Tears are often not my friend but on this particular day, I was sobbing like a young child. Nothing traumatic happened—no-one died, no one was suffering, no one injured me; I was simply driving in my car, listening to music. For some reason, on that particular day, God decided to use a song written by Andrew Peterson to open the floodgates of my soul in order that I may experience the grace of Jesus in a way like never before.
You see, for many, many years, I have struggled to rest. I have a driving desire to work and accomplish big things. I do not like idle time; I do not like wasting time. At times, this drive to work hard can be an absolute gift; other times, it can be a crushing reminder of constantly failing at something. There is always more to do, more to learn, more to explore, more ways to maximize time. For years now, if you were to ask me to give you one word to summarize my day, I would routinely reply: failure. I did not do enough, accomplish enough, read enough, memorize enough, be enough.
Yet, thankfully, the Lord is much more patient than I am, and has been chiseling away at my pride of self-reliance and my value system of achievement for quite some time. Back when I was a student at Covenant Seminary, God, in his mercy, began to reveal my insatiable desire for achievement, control, and perfection. Rather than rejoicing over a 94, I would determine to work harder to get a 97. In seminary, there was always more to do—more reading, more studying, more research, more memorizing—more, more, more. Even outside of school, was I not training to be a pastor? Then, I need to have a robust spiritual life, a godly presence in the home, a tender and firm heart with my children, a loving and caring disposition towards my wife. The pressure was insurmountable.
It is not as if Seminary created this drive in me, it just revealed how deep the cancer actually was in my heart; it exposed what I truly valued in life: achievement. Eventually, again, in the mercy and patience of God, achievement broke my soul and body. I was spiritually dry, irritated, angry; my body was showing signs of wear and tear: sleepless nights, weight gain, panic attacks, and night terrors. I could not control it anymore. I needed help. It was the first time, on my own volition, that I sought out a professional counselor to help me.
One Stinging Question
One crisp Autumn day, my counselor looked at my dead in the eyes and asked, “I want you to imagine for a moment that someone was talking to your wife or your family in the same way that you talk to yourself, what would you say? How would you respond?” I responded, as any ordinary person would, “I would tell them to stop. They had no right to talk to my wife or my family in that matter. They deserved kindness.” And Chad looked at me, as if Jesus was speaking directly to me, “Do you think God has given you the right to be harsh with yourself?” Partly relieved and partly embarrassed, I replied, “I guess not…”
You see, I had the tendency to walk into his office every week and talk about my inability to rest, “You can’t watch this movie, you could be using your time better. Stay up to study more. If you don’t do better, you will be a failure. You won’t be valued. This is where your ultimate success comes from.” He heard the constant internal dialogue in my head that demonstrated that I was ultimately being harsh with myself; I was not being kind to myself. While it may sound like psychobabble to some, my counselor’s words were exactly what I needed to hear: be kind to yourself. After all, Jesus says we should love our neighbors, as we love ourselves.
Growing up in the Reformed theological tradition, harshness and a self-critical spirit are almost prized. “Be killing sin,” Owen says, “or it will be killing you.” Contrition, mortification, and self-evaluation always seemed to be a virtue. While I believe that these things are still inherently valuable and true, I was also missing another piece of the puzzle: grace. My counselors words allowed me to experience grace in the moment rather than it being simply a subject I studied in the pages of the Bible or in good books. In other words, grace was awakening my soul to grace.
A Few Years Later
Like a good Father, God does not give up on us. My counseling sessions were three years ago and yet at the same time, I am still a recovering achievement addict. In this moment of the story, I am in the throes of full-blown church planting, which is fertile ground for an achievement junky to get his next fix. Eventually, the condemning self-talk gets to me, I am exhausted, distracted, irritated, and distant. Then, as I am mindlessly driving home, my Spotify playlist begins to play a song I’ve never heard before by Andrew Peterson: Be Kind To Yourself.
In hindsight, I know that Peterson is writing this song to his daughter, but in the moment, it was as if God the Father was singing this over me (Zephaniah 3:17). The song, which is actually quite simple, repeats over and over again: be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself. In a moment, the goodness and loving-kindness of Jesus floods my soul, I am overcome with tears, and I experience the kindness and grace of Jesus like never before.
Intellectually I understood Matthew 11, where Jesus says his burden is light, but it was not until that my moment that I experienced it. I constantly felt heavy-laden, burdened, and overwhelmed. Peterson’s words were like a healing arrow to my heart:
You can’t expect to be perfect
It’s a fight you’ve gotta forfeit
You belong to me whatever you do
So lay down your weapon, darling
Take a deep breath and believe that I love you
Be kind to yourself – be kind to yourself
Again, intellectually I knew I could not be perfect, but functionally I said, “But you can try really, really hard to be.” In that moment, I heard God say to me, “Lay down your weapon, lay down your self-reliance, take a deep breath, believe that I love you; therefore, be kind to yourself.”
When Jesus said in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies,” I always imagined that the enemy was external to me (which, it is, most of the time). But what if, for some of you who are like me, one of your greatest enemies is your self? What if your mind is constantly at war with yourself? What if your enemy is you? Peterson asks the same question:
How does it end when the war that you’re in
Is just you against you against you
Gotta learn to love, learn to love
Learn to love your enemies too
Eventually, the war that I was in with myself either led to my own defeat or my own freedom. Through the power of the Gospel, God has been freeing me, day-by-day, to the hope-inducing reality that I am in Christ, and I am loved right now. My prayer is that my story, which is still in progress, may encourage your heart to discover that God loves you right now.