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The Voice of the Inner Critic

A number of months ago, I came home from work and gave my wife Jill a summarized recounting of the day, declaring with loud exasperation, “I worked like crazy today and didn’t get anything done.”

She looked at me like I had grown a horn out of the middle of my forehead, her expression wordlessly saying, “Are you out of your mind?”

Ah, she knows me too well, and my propensity for self-critique.

Today in my weekly quiet Sunday-morning moments at a coffee shop, I read these words from John, the friend of Jesus who earned the tender nickname “the beloved disciple,” and went on to write a gospel and three letters that appear in the New Testament:

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.

1 John 3:19-20

“Whenever our heart condemns us…” What a phrase! This must be a thing, this phenomenon of a self-condemning, self-criticizing heart. In fact, if we zoom out and read John’s entire letter, the whole point of it seems to be reassurance, a written and enduring answer for those of us who habitually doubt the good news of the gospel, wondering if we even really belong to God at all.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last year or so learning about the Enneagram. This tool for personal reflection has been a helpful doorway into some self-discovery for me, as I’ve learned that I am most likely a One on the 9-type Enneagram. The One is the Reformer or the Perfectionist. Like all of the types, there are glorious aspects to it, as well as some darker aspects. One less-than-glorious aspect for me is my regularly indulging the inner critic (and, unfortunately, far too often unleashing the outer critic as well, making others feel judged or deficient more than loved and cherished). Those who have studied and written about the Enneagram tell us that we should not be surprised when they feel criticized by their friends who are Ones, as they have been practicing on themselves all day long…

This was good information for me! It exposes a corrosiveness in me towards myself that emerges mostly on the inside, as the inner critic crafts sentences addressed to me like these:

  • I can’t believe you said that in the faculty meeting. What a know-it-all.
  • You’re the worst musician in this ensemble. What a poser.
  • Your band program hasn’t grown at all. There must be something unappealing about the way you lead.
  • You just spent an hour with that counseling client, and that’s the best you could come up with?
  • You talk a good game, but your spiritual life is a sham.
  • You’re still struggling with that?

Actually, sometimes the inner critic is less specific, using blunt force declarations:

  • You are not talented
  • You are egotistical
  • You are mad all the time
  • You’re dumb…. Too old… not taken seriously….overlooked.

Ouch! If someone spoke like that to one of my friends or family members, I’d be up in arms in their defense. Even if there are shreds of truth in these excoriating sentences, they are blanket indictments of myself, devoid of hope and stripped of grace, completely ignoring the good work of God in me over the years, not to mention a whole lot of data to the contrary. Over the years, this has softened somewhat, but I’m surprised at how easily the sentences still appear.

John’s letter gives an answer for those times when the inner critic is in full gear, and we feel self-condemnation in our own hearts:

God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.

As one who knew his own belovedness (don’t you love that John obliquely refers to himself in his gospel as “the one Jesus loved”?), John knows what he is talking about! When we are feeling self-condemned, our inner judge reciting his litany of our failure and reasons not to be beloved, it is then that God says, “I know everything about you, I am greater than your condemning thoughts and feelings, you are Mine. Oh, and did I say, I know everything?”

Will we allow ourselves this embrace, this celebration of our belovedness from an all-knowing, all-forgiving Father?

Lest we think this makes God into some sort of beneficent Santa Claus, earlier in the letter John lays out the terms of the deal, the holy transaction and gift that ratifies forever God’s love.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2

A whole lot of good news (“gospel”) is packed into those three sentences. Cast in such a gentle tone (“my dear children”), John tells us that “just in case” we sin (this is almost comedic), God’s got this. His Son Jesus is our advocate, who also happens to be “the Righteous One.” His rightness substitutes for our lack of it. His sacrifice atones for our failure – restoring whatever is broken between us and God – and gives us a place where the sentence “God is greater than our heart” should cause us all to breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

And, it doesn’t hurt to have someone in our community, friends, or family who can be an Inner Critic Detector, like Jill was for me, who can speak a bit of truth into the foggy mess of half- truths our inner self-critical sentences can be. The fact was when I declared “I didn’t get anything done!”, I had actually had a pretty incredible, though difficult, day of rehearsing musicians, conversing with students, planning a tour, grading papers, and more. The unfinished items on my do list became the failure filter through which I saw my day, obscuring the good work done by me, by the grace of God. Her redemptively mocking expression of disbelief helped me hear “God is greater than my heart” and embrace the reassurance His love gives. We can do that for each other – mediate grace when our inner critic is loud and insistent.

It is no accident that the Lord’s prayer begins, “Our Daddy” and not “Our Judge.” Embrace your belovedness as His child and friend, and live in the light of being forgiven, treasured, and loved. And, when given the opportunity, gently roll your eyes when you detect an ungracious inner critic blocking the way for a friend.

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