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The Downside of a Half-Empty Spirituality

For most of my life, I’ve lived with a “glass-half-empty” view of myself. Perhaps you know what that’s like . . . being dogged by relentless self-criticism. No matter what I do or achieve, a persistent inner voice nags me: “You could have done better” or “Yah, but what about your shortcomings, mistakes and failures.” That inner voice is never satisfied. It thrives on “you could have done more, done differently, done better.”

For much of my life, self-criticism was motivational. It drove me to learn, achieve, and help others – even though I now recognize that all too often those efforts were self-centered attempts to look good and feel better about myself. I viewed self-criticism as functional – even helpful. It drove me to improve myself and excel. It took me years to reckon with the psychic and spiritual cost of such a half-empty view of myself. Slowly, I had to come to grips with the ways it is dysfunctional. Over time, I came to realize that self-awareness is helpful, but excessive self-criticism is a not-so-subtle disguise for self-condemnation and self-hate.

The way we view ourselves has profound implications for our spirituality. The late Thomas Keating provides a helpful insight: “Every time there is a significant growth in our spiritual development, all of our relationships change – to God, to ourselves, to other people, to all creation.”1 Keating encourages us to grasp the intimate connections among these relationships. As any one of them evolves and changes, it impacts all the others.

Keating’s comment reveals that my half-empty view of myself can become a slippery slope to a half-empty spirituality. Being overly negative in the way I see myself can lead to a distorted view of God, of others, and of creation. For example, a half-empty view of myself can result in a too-small view of God as a scorekeeper and judge who doles out rewards and punishment. Such a narrow view can prevent me from seeing God as the ultimate source of mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love.

The slippery slope to a half-empty spirituality can also lead to unhealthy ways of relating to others – such as comparing myself with them in an ego-centric attempt to demonstrate that I am somehow superior. It can also result in a narrow, instrumental view of creation – seeing it as a commodity to use rather than a gift that manifests God’s presence.

Getting stuck in a half-empty spirituality stunts our growth. The challenge is to recognize our limited view as a call to conversion. It is an invitation and opportunity to transform our relationships with God, ourselves, others, and all creation.

Father Richard Rohr captures an intriguing dimension of this call to conversion: “Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us. Jesus came to change our minds about God.”2 Rohr is emphasizing that the God whom Jesus reveals already sees us as we truly are. His mission wasn’t about convincing God that humankind is good and worthy of redemption. After all, God created us in love and knows us intimately. The divine view of humankind didn’t need to change.

Jesus’ mission was to change our minds about God. The incarnate God-with-us helps us grasp a deeper, more profound understanding of God. His ministry of teaching and healing focuses on eating with outcasts and sinners. Table fellowship is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry because his mission is to reveal a God of mercy, healing, forgiveness, and love. In his final act of trust and surrender, Jesus accepts suffering and death as his ultimate gift of self-emptying love. His outpouring of love and forgiveness reveals that God’s love is stronger than death. It also reveals that God’s forgiveness and love are the definitive reconciling forces in the universe.

Conversion goes deeper than simply changing our minds about God. It also urges us to change our hearts and our whole selves – transforming the way we relate to God, to ourselves, to others, and to all that is.

Embracing conversion requires leaving behind a half-empty spirituality to open ourselves to the God that Jesus reveals. To do that, we need to go deeper than catechism answers in order to entrust our hearts and surrender our lives. Our relationship with God isn’t a theoretical question or a theological speculation. It’s a dynamic relationship with the living God who is powerfully present in our lives – inviting us into relationship and embracing us with acceptance, forgiveness, and love. As we go deeper and deeper into that relationship, nothing short of our complete surrender is an adequate response.

Embracing conversion helps us more fully appreciate our own uniqueness – being grateful for the gifts that we have and learning to accept our limits and shortcomings. For me – and perhaps for you – the path of conversion leads to moving beyond excessive self-criticism in order to learn self-acceptance. It involves becoming more compassionate in the way I relate to myself. As we get a glimpse of the way in which God sees us, we being to adopt that perspective. Slowly, that emerging awareness helps us learn to forgive ourselves for not being perfect and to love ourselves as we are.

Embracing conversion also leads to seeing and appreciating the uniqueness of others in all their gifted diversity. We no longer need to compare ourselves to others or create hierarchies of worthiness. We begin to embrace a profound solidarity with the entire human family – a unity in which no one is “other.” We begin to recognize that we are all daughters and sons of the God who created and redeems us.  

Embracing conversion also helps us recognize that all creation is a gift of God and a sacrament of the divine presence. It urges us to be awestruck by the wonders of creation while appreciating how fragile our planet is. Conversion calls us to steward our common home – treading lightly on the earth in order to preserve it and entrust it to future generations.

As the journey of conversion unfolds throughout our lives, we come to a deeper appreciation that significant spiritual growth causes all of our relationships to change. Keating’s insight – what he loved to call a word of wisdom –frees us to move beyond a half-empty spirituality in order to embrace an ever-deepening relationship with the God of mercy, love, and forgiveness. What better journey – what more exciting adventure – could we possibly imagine!

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you reflect on leaving behind a half-empty spirituality.

  • What roles has self-criticism played in your spiritual journey?
  • What is your response to Keating’s insight below?

Every time there is a significant growth in our spiritual development, all of our relationships change – to God, to ourselves, to other people, to all creation.

  • How have the following relationships changed over the course of your spiritual journey?
    • With yourself?
    • With God?
    • With others?
    • With creation?
  • How do you currently see each of those relationships?
  • How can Keating’s word of wisdom guide you going forward?


1 Keating, The Better Part: Stages of Contemplative Living, (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002), p. 25.

2 Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation: A Non-Violent Atonement (At-One-Ment), (Scottsdale, Center for Action and Contemplation, October 12, 2016)