Written by Jared Michonski
In the first half of this series, we looked at the concept and various applications of self-compassion the world offers. Let’s now examine this practice through the skeptical lens of scripture and, in noting its insufficiency, highlight the superior resources of the Christian faith.
First, mindfulness. Growing our awareness, strengthening our ability to regulate our attention, and turning toward rather than avoiding unpleasant internal experiences are applications of mindfulness that I suspect we as Christians can get behind. However, we must also recognize the limits of the practice.
Despite efforts by some psychologists to associate mindfulness practice with Christianity,¹ mindfulness meditation is not Christian prayer.
As noted, mindfulness practice involves being aware of one’s current-moment experience without evaluating it, observing with openness. Verbal processing is deemphasized. Additionally, mindfulness finds its roots in Buddhism, wherein suffering is believed to stem “from unfulfilled desires, and those desires are the result of the illusion that we are individual selves…Buddha taught that the solution to suffering is the extinguishing of desire through a change in consciousness”²—a change which can be facilitated by mindfulness meditation. But, as Keller explains in his critique of mystical prayer, Christian “prayer is ultimately a verbal [emphasis added] response of faith to a transcendent God’s Word and his grace, not an inward descent to discover we are one with all things and God.”³ Keller also reminds us of Luther’s admonition “that we must never get ‘beyond’ God’s words in the Bible or we can’t know whom we are conversing with. ‘We must first hear the Word, and then afterwards the Holy Ghost works in our hearts; he works in the hearts of whom he will, and how he will, but never without the Word.’”¹¹ The point is this: awareness is not enough. As noted above in invoking the psalmists’ example, we must bring our emotional pain to God and bring our beliefs in submission to Him; as we see his holiness, his mercy, his goodness more clearly, our trust in and affection for Him grows.
And a right view of God, allowing us to appreciate His character more fully, comes principally from studying his Word, not from inward observation alone.
Applied to my own example: Observing my experience of feeling pressured to perform combined with a recurring sense of coming up short, I might begin by lamenting the brokenness of this world as it pertains to work (Gen 3.17-19), as well as the futility of trying to find meaning in work and achievement apart from God (Eccl 1.12-15, 2.18-21). In so doing, I’m reoriented to an eternal perspective: Life is but a vapor; my accomplishments in this life are vanishing. Such lament puts me into fresh contact with a longing for transcendence, for eternity. And this longing points me to the resurrected Christ, the pioneer (Heb 12.2) of transcendence, in whom we find life and meaning that endures beyond the grave (John 3.16, 14.1-4; 1 Cor 15.16-22; Eph 1.11-14). But in addition to lament, I must face the sin in my heart—the idol of achievement that vies for my loyalty over devotion to God. I must confess, and then worship: i.e., allow meditation upon God’s glory and the eternal inheritance He graciously provides in Christ to reorient my affections such that all other loves are subordinated to the supreme Love (1 John 4.8).
Second, our common humanity. In assimilating mindfulness into its therapeutic repertoire, contemporary psychology has also smuggled in some of its underlying Buddhist beliefs. One of these is the illusion of the self and the essential connection to everyone (and everything) else.¹² Of course, as Christians, we can get behind our common humanity, but its origin is rooted in our common Creator, our common creaturely goodness and dignity as image-bearers, and our common fallenness in Adam. But more importantly, for the Christian, the source of self-acceptance is not chiefly to be found in one’s connectedness to others and the universal experience of suffering. Truthfully, in my experience clinically, reflecting upon such realities (connection to others and the universality of pain) does engender an experience of validation and eases the sense of aloneness. However, if the practice stops there, here again the person is settling for humanism—in this case, looking to other humans—for understanding and acceptance. And with this exercise, the practice occurs mentally, without even involving in-person connection.
The Christian resources for connection and acceptance are far superior.
With regard to connection, in Jesus we have a God who empathizes with our pain and weakness (Phil 2.6-8; Heb 4.15), and we are gifted with God’s indwelling Spirit to comfort and guide us (John 14.15-20; Rom 8.14-16, 26-27). Further, the acceptance we have in Christ, is far more robust than what can be found in the empathy or positive regard of humanism or the detachment of eastern religious traditions. God’s mercy and grace is celebrated throughout scripture (e.g., Ex 2.23-25, 34.6; Psalm 103; Micah 7.18-19; Isa 61.1-2; Matt 9.36), but is displayed most clearly at the cross: Jesus stepped into the mercy seat to atone for our sins (Rom 3.25; 2 Cor 5.21; Heb 2.17; 1 John 2.2), and in so doing, we are accepted, adopted as God’s beloved sons and daughters (Rom 8.14-17; Gal 4.4-7; Eph 1.4-6; 1 John 3.1-3). Our guilt and shame—whether unfairly put upon by others or our own mind; or whether fully warranted—is removed (Isa 61; Rom 8.1; Eph 2.4-6; 2 Cor 5.21; Heb 10.10, 14-22; 1 John 1.9, 2.1-2).
Third, loving-kindness. The problem with this facet of self-compassion is probably most obvious to the Christian. We are most in need, not of love and acceptance provided by ourselves, but that provided by Love himself. As the great Christian psychologist, St. Paul, counseled the Corinthians, neither others’ nor our own evaluations of ourselves really matters. What matters is God’s evaluation (1 Cor 4.3-4). But what is God’s evaluation? After all, as the self-compassion theorists rightly point out, we’re fallible. Thankfully, Christ has secured for us an evaluation as righteous—a righteousness accessed not by our own good performance, but by faith in and the faithfulness of Jesus (Rom 3.21-28; Eph 2.8-9). In addition to this legal change in status, as we’ve already seen, we’ve also been adopted as God’s beloved children. Further, in Christ, our identity transformation is so radical that Paul can employ such language as “new creation” and “new self,” assuring us that the “old” has already been removed (2 Cor 5.17; Col 3.9-10).¹³
Returning again to my own neurosis, if I take St. Paul’s counsel to heart, I would be wise to counter self-judgments and condemnation by reflecting upon who I am in Christ: adopted, beloved son; new creation; new self; and in the Spirit (Rom 8.9).
I must take to heart the reality that this identity is gifted by God, secured for me by Christ; I have not achieved it.
As I do this, preoccupation with performing and achieving should fade away; pursuit of my own glory is supplanted as I become captivated by God’s glory. Even more important than reflecting upon who I am, my attention turns increasingly to meditate upon who this loving, holy, glorious God is: a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex. 34.6); who condescended himself in the incarnation (Phil 2.6-8) to achieve deliverance for the captives (Isa 61.1-2; Luke 4.18-19) through his atoning death on the cross (Phil 2.8; Rom 3.25). A God who loves with a ferocity and delights in his children (Zeph 3.14-20). And as I grow in knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, I am filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3.17-19). The practice of self-compassion, of thinking and feeling warmly toward myself, then, becomes irrelevant.
Instead, my orientation toward myself becomes something more like a blessed self-forgetfulness.²¹
¹ For example, in her teaching notes on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Linehan (2015; pp. 157, 164, 165), in an effort to emphasize the universality of mindfulness meditation across all religions, repeatedly notes that Christian contemplative prayer, such as the centering prayer, is a form of mindfulness practice. From my anecdotal experience, DBT skills trainings are prone to overstate the relevance of mindfulness meditation to Christianity. Keller (2014, Ch. 3) offers a helpful critique of the role of such mystical prayer within Christian prayer.
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training manual, 2nd ed. Guilford Press.
² (p. 17-18) Keller, T.K. (2013) Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Books.
³ (p. 43) Keller, T.K. (2014). Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Penguin Books.
¹¹ (p. 57)
¹² (p. 163) Linehan (2015)
¹³ Paul appears to use indicative language in Colossians 3 to describe the transformation of identity that has already occurred through our union with Christ, whereas in Ephesians 4.20-24 he uses similar language, but in the imperative, to exhort us “to put off the old self…and to put on the new self.” Thus, we see the already-not-yet tension that Pauline scholars frequently perceive in Paul’s letters.