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My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Lynne Baab • Tuesday May 30 2017

My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Some Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus, and they bring a woman to him. They caught her in the act of committing adultery, and they ask Jesus about stoning her. Jesus says that only a sinless person can condemn her, and the crowd of accusers slips away. Jesus and the woman are left alone. He says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11).

Jesus does not condemn a woman who has broken God’s law and human laws. Yet, at the same time, he calls her to be her best self in the future. We get into trouble because of the challenge of balancing these two components of his answer. Many of us were influenced by parents and teachers who were motivated to help us be our best selves, but they did it by shaming us and criticizing us.

As a result, we think that in order to grow into the people we want to be and were meant to be, we need to shame and criticize ourselves. Yet Jesus doesn’t do that. In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen argues that “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved'.”[1] Jesus calls us to be our best selves in a way that is rooted in belovedness, not self-condemnation. Jesus treats us gently, as precious, beloved friends, yet calls us to growth.

We often think that treating ourselves gently is a form of self-indulgence. Yes, self-compassion can work that way if it is not coupled with a commitment to excellence, health, and holiness.

For the past four weeks I’ve been writing about my new spiritual practice: separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings and letting the thoughts go if they are not healthy. In order to feel the feelings, I’ve been using a process with acronym, RAIN. Advocates for RAIN call it a form of self-compassion. Here I want to address the question of the appropriateness of this practice for Christians, using an illustration from my own life right now.

One of the major stressors in my life is our upcoming move from New Zealand, where we have lived for ten years, to Seattle, where we lived for 30 years before we came to NZ. I have moments of fear about getting all the details done on time for the move. I have moments of anxiety related to new patterns of relationships after we arrive. I feel sad about leaving this beautiful place and the friends we have made. I tend to overeat when stressed, so I feel angry at myself when I eat too much. So, I’m experiencing fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger, as well as excitement about seeing our beloved granddaughter, family, and friends more often.

God led us to plan this move, and I want to honor God in the process. Yet I have moments when I’m a mess of unruly thoughts and feelings.

I’m going to imagine that I hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” What would that look like in this situation?

Here are my ideas:

1. I must not let the voice of condemnation overwhelm me. In fact, I must turn away from that voice as much as possible. Of course I’m feeling a mix of sadness, fear, anxiety and, excitement. Of course I feel stressed, which always makes eating well hard for me. RAIN helps me feel those feelings but not wallow in them. RAIN helps me feel them but also let them go, and then I focus on letting the negative thoughts go as well.

2. I must allow Jesus to help me live in as healthy a manner as possible, as free from sin as possible. That means I do several things: I try to talk and pray about my trust in God for the move. I try to soak up the great things about New Zealand before we leave, and I thank God for them. I try to honor and thank people who have cared for me here. I work on eating as well as I can. I try to serve God in each day, being faithful to the work and people he has called me to in that day.

3. When I fail to trust, enjoy, thank, and eat well, I must ask God for forgiveness and start again. I try to avoid self-condemnation because God has forgiven me in Christ. 

This process I’ve described in my three steps is what I consider to be self-compassion in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I see it as honoring God much more than the cycle of self-condemnation that so many Christians fall into. I see it as freeing me to think about, and focus my actions on, things that matter to God (more on that next week). So, yes, self-compassion can be consistent with the Gospel.

Posts in this series on my new spiritual practice:
Separating thoughts from feelings       
Feeling the feelings using the RAIN process        
Coping with feelings that want to dominate         
Dealing with “demonic” thoughts         

(Next week: A Christian perspective on thoughts. Illustration by Dave Baab: interior of All Saints Anglican Church, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe” column.)

[1] Henri Houwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2002), 32.

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