We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.
- C.S. Lewis
I’ve been reading a fascinating book lately, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal.
Whether you’re struggling with keeping your New Year’s resolutions or preparing to give up something for Lent, it’s worth a read. I found one detail especially fascinating: Research shows that when we berate ourselves for lapses in willpower, we make matters worse.
You see, one of the problems we face when we stumble is what psychologists call the what-the-hell effect. If I indulge in the large fries at lunch, I feel ashamed of myself and angry at my lack of self-control. Then, since I figure I’ve already blown my diet for the day, I might as well have dessert after dinner, right? McGonigal writes, “The what-the-hell effect is an attempt to escape the bad feelings that follow a setback.”
There’s a way out of this trap, and it’s an approach any Christian will recognize: forgiveness. When we acknowledge that we’ve stumbled, examine how we feel about it, notice our self-criticism but set the screeching aside, we can acknowledge our failure without wallowing in guilt. We can pick ourselves up and get back on track.
The truth is, God doesn’t ask us to beat ourselves up. He doesn’t demand that we rant at ourselves, raging that we’re stupid or losers or bad. He doesn’t say, “Yell at yourself in a way that would be un-Christian if you were talking to someone else.” He tells us simply that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). He wants us to admit our failures. Admit that we feel bad about it. Accept his forgiveness. And move on.
Julia Attaway is a freelance writer, homeschooler and mother of five. She is the editor of Daily Guideposts: Your First Year of Motherhood, a book of devotions for first-time moms. She lives in New York.