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No words can describe my sense of embarrassment and panic. Im at the end of a college semester. Ive suddenly discovered that there are several courses Ive simply forgotten to attend. Finals begin in a few days, and term papers are due. Its too late to withdraw with a passing grade. Should I make a heroic effort to get through or just give up?
Its a recurring dream that haunts my night from time to time. When I wake up, I remind myself that everything is all right. I made it through college long ago, then went on to earn two graduate degrees. I never forgot to attend class for a week, let alone a semester.
Never mind. As much as I remind myself, the dream still recurs more often than I like to admit.
I have another recurring dream which is similar. One of the music groups with which I used to perform has come back together for a reunion concert. Were getting ready to go on stage and face a large audience. But we realize that we havent rehearsed and are totally unprepared to perform.
Again, my experiences with music groups have all been positive ones. Still, the dream suggests that part of me has never moved beyond early fears of failure.
Changing Our Self-Image is Difficult
Most people have difficultly letting go of old impressions of themselves. Psychologists term this the "self-consistency motive." While we have an enormous drive to do things to improve our self-image, we also have a surprisingly strong drive to maintain a consistent self-image. Change of any sort in our self-concept can be unsettling to us--even if its in a positive direction.
The result may be that we actually resist taking a step which would improve our life, because were more comfortable living with our present set of feelings. Or, if we do accomplish a cherished goal, we may still think of ourselves in terms of how we were before we reached it.
Recurring dreams such as mine can indicate that part of us is still clinging to an old self-perception. I entered college with a low image of myself as a student, for instance, having done poorly in high school. Even though Ive long since reached some academic goals I wanted to accomplish, something of the old self-impression remains.
As Ive shared about this dream at talks and seminars, many have admitted to me that they experience a similar one. It points to a very common problem with revising the self-image.
Self-Image and Spiritual Growth
This inertia in the way we view ourselves helps explain why spiritual growth is often such a slow and painful process. Growth in the way I think about God usually involves a change in the way I think about myself.
Developing a deeper trust in Christs power, for instance, means growing in my conviction that I am important to Christ, that he loves me enough to meet my needs, and that he wants to express his power through me to meet the needs of others. If my self-image is poor, I may find it hard to believe that God could love me in such a way. And the yen for self-consistency can provide powerful resistance to such a change in perspective.
We often see this problem illustrated by Jesus disciples in the Gospels. Time and again Jesus put them through experiences which taught them lessons not only about God but about themselves--that Gods power was not just an abstract force, but something that they were chosen to receive.
They were slow to catch on. In Mark 8:1-9 they face the immense problem of feeding themselves and a crowd of over four thousand people. Jesus responds by giving them a few loaves and fishes, and with these they miraculously feed themselves and the hungry multitude. At the time, the disciples must have been awe-struck by Jesus uncanny power. And they must have been profoundly convinced of his desire to use his power to meet their own needs and the needs of others through them.
A few hours later that conviction is already lost. They are out in a boat with Jesus, desperately concerned about where their next meal is coming from! Jesus, referring to the miracle that they have just experienced, asks them, "Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? . . . And do you not remember?" (Mark 8:17-18 RSV)
Respecting the Process
We should recognize self-consistency for the incredible force that it is. Understanding it will help us be more patient with ourselves and others in the whole process of spiritual and emotional growth.
But we must not forget that Gods Spirit at work in us is a greater power still. Gradually Jesus disciples did develop a much healthier view of God and of themselves. It took time. For them, and for each of us, its a process.
What I find most encouraging is that Jesus didnt give up on his disciples when they continued to miss the points he was trying to impress on them. Rather, he patiently prodded them to recall their past experiences, and to apply the lessons they had learned to the new challenges they were facing. He continued to query them in the boat, "'When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?' They said to him, 'Twelve.' 'And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?' And they said to him 'Seven.' And he said to them, 'Do you not yet understand?'" (Mark 8:19-21 RSV)
In the same way, Christ bears with you and me, continuing to remind us of the things we have learned but too quickly forgotten. Its in this sense that he promised the Holy Spirit will "bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" and will "guide you into all the truth" (John 14:26, 16:13 RSV). By saying that the Holy Spirit will "guide" us into truth, he implied that it will be a process--not something that happens all at once.
Bold Steps May Be Needed
We must simply be committed to doing those things which will keep the process in motion. Maintaining a regular devotional time is so important. Our need for regular worship is also unceasing, as is our need for Christian fellowship--especially with affirming Christian friends who desire Gods best for us.
It's just as important to keep momentum in our life and be willing to take on new challenges. Understanding our self-consistency helps us appreciate why we may experience mixed emotions about even golden opportunities that present themselves. We may have a good opportunity for a career change, for using our gifts in our church or fellowship, or for a relationship or marriage; it may even be an opportunity that God wants us to accept. Yet while we long for it on one level, we resist it on another. The desire for success is mixed with the fear of change.
The point may come for each of us when realizing Gods best will mean taking a major step with our life even though some fears and doubts remain. This is precisely what walking in faith sometimes involves--going ahead with a decision, even though all of the facts are not in and our emotions are not fully settled. The critical matter for each of us is to understand how big an influence self-consistency is in our life, and then to take appropriate steps to counteract it. If we have approached a choice carefully, prayed about it seriously, and are substantially convinced that its the best course to take, it can be reasonable to go ahead, even though our emotional sense of peace is something less than perfect.
Self-consistency is one of the least
understood factors of human nature. Yet it can be one of
the strongest influences on how we view our possibilities
in life. The best deterrent to the problems caused by
self-consistency is to do whatever we can to stay in a
growth mode--developing a vibrant relationship with
Christ, and taking new and challenging steps of faith
with our life. Christ wants us to view him dynamically
and our own life as well.
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Copyright 1997 M. Blaine Smith.
Please see our copyright page for permission to reprint. This article was also featured in Blaine's printed newsletter of March 1, 1997. Blaine looks at the fear of change in greater detail in several of his books, including The Yes Anxiety, The Optimism Factor, and One of a Kind.
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