Joe looked at his phone for the eighteenth time that hour. No calls, no messages. Should he reach out to some friends? "No," he sighed, "they probably wouldn't care to hear from me."
Sally dreaded going to work this morning. She had just wrapped up a big project successfully, with loads of acclaim at the office. But now, with a new project to begin, she felt unsettled, as if the ground had shifted under her feet. "I had some good ideas on that last project," she thought to herself, "but I probably won't have what it takes to do the next one. Soon, they'll all figure out that I'm not really good at this."
"Why should I pray," David wondered, "when I am so bad at it? My motives are never right, I never have enough faith, I'm always asking for the wrong things, and God will know I'm just treating him like a spiritual Pez dispenser!"
What's going on for these people? Let's see - Joe is missing out on community because of his negative inner voice. He feels like people are better off without him. Sally is experiencing impostor syndrome, convinced that she's not good at what she does for a living. She's concerned this will make her a failure and threaten her standard of living.
Most serious of them all, David is feeling a separation from God in his inability to pray. He feels like God would reject the things he's asking for - but even more, he feels like God will reject the way he asks. He feels uncovered before God's eyes and ashamed that he's instinctively treating God like a machine.
Thankfully, none of these messages apply in eternity.
That's not to imply we're calling any of these thoughts sinful here. All three of our examples are listening to their inner critic. It's something many of us have built into our minds, at a very basic level - a damaged piece of our created being. Not so much an audible voice - no, it's more like a reflexive negative pattern of thought toward ourselves. The thoughts are intrusive - not something we want to think. Instead, it can feel like the thoughts are foisted upon us without consent.
Like most things in life, we have a wide spectrum for how severe this issue can be and how much it affects us daily. The fortunate among us, who are blessed with general psychological balance, will be able to absorb these kinds of messages when they come to mind. They may contain these thoughts but not be defined by them. If that's you, then please understand how it can be for others: the inner critic can consume us, becoming the default, most basic pattern of how we think of ourselves.
Ironically, when we reflect on what the inner critic tells us, we can feel like we ought to listen to it. It actually sounds realistic. We can picture life proceeding the way the critic tells us. We can envision people reacting to us, the conversations we'll have, all things we want to avoid. We can feel like it's just describing patterns we've already seen time and again - and why would this next time be different anyway?
This picturing of possible futures is a defensive mechanism in our minds. It's counterintuitive that something so internally devastating is there because we've been or felt threatened. But subconsciously, we are trying to work through worst-case scenarios before they can really happen to us. Somewhere deep within our brains, we're trying to take control and make sure we're only ultimately hurt by ourselves.
The inner critic also thrives on religion. "Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought," after all. So we tell ourselves that these thoughts really demonstrate our spirituality. These thoughts show we're really serious about this following after God thing, that we're not afraid to examine ourselves, and that we're ok giving ourselves hard truths.
Now, there is a time and a place for self-examination, and we all ought to be open to hearing hard truths about ourselves. But if our experience of these things is choking off community, competence, and prayer, something is way off. If we are instead becoming more isolated from God and others, if we're becoming more and more anxious regarding daily living - it's time to take other steps.
But stopping a well-trenched thought pattern is hard, if we try to hit it directly. So let's have a thought experiment that runs counter to it, without answering our inner critic's messages one by one. Almost everything our inner critic tells us are things that can't possibly be true in the life to come. We may try to make space for ourselves to think about who we are in eternity.
What does that look like? Well, when we get there, we're going to be completely ok with the fact that Jesus is the only defense of our lives. We won't be concerned about competence, or whether someone is just barely tolerating our personality - or whether God is for us. All of that will be plain, laid out in front of us with the clarity of glory.
Shame will no longer be our basic inclination. Overstaying our welcome will no longer be a possibility. God's presence will so permeate our consciousness that isolation is never experienced again. We will speak with God face-to-face.
Take a moment to picture these ideas. Encouraging, isn't it? All of those things are true, and in a sense they are true already: we who are in Christ are part of God's new creation already. The seed of the Spirit has been sown, and it cannot sin or be separated from our maker (1 John 3:9).
Making that space and meditating on these truths will not solve the inner critic. No - and the goal is not to silence it entirely. But practicing this truth does begin to set up an alternate pattern in our neural pathways. It will take practice to wear out that path, to come to a place where that is more the default way we think of ourselves.
So, fellow Christ-follower: how important it is to consider this part of our daily walk with Christ! Paul had every reason to tell us to "think on these things" (Philippians 4:8).
That's also why it is so important to be a community of believers who encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called today (Hebrews 3). So, church, be aware of the way you care for souls. Do you speak shame, incompetence, and isolation - confirming everything someone's inner critic is already shouting at them? Or do you speak Christ as the daily, continual grace to help in time of need?