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The Pastor and Pathological Self-Criticism

Back in the early ’90s, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan was hit in the mouth by a chopping grounder off the bat of Bo Jackson. He managed to pick up the ball and make the out at first, but blood began to trickle from his split lip. As his white Rangers uniform became soiled with red stains, a photographer snapped a picture that’s now iconic.

The picture captures Ryan staring into the catcher’s mitt completely undeterred. He’s not whining or flailing around on the ground in pain; he’s just doing his job—bleeding or not bleeding, it didn’t matter.

I have a print of the picture propped up by my desk. I bought it soon after becoming a pastor, figuring it might spur on the toughness I was told I’d need. His busted lip and resolve encourage me.

And yet, to my surprise, after three years at ground zero of pastoral ministry, I’ve learned that some of a pastor’s worst wounds are those he self-inflicts.

The Ryan-like grit we pastors need is often less about the sheep and more about withstanding our own thrashing thoughts. One day at lunch a friend called this pathological self-criticism. The phrase has sort of stuck.

Understanding Pathological Self-Criticism

“Pathological self-criticism” is apparently an actual thing in the academic psychology world, but I’m using the phrase loosely. For a definition, pathological self-criticism is the regular—and often obsessive—reexamining of our pastoral performance in order to discern its effectiveness and determine the ways it must improve.

I’m talking about the continual second-guessing of the things we do in service of others. I’m talking about that constant drip that wonders: If I said that differently, would more people have been helped? Would I have sounded less stupid? Would I not have gotten that email that lands a line or two of critique? Why can’t I stop thinking about this? Will I do it the same way next time?

Pathological self-criticism (PSC) isn’t simply being hard on yourself; it’s doing harm to yourself at the mental level—and it doesn’t deserve an ounce of sympathy. In many cases, at least in my judgment and limited experience, it stems from an ungrateful heart that depends on the validation of others. At its worst, pathological self-criticism becomes a neurotic scrutiny that lusts for misery in one’s insufficiency. It’s not simply faithlessness; it’s an assault on God’s grace. It may not blaspheme the Holy Spirit, but it certainly belittles him—which is why pastors must never make peace with it. If you are prone to it, stop. If you have dabbled with it, run and don’t look back.

How Do We Make It Stop?

We must get away from PSC because the more we sulk in it, the more comfortable we’ll become with it, and the harder it’ll be to recognize the next time.

But the problem is we don’t know how to make it stop. We hardly know where to begin. Assuming we know God’s glory is the great end for which he created the world, and assuming we fight for his glory to be the center of our heart’s desire, what do we do when those voices in our heads won’t stop talking?

There are no quick answers. This is deep work, and it takes time. But in the normal rhythms of life, when we don’t have an hour to bury every rogue thought, there is a handy threefold response that might help. When that voice starts back up, consider these three actions.

1. Reject the lie that says pathological self-criticism is humility.

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We shouldn’t be fooled for a minute into believing that the opposite of self-criticism is self-esteem. PSC doesn’t mean—not in the least—that we pastors don’t love ourselves enough. In fact, it may exist because we love ourselves too much. PSC is the result of a mind stuck on itself—because we can only keep criticizing ourselves if we can’t get off ourselves. And what’s so dangerous, and so insidious, is that we can mistake this for being humble.

We imagine that the opposite of mental flagellation must be an over-inflated ego that expects everything we touch to turn to gold, and as long as we’re not that—as long as we keep reminding ourselves how pathetic we are—we can believe we’re poised to receive the grace God has promised to humility (James 4:6).

But we’re not, because PSC is not humility.

Humility is entirely different. Humility isn’t so much the denigration of self as it is the esteeming of something else greater than self. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” says John the Baptist (John 3:30). And the increase comes first, because he comes first. I decrease in light of him—and it’s decrease, not evaporate. I still do things, and must do things, in the grace that God supplies (see Phil. 2:12–13; 1 Cor. 15:10; 1 Pet. 4:10–11). And all of it is “from him and through him and to him,” not me (Rom. 11:36).

Further, humility compels courage and risk-taking for the gospel’s sake. PSC, in contrast, cowers in fear and circles the drain of “if only’s.” Really, PSC and humility are nothing alike, and it’s a shame how badly we’ve sullied the virtue of humility by mistaking it to be self-attack. No. No. No. That is not humility.

2. Remember weakness is an asset when God’s glory matters most.

The greatest victory ever known was accomplished by the greatest humiliation ever seen of the greatest man to ever live. Because that’s how God designed it.

At the center of the gospel we proclaim is the cross of Christ. Everything in pastoral ministry revolves around that cross, which means everything in pastoral ministry revolves around the wisdom of God that confounds the wisdom of man:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:27–29)

As many times as I’ve rehearsed this truth, it’s embarrassing how often I still basically think God looks his best when I look mine. I still think God will use the sermons most where my tongue gets tied up least. I think the Spirit’s work is more powerful when my enunciation is more precise.

In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul mentions his “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what that was, but what if it was how badly he performed at something he thought mattered? Yet Jesus told him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

His power in our weakness.

“Therefore,” Paul figures, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). And here’s the thing: this really has to do with what you love the most. If you supremely love the glory of Jesus, it’s worth being weak for. If you supremely love looking great before others, find another job.

3. Laugh at the Devil and move on.

This is as holy an antidote as any, and it seemed to work against Screwtape. You may remember C. S. Lewis taught us this trick in the battle against pride.

Lewis explained that once the Christian is humble, the Devil tempts him with awareness of humility, and then he stumbles into pride—the Christian becomes proud that he’s humble. But then, when the Christian is awake to that danger, the Devil tempts him with pride in that wakefulness—the Christian becomes proud that he discerned how easily he can become proud in his humility. And it’s all a mess from here, stuck in your head with layers of pride it seems—except that Screwtape warned Wormwood that at some point the Devil must leave the Christian alone, “for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.”

Do you get what he’s saying?

Sometimes the thoughts are so constant, and so insatiable, that we have to just forget it and do the next thing. And one of the best ways to forget it, to make it stop, to move on, is to laugh.

And laugh sooner than later.

I don’t have time for that hamster wheel today. Ha! I’ve got to get to work on another imperfect sermon. Ha! I’m running late for this meeting that’s over my head. Ha! I’m so weak that my only chance of doing anything of any lasting good is if a God who can raise the dead works through me. And he does! He does! Hahahaha!

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