We've all heard the adage, "Don't cry over spilt milk." It is the common instruction we might tell our children when they make a mistake, and we tell them it's no big deal. These are our wise words to let them know that the accident was a small thing and not worth crying over. Mistakes happen. We simply clean it up and move on. But what if you're an adult and the accident is not a simple cleanup like milk?
Mistakes happen. We simply clean it up and move on. But what if you're an adult and the accident is not a simple cleanup like milk?
This is what happened to "Joe" as he painted his basement. It all happened so fast that he didn't even recall what happened, except that the mostly full white paint can ended up on its side, spilling about a quarter of the paint from the can onto the floor. For the next 15 minutes, while cleaning up his mess on the laminate flooring, Joe let out a series of curses that would likely make a sailor proud to be his friend.
What would cause this immediate reaction from Joe? Why would his reaction be so strong when he is such a mild-mannered guy? Joe admitted if this had happened in public and within the earshot of others, his response would not have been so vocal. He would have perhaps cursed to himself inwardly or in a very low voice so no one could hear him.
When entering the counseling room, Joe spoke about this episode with a calm and confused look. He knew he did not want to be the type of guy that curses over spilt paint and yet wondered what was going on for him to respond in such a way. Joe spoke about the stresses of work, the issues with his children, and the problems with cars and surmised it was simply the stresses of life that caused such a reaction. He also knew it must be controllable since he would have kept silent if others were in the room. Joe didn't want to be like this, so he asked for help.
In the counseling room, I learned several things about Joe. First, Joe is a people pleaser, which helps us to understand his lack of yelling when others are around. Their potential disapproval is enough for him to keep his anger to himself. But knowing this did not solve the underlying issues with his anger.
Joe is also a perfectionist. Yet he is not a perfectionist as many would define it. He is not overly organized, is a little messy, and is fine completing projects that look good but fall short of perfection. He can be, however, hard on himself. He makes common mistakes, is forgetful, and can be clumsy. He hates these things about himself. While Joe is not a perfectionist with outward successes, he tends to be one when it comes to himself. So when he spilled the paint, his curses flowed like a fountain from his heart out of his mouth and into the house.
Joe does not simply have an anger problem or a people-pleasing problem. Joe has a pride problem. He believes he shouldn't make mistakes, be forgetful, or be clumsy. He is living by the belief that he should have it all together, and whatever he sets out to accomplish should not have any setbacks. Joe thinks highly of himself and has set standards that he has been unable to maintain. He failed. And he's angry that he failed.
Why do we struggle to believe or recognize that as finite and sinful beings, we will fall short of any standard consistently?
If you've ever gotten down on yourself for messing up and said, "I can't believe I did that," you might be in the same place as Joe. Why do we struggle to believe or recognize that as finite and sinful beings, we will fall short of any standard consistently? It doesn't matter where the standard comes from. Whether the standard was created by God, parents, spouses, employers, or even ourselves - we will fall short frequently. And this surprises us. Why? Perhaps the pride inside us deceives us into thinking that we won't mess up, shouldn't mess up, or are incapable of messing up. It's one of the reasons we struggle with anxiety and depression. We get anxious about trying to meet such standards and depressed when we fail to measure up, so we curse over spilled paint.
Pride may be an important part of Joe's outburst, but simply labeling the issue will not move him to where he needs to be. Joe needs to go before the Lord and seek forgiveness for setting and believing he can meet the standards he set for himself - standards that are even above God's standards for him. He can humble himself and acknowledge and believe that he cannot meet such standards. This is where Joe's journey ought to start (Ja 4:6).
Peter instructs us to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet 3:18). For Joe, growing in God's grace is essential for rooting out anger in the circumstances like these. Growing in grace will take on several fronts:
First, it will mean he takes an accurate assessment (sober judgment) of himself by acknowledging his own standards and accepting his limitations. Joe must understand that his expectations of himself are unrealistic. He does not consider his fallen nature but only sees what he "should" do as the ideal Joe without understanding that he is simply Joe - fallen but favored.
Secondly, growing in grace means that Joe ought to recognize the standards he has placed on himself are tied to how he feels about himself. Joe's worth is tied to his performance. When he performs well according to his standard, he feels worthy. And when he makes mistakes or fails, he is a failure. Joe's journey will be about letting go of his performance-based worth and accepting a worth found not only in God's favor but in Christ's performance for Joe on the cross.
While much more can be said about Joe growing in grace, these two steps in his journey will be critical for his growth in Christ. To help in his journey, Joe read the book Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges and memorized Romans 8:1 (Therefore, there is no condemnation…) and Ephesians 2:8-9 (It is by grace you are saved…). Joe began to write down his standards for himself in different areas of his life and applied various scripture verses on grace to these standards in an adjacent column. In this process, he even recognized the standards he had set for other people as well. He made attempts to apply grace in these circumstances resulting in a reduction of self-condemnation and freedom from self-made standards. Joe's fruit was changing because his heart was changing. Joe was beginning to live by grace.
The expectations or standards we've set for ourselves and others can significantly impact our lives
The expectations or standards we've set for ourselves and others can significantly impact our lives. Like Joe, our fruit often reveals to us that something more is going on at the heart level that needs attending. When such fruit is revealed, it provides an opportunity to look into our hearts and discover that we have a greater need for grace. For Joe, cursing over spilt paint revealed how his performance orientation (law of works mentality) was rooted in his search for worth. It is only through grace, however, that Joe's worth and subsequent fruit would change, and he would find peace. In this process, Joe discovered that he is not saved through his perfect works but by God's grace alone.
Our journeys in grace will lead us to find hope, freedom, and peace through Christ. May His saving grace empower us to live lives pleasing to Him and for His glory. Amen.
- Fred Jacoby, MA