing. Put me in coach, I’m ready.
And then I lay flat on my back there on my rug and pray. Sometimes its lengthy, sometimes its a two second prayer because I’m running late. Sometimes its just a silent few breathes with my eyes closed to center my heart. And usually then I’m just listening for anything God wants to tell me. A little holy huddle with the Almighty.
A few months back, I’m getting ready for game time, doing my routine, going through my calisthenics. And on this day, I chose to lay in silence and listen. God says right away, “You feel pressure to do this well.” To which my heart said sarcastically, Yeah, God and the sky is blue. It felt so obvious and so matter of fact as to be a pointless thing for God to mention. I actually felt pressure to come through on most days when I’m counseling. So I waited in silence, letting God know I needed the punch line. “The pressure you feel is rooted in self contempt.”
You know that feeling after you take your glasses off when it seems like your brain muscles are trying to figure out how to see again. And for a minute you can’t quite see straight. Well that’s what happened next for me. I suddenly saw my heart and life very differently. And my brain was struggling to catch up to what God just said.
Here I was going along thinking that to carry all this pressure about counseling people was just a given, part of the job. This is the repetitive strain injury of the counseling profession, like carpel tunnel for a typist or back pain for a block layer. We just carry this chest full of anxiety and pressure around with us. I actually thought it meant I was caring really well for my clients.
>And then God says this and I realize that apparently I’m trying to do more work than I have to with folks. I’m feeling pressure to do something I don’t need to do. And driving myself with this pressure is actually a form of self contempt. And it appears God doesn’t like this.
Lets talk about self contempt for a minute. Self contempt, self hate, self loathing put simply is an inner rejection of yourself in part or in whole. Its the act of turning on yourself. Consider it an inner civil war raging deep in your being, leaving you divided, split as a person, no longer whole. Where this hate simmers, there can be no self acceptance and no peace.
It certainly can be an obvious thing, like the times you say under your breath, “You’re such an idiot” or “How could f#!$ it up so bad!” or worse. I have met many people who cut themselves, pull their own hair, punch their own faces. All are forms of self abuse and self hate. Mirrors probably bring self contempt brimming to the surface faster than anything else simply because they give us the experience of exposure. And as Dan Allender says, turning to contempt is the quickest way to take away these feelings of exposure and shame. Try standing naked in front of a mirror and see what rises to the surface in your heart. I’ve known people who literally scream at the likeness reflected back to them, “I HATE YOU!” Others simply refuse to look at all.
I dare say though that self contempt most often festers out of sight, subverting our lives beyond our awareness. Only in rare moments can we see our own inner hatred outright. And so it comes as an impostor, even as things that sound good. I certainly was living under my own version of this there in my counseling sessions, thinking I was just loving people really well by carrying all this extra pressure to come through for my clients, thinking I had to make the magic happen for them.
Some believe its just their Type A personality. “I’m striving after excellence, being all I can be,” yet never letting themselves rest or slow down. Perfectionism is in this camp, that urge to fixate on every awkward conversation or B+ or out of place hair. Yep, that’s dripping with contempt. And why won’t you ever accept a compliment or let others pursue your heart? Look, we know God gets the glory for what you did, but you did it with him. Not taking and enjoying someone else offering you love is self hate.
Contempt is behind a lot of the ways we don’t care well for ourselves or others. Self care is a kind way to treat our bodies and hearts. And our inner hate invites over eating, binge drinking, sitting on a couch all the time, not caring for ourselves as we need. I once told a woman that her constant choice of sales jobs was a form of contempt. It simply did not fit her personality and only left her sleepless, frazzled, and utterly dejected when she couldn’t perform up to snuff. And surprisingly self contempt plagues people who treat others with rage, like good ole Balaam who beat his own donkey. As John Eldredge says, how we treat our own heart is how we will treat others hearts.
Yet there is no more sinister form of self contempt than when it masquerades as guilt. And it so often wears this mask! Do you know people who apologize for everything? A friend cancelled a phone conversation with me recently because of a work emergency. No big deal. Life happens, stuff comes up. Yet in his voicemail he literally said “I’m SO sorry” 5 times! I wanted to stop him and scream, “Lighten up! I’m your friend. I still like you. Stop beating yourself for this!” Now I know it can be courteous in our culture to apologize for things, like being late or stepping on someones foot. But the courteous becomes contemptuous when we apologize all the time. Most of this stuff is out of our control.
And then their is the religious version of this guilt. When people tell me in my office they “just feel so guilty” it almost always means they are in the midst of an inner war of self hate. God simply just does not convict like this. And he certainly does not want us to hate ourselves after we’ve sinned. He wants us to be cut to the heart and even weep when it fits. In its truest sense, to be sorry is to be sorrowed. And sorrow is an almost opposite experience than self hate. As Paul says make clear in 2 Corinthians 7, this sorrow from God always has the intention of making us more alive, of restoring our dignity, of setting us free, not drowning us in shame.
And maybe that’s the most important part of this whole discussion. God is not on the side of your self contempt. He will not join you in kicking your own ass. Nothing good ever comes of self contempt. Nothing.
I’m getting my battle with pressure a lot more these days as a counselor. Admittedly sometimes its right in the middle of a session when I catch myself working way too hard. And you know what God says most of the time when I realize it? Just simply “I love you Sam.”