Are you too hard on yourself? Is that even possible for someone who is following Jesus? John Piper believes that, while there is a sense in which Christians are called to be “hard on themselves,” it is possible for us to be hard on ourselves in a way that is sinful.
“I’m often told by others in my secular job that I am too hard on myself,” a listener wrote to the Ask Pastor John podcast. “Recently, my wife has mentioned several times that the standards of excellence I try to achieve at church are too high. I don’t deliberately view life or myself like this. But wouldn’t low standards lead to acceptance of sin in our lives?”
Is It Possible to Be Too Hard on Yourself?
The Bible does not hide the fact that the Christian life is not an easy one. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” 2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
There are multiple times when Scripture tells us that excellence (perfection, in fact) is the standard for followers of Christ. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” 1 Peter 1:15-16 quotes Leviticus when it says, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” 1 Peter 2:12 even warns us that our behavior among unbelievers will impact what they think about God.
So it is understandable that someone might think Christians cannot strive too hard to obey God. But we need to consider all of Scripture, and Piper believes it is important that we clarify what being “too hard” on ourselves actually means. We can gain some insight into the answer to the listener’s question when we consider the Christian doctrines of justification and sanctification.
“Justification” refers to the process by which God cleanses us from our sin and enters into a relationship with us. It is “crucial,” said Piper, for believers to recognize that when Jesus paid for our sins on the cross, he forgave us completely and gave us peace with God. This means that God loves us and is for us, no matter what.
“Our sins are all forgiven, our guilt is totally removed, God’s wrath is taken away,” said Piper. “There is no condemnation. Before him, our consciences are clean. We enjoy peace, peace, peace with God. And we are in Christ, and God is one hundred percent for us and not against us in anything that happens to us, whether it’s the most horrible suffering or the greatest pleasure.”
Jesus is the one who saves us; we simply receive that free gift with joy and the humility of a child. Therefore, said Piper, you are being too hard on yourself when it comes to your justification if you are trying to earn peace with God on your own strength. If you think that you have to suffer because of your sin or that you can be right with God based on your own goodness, you are being hard on yourself in the wrong way.
“All of that would mean you don’t grasp the gospel,” said Piper. “You don’t receive God and what he’s done for you. You’re being too hard on yourself by demanding that you do what only God can do and has done for his people. That would be a great sin to load yourself down with that hard burden.”
Too Hard on Yourself in Your Sanctification
While justification refers to God making us “right” with him, “sanctification” refers to how we live now that we are right with him. As we have already observed, the Bible tells us that the Christian life is challenging. Piper listed a number of verses to support this point, including 2 Corinthians 6:4-5, which says, “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger.” Luke 14:25-26 says following Jesus might even lead to our deaths, as it did for many of his disciples.