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Owning Up to Our Mistakes

Mark is a role model for me in a way he probably doesn’t know. I’ve learned from the honesty with which he talks about his past mistakes and what he has learned from them. I also saw him including these life lessons in conversations that included his teenagers while they were growing up – demonstrating how mistakes can lead to learning and growth. His behavior is a sharp contrast with my own. I’m always putting a good face on my behavior. I spin the past and present in a positive way – doing my best to look good no matter what.

As our spiritual journey continues during these days of Lent, it may lead us to confront patterns of behavior that are unflattering and painful. When that occurs, I find myself swallowing hard and owning up to ways I need to change. This often includes experiencing stabs of regret from my past mistakes that continue to lurk somewhere within me as unfinished business.

When our spiritual journey brings us face-to-face with our need to change, I’ve learned there are several ways we can respond: denial, self-improvement, and ongoing conversion. I know something about each of them because I’ve tried them all.

Denial was my first form of defense in resisting needed change. I’ve looked the other way, pretended everything was fine, and tried to go on about life as though nothing was wrong. On the surface, denial is inviting; sadly, it just doesn’t work. It’s not a solution; it is merely a tactic that postpones the inevitable. Denial requires significant effort to keep the problem hidden – all the while causing me to live with the fear it will be discovered. It’s sometimes possible to keep the need to change out of sight; it’s virtually impossible to keep it out of mind. When the problem finally comes to light, it’s like an overdue loan – the payment includes a heavy interest penalty.

Launching a well-intended self-improvement project has been my second response to the need to change. This option was particularly enticing because I like control, setting goals, and having a plan. It’s an approach that is deeply embedded in our American culture’s emphasis on initiative, self-determination, and achievement. 

The combination of cultural bias and my career focus on achieving results made it hard for me to see the flaw in this approach. Slowly, however, I began to realize how easily a self-improvement project can become ego-centric and self-serving. I was preoccupied with my own efforts – constantly measuring myself against the goal I had set. When my efforts inevitably came up short, I doubled down and tried even harder. When I experienced repeated and persistent shortcomings, all too often I found myself on the slippery slope to self-judgment and self-condemnation.

When the spiritual journey becomes a self-improvement project, we start thinking all we need is the right motivation and intense effort. The flaw is thinking we can make ourselves worthy and earn redemption. When we focus on trying to save ourselves rather than relying on God, we paint ourselves into a corner.

Setbacks and failure can be good teachers. When both denial and self-improvement came up short, the spiritual journey led me to a third way of responding to my need to change: embracing ongoing conversion.

Ongoing conversion begins with trusting that God loves us as we are – including our unique gifts and all of our limits, flaws, and sinfulness. We don’t have to earn God’s love; we already have it as beloved daughters and sons. Trusting God’s love frees us to abandon denial and accept the full scope of who we are – in all of our giftedness, weakness, and faults. This radical self-acceptance creates a new possibility. As the late Charlene McCarthy put it years ago: “When we acknowledge our humanness, we let God be God.”

Letting God be God opens us to accepting what God does best: healing, forgiving, redeeming, and loving. Embracing ongoing conversion places our ultimate trust in the God of mercy and love. There is no need to earn redemption, we simply open ourselves to receive it. This shift is both remarkably profound and bafflingly simple. We embrace ongoing conversion in response to God’s forgiveness and love, not to earn or deserve it.

I learned from Mark that mistakes and shortcomings don’t have to be hidden; they can be helpful life lessons about learning and growth. Confronting my own need to change has been a journey of both failure and discovery. I’ve learned that denial doesn’t work; it merely delays the inevitable. I’ve experienced how self-improvement efforts can become ego-centric – painting us into a corner and digressing into self-judgment and self-criticism. Out of those failures, a discovery emerged: God loves us unconditionally and invites us to embrace ongoing conversion – the lifelong transformation of our thinking, our behavior, and our entire lives.

Ongoing conversion invites us to open our minds, our hearts, and our whole selves ever more deeply to God. As we continue to do so, our lives slowly become more closely aligned with God’s will and God’s way. We lose our need to resist needed change and become more willing to gradually let go of habits and behaviors that are no longer necessary. We find ourselves shifting from counting on ourselves to trusting in God, from calling our own shots to surrendering in prayer, and from promoting ourselves to serving others. The spiritual journey urges us to embrace ongoing conversion – not to prove that we are worthy but as an intentional act of surrender and love.

Invitation to Ongoing Conversion

I encourage you to try the following spiritual practice in order to more fully embrace ongoing conversion. Lent is a great time to try it.

  • Reflect on a Gospel story of healing and forgiveness. Try to personalize the story – taking it to heart and allowing it to touch you at a deep, emotional level.
  • Choose any Gospel story of healing and forgiveness. Here are a few of my favorites that you may find helpful. Or pick a favorite of your own.
    • The woman at the well (John 4: 1-42) is desperate for a love that will last, and she has failed in every attempt to achieve it. Her first response to Jesus is defensive and skeptical. As their encounter unfolds, the woman experiences Jesus’ unconditional love, and it leaves her profoundly changed.
    • Peter’s fear caused him to betray Jesus – denying he even knew him. When Peter encounters Jesus as the stranger on the beach (John 21: 4-19), he is desperate for forgiveness, but he is afraid Jesus doubts his love.
    • When the paralytic’s friends remove the roof tiles and lower him into the room where Jesus is teaching, the man is desperate, helpless, and afraid. (Luke 5: 17-26) As he lies at Jesus’ feet, he has no idea what will happen next.
    • The woman has suffered for years in pain and shame. (Luke 8: 43-48) Every attempt at healing has failed. If she can just get close enough to touch Jesus’ cloak . . . 
  • Read the story slowly – over and over if necessary. Try to enter into the experience of those in the story – feeling what they feel.
    • Let the story touch you at an emotional level.
    • What did the people experience?
    • How did they feel?
    • In what way were they changed?
  • Personalize the story – discovering its connection with your own experience.
    • When have you experienced something similar?
    • How did it make you feel?
    • What does the story reveal about your own need for conversion?
    • In what way is the story inviting you to embrace ongoing conversion?
  • Let the story invite you to prayer in whatever way is appropriate.
    • Asking God for the forgiveness and healing that you need . . . 
    • Thanking God for the gift of mercy and forgiveness . . . 
    • Any other appropriate response in prayer 

I hope this practice helps you to embrace ongoing conversion and surrender to the God who loves you as you are.