Faith What Works

What Works: Being imperfect doesn’t mean you’re bad, just human

I broke my Lenten commitment on day one. (Every year, I fast from judging whether beggars are worthy or not — instead of deciding whether each is truly needy, a slacker or con artist, a good street musician or bad, I just give a dollar to anyone asking for money.) On Ash Wednesday, after a difficult day, I trudged right past two people asking for change on my way home, remembering my commitment but in my aggravation willfully denying it. I felt entitled to do the wrong thing because I’d had a hard day. I’m not proud of this, but does it mean I’m a bad person? Does it mean I failed at Lent? No, it means I’m human. The next day, I recommitted and haven’t slipped since.

People enjoy swearing off. And Lent is up there with New Year’s as biggest swearing-off ritual. But all too often the best intentions come up against habit, craving, or just fatigue, the abstainer slips, and then they feel like a failure. Sometimes the self-criticism blurs into self-hatred feeding a downward spiral that takes them to a worse place than if there had been no resolution in the first place.

The missing ingredient is love. All processes that involve self-restraint — whether once a year events like New Years and Lent, specific methods like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers, or paradigms like original sin — all must be accompanied by love, a sense of God’s love for us, and a loving attitude towards ourselves. Without love, we are simply “behaving” (or misbehaving) or making some dry calculation of karmic reward and punishment.

A grounded place of love

Love is essential because we will fall short, sometimes in spectacular ways, usually in embarrassingly mundane ones. We are not saints. And actually, by that standard, neither are the saints. Read about saints’ lives and you’ll find plenty of character defects at play. The point is: you aren’t God. So give yourself a break.

St. Augustine (my patron saint) famously said, “Love and do what you will.” He means that if your actions are coming from a place of love — a grounded place of harmony with God — then doing the right thing isn’t a struggle. He adds, “let the root of love be within; of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

As easy as it can be to do the right thing when grounded in love, a person usually can only behave for so long in a state of what is sometimes called “white-knuckling it” — obedience without love — before the mind starts rationalizing giving up and temptations become too attractive. And even if resolve holds for a long time, that doesn’t prove you don’t need love; only that you have a strong will. And that is no life. I’ve been there. I stayed sober for years once without having changed interiorly, without being grounded in God’s love.

This love, this sense of groundedness and connection to God and others, is essential because we will fall short, sometimes in spectacular ways, usually in embarrassingly mundane ones. We are not saints. And actually, by that standard, neither are the saints. Read about their lives and you’ll find plenty of character defects at play. The point is: you aren’t God. So give yourself a break.

And that brings us back to St. Augustine again with the terribly misunderstood concept of fallenness, of original sin. So often felt as a condemnation, instead, recognizing your own imperfection can be a comfort. We all fall short. We all get caught up in temptations and turn away from God. This doesn’t mean everyone is evil, as some fire and brimstone types would have it. It means everyone is human. And being given permission to not live up to perfection, but to make mistakes like every other human, is a pretty big load off the shoulders.

Jesus didn’t rebuke people for personal sins. He reserved his anger for hypocrites and those who disgraced the divine through their actions. But to the individual sinner, he said: Welcome, join me; change your ways but for right now, just have a seat. Jesus was radically welcoming and radically accepting. I’m not saying he didn’t find fault with behaviors, but he didn’t deem a person unacceptable when their behavior was. They were still welcome at his table. In fact, like the parable of the lost sheep, he paid more attention to those who needed to hear his message.

So be understanding of others, and especially in this Lenten season, have compassion for yourself. When you struggle with trying to live up to your best intentions, it is simply a reminder of the extent to which you are not running the show. Look at how hard it is for us even to control some silly little Lenten commitment like abstaining from a treat. And that’s OK. We’re only human. Just dust yourself off, ask forgiveness, and try to do better.

How is your Lenten fasting going? Have you learned lessons from struggling with your Lenten fasting, this year or in the past, or with any other time when you failed to meet your own best intentions. Share your experience here in comments. It will help others to know that none of us is perfect.

This column was originally published on March 25, 2011. So far, I’ve maintained my Lenten commitment to give unconditionally to beggars. But I’m sure I’ll slip into judgement and rationalize breaking it soon. Because I’m only human.

12 replies on “What Works: Being imperfect doesn’t mean you’re bad, just human”

“Love and do what you will.”
I realize this doesn’t mean one can do whatever they want but it would be a great passage to examine in more depth, as it does seem to contradict some of the “thou shalt nots” as they were if those “nots” are truly not seen as wrong/sinful by the actor (conscience?)


Amen at loving ourselves too. Too often I am not gentle with myself. I know we all sin but God created us human too. Shouldn’t we accept, love and embrace our humanness while standing firm in our Creator’s light? I wonder if we insult Him when we constantly deny and reject our selves, His creation.

I am all for letting go of what comes between us and God, confessing our sins. You are so right in realizing we are just humans. good post and reflected much of what I have been pondering lately

Thank you for a beautifu column! It really touched me. I tend to be hard on myself and the reminder to give myself a break hit home- maybe fasting from judging anyone, including myself, would be a good idea. It reminded me of something one of our parish priests said that I will never forget: God loves you completely just as you are right now. How easy this is to forget.
Thank you again, I appreciate your work.

gems on this topic: by Ernie Kurtz and Simon Tugwell – and of course Therese of L. thanks for the reminder.

I don’t consider myself religious and so read these columns with some skepticism. I certainly enjoyed this one, though, especially the passages about Jesus. I’ve always believed He accepts us the way we are, warts and all, and it’s refreshing to read another’s thoughts on this. It is the hypocrites He had a problem with, those that judge others harshly. I wish more church leaders, catholic, protestant, Jewish, and Muslim, would remember this.

Phil! We had the same committment for Lent. I’ve slipped every time I had the opportunity. I always have some sort of reason why I shouldn’t give money. Usually it’s that I don’t feel safe. But that was exactly what I was hoping to challenge within myself. Eventually I just gave up and forgot my committment entirely. Yikes!

I don’t feel comfortable giving money; too often, it’s used for something that I would consider inappropriate (and since it’s my money, I get to decide what’s appropriate:-)… for example, cigarettes are Nnot!). But I have no qualms about giving food.

Thank you for this post. I too, have a difficult time not beating myself up about being human. This article has helped me to maybe start resolving my hang ups with myself. Not by giving up on striving to be more like Christ everyday, but just knowing that if I mess up, God will still love me. Like you said, I just have to dust myself off and try again! Praise be to God!

Thank you so much for publishing this article again. It served me as a reminder when I saw a woman begging with a baby as I was coming out of the subway this afternoon. I went past her, felt nothing for contempt for using the baby as a prop. Then, I turned around and gave her a dollar. After all, I’m just as human as her.

Thank you for your timely reminder. Indeed we often forget that we are human and become hard on ourselves when we slip. I think when we can learn to accept ourselves as we are, both broken and blessed, and learn to be compassionate, we will do the same in our relations with others. I see both the good that I am capable of doing(hailing a cab for an elderly woman and helping her get in) as well as the bad(swearing at a neighbour behind their back) both in one day. And I realise how much I need God’s grace in my life.

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