words can describe my sense of embarrassment and panic. I’m
at the end of a college semester. I’ve suddenly discovered
that there are several courses I’ve simply forgotten to
attend. Finals begin in a few days, and term papers are due.
It’s too late to withdraw with a passing grade. Should I
make a heroic effort to get through, or just give up?
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, and then went on to earn two
graduate degrees. I never forgot to attend class for a
week, let alone a semester.
mind. As much as I remind myself, the dream still recurs more
often than I like to admit.
have another recurring dream that is similar. One of the bands
with which I used to play has come back together for a reunion
concert. We’re getting ready to go on stage and face a large
audience. But we realize that we haven’t rehearsed and are
totally unprepared to perform.
my experiences with musical groups have all been positive
ones. Still, the dream suggests that part of me has never
moved beyond early fears of failure.
people have difficultly letting go of old impressions of
themselves. Psychologists term this factor 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 it’s in a positive direction.
result may be that we actually resist taking a step that would
improve our life, because we’re more comfortable living with
our present set of feelings. Or, if we do accomplish a
cherished goal, we may continue to think of ourselves in terms
of how we were before we reached it.
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 I’ve subsequently reached
my major academic goals, something of the old self-impression
I’ve shared about this dream in 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.
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.
a deeper trust in Christ’s 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 this extraordinarily. And the yen for
self-consistency can provide powerful resistance to such a
change in perspective.
see this problem often illustrated by Jesus’ disciples in
the Gospels. Time and again Jesus put them through experiences
that taught them lessons not only about God but about
themselves--that God’s power wasn’t just an abstract
force, but something they were chosen to receive.
were slow to catch on. In Mark 8:1-8 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 meager provisions they miraculously
feed themselves and the hungry multitude. At the time, the
disciples must have been awestruck by Jesus’ uncanny power.
And they must have been profoundly convinced of his desire to
use his power to meet their needs and the needs of others
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 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?” (Mk 8:17-18 RSV).
should recognize self-consistency for the incredible force
that it is. Appreciating it will help us be more patient with
ourselves and others in the whole process of spiritual and
we must not forget that God’s 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.
As it was for them, it’s a process for each of us.
I find most encouraging is that Jesus didn’t 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?’” (Mk 8:19-21 RSV)
the same way, Christ bears with us, continuing to remind us of
the things we’ve learned but too quickly forgotten. It’s
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” (Jn 14:26, 16:13 RSV). By
declaring that the Holy Spirit will guide us into
truth, he implied that it will be a process, not something
that happens all at once.
must simply be committed to doing those things that will keep
the process in motion. Maintaining a regular devotional time
is so important. Our need for worship is also unceasing, as is
our need for Christian fellowship--especially with affirming
Christian friends who desire God’s best for us.
is just as important to keep momentum in our life and to be
willing to take on new challenges. Understanding our
self-consistency helps us appreciate why we may experience
mixed emotions about even golden opportunities. We may have a
good opportunity for a career change, or for using our gifts
in our church, or to develop a serious relationship or to
marry; it may even be an option 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.
point may come for each of us when realizing God’s best
means taking a major step with our life, even though some
fears and doubts remain. This is precisely what walking in
faith so often involves--going ahead with a decision, even
though all the facts are not in and our emotions are not fully
settled. The critical matter for each of us is to understand
just how great an influence self-consistency is in our life,
and then to take appropriate steps to counteract it. If
we’ve approached a choice carefully, prayed about it
seriously, and are substantially convinced it’s the
best course to take, it can make good sense to go ahead, even
though our emotional sense of peace is something less than
is one of the least appreciated 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