This article is a follow-up to the article The Critic on Your Shoulder https://meridianmag.wpengine.com/article/5926?ac=1.
Maurine Proctor writes every Tuesday on Meridian Magazine.
Some of us have a critic in our heads, an evaluator who whisks through our lives with white gloves, running a disapproving finger over the dust that seems to settle everywhere, taking notes of the ways we don’t quite measure up, and scolding us, invisibly, for our failings.
It’s not surprising that we should have this voice, this souvenir of a fallen world. We’ve been evaluated since first breath. We’ve been graded in school, lined up according to achievement, having every part of us poked and prodded for vulnerabilities. We know that some attributes like wealth and visible position add to our social standing, but all this seems terribly precarious. We’re too much of this and too little of that, too fat, too tall, too thin, too short. We can sense when people don’t regard us.
Should we trip when we are running before this steam roller that we sometimes experience as life, not only are we in danger of being smashed by our external circumstances, but there can be an insidious inner voice that sneers, “You must deserve this.”
Mortality for some of us can seem like Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial. In this book a man, who is just going about his own business, is arrested out of the blue and prosecuted for some crime. Not only can he never determine exactly what the crime was he was supposed to have committed, he also doesn’t know what authority charged him. This power remains anonymous and inaccessible to him no matter how much he tries to find the source of his accusation. He is in a world with essentially a faceless police force, a faceless jury, a faceless judge and no hope of appeal.
If we are one who sometimes feels that critical voice, what can add to the challenge is that it might also register as being unjust. Not only are we stressed, anxious and striving to try to please our evaluator, but we are also stung that we should try so hard and receive nothing but this condemnation. “I am trying, I am trying,” we may say like a little child in response to the voice, who seems not to notice or care.
If this critical voice is loud in good times, think how many decibels it raises when times are really tough—like the economic trials of the present. You lost your job? You are no longer one of the golden ones. You can’t pay a bill that used to be easy? The phone rings in accusatory tones.
When we have a critic in our consciousness, we may mistakenly assume that it is God, when, in fact, it is Satan, masquerading as God. We can tell whose voice it is because it has the effect of driving a wedge in our spirituality. If we feel like we can’t please God, we run from him, we crouch in corners, we cringe. We don’t want to offer prayers because we don’t think they will be good enough. Maybe they won’t be fluent enough or maybe we will be struck through with our own unworthiness as soon as we open our mouths. Maybe we will read, what seems like silence, as neglect and slink away from the Lord, thinking he forgot us.
We feel like we are doing our best, or at least we are trying to scramble through each day in one piece, and what he asks (through this incessant, demanding voice and other sources) just seems too much. When we are so totally worn and beaten, how can he ask more, how can he put one more burden on our breaking backs?
To this god of impossible standards, we may choose resistance, a pulling away. Who wants to draw close to someone so scolding, so unrelentingly disapproving? To life, we may also choose resistance, the slow wilting of our life force, the inability to root ourselves, to dig in, to press forward with hope.
The commandments may seem like a club, a whip, something to punish us because they demand so much. How can we possibly do all the things required of us in a 24-hour day, in a lifetime?
Let us come to clarity. Let us be clear. The accusatory voice that you may hear inside you, which echoes and re-echoes down the stony corridors of your soul, is not God’s.
He is plenteous in mercy, he is loving and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness. He is the perfect parent.
What loving parent stands as a constant critic of his child, waiting and watching to catch him doing something wrong? What loving parent, knowing his child is in a treacherous environment, as the fallen world is, adds to their difficulty with a scowl? Or gives them a set of standards that were meant to club them rather than encourage them?
The following describes who God is. “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?” And this beautiful addition from the Joseph Smith Translation. “What man among you, having a son, and he shall be standing out, and shall say, Father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee, will not say, Come in, my son; for mine is thine, and thine is mine?” (Matt: 7: 9,10; JST Matt. 7:17) His love is infinite, personal, caring.
Who is the Accuser?
Then who is the accuser? It is another name for Satan. His very name is the Accuser. We read in Revelation, “And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10).
This does, indeed, sound like a description of that interior critic. He accuses us day and night until we cry out in exhaustion and pain.
In the scriptures, it is clear who does the accusation, and it is not the Lord. The Pharisees and Chief Priests accuse Christ when he heals on the Sabbath. The scribes and Pharisees, who cast the woman taken in adultery at the feet of the Savior, are the accusers. After Christ tells them that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, they each skulk away, “convicted by their own conscience.” Then the Lord says to her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8: 7, 10, 11).
We can tell the source of our interior critic because it pains and diminishes us. It beats us up and leaves us ragged. In contrast, the Lord’s voice is encouraging and expanding, teaching and urging us to press forward, but in a way that makes us believe it is possible because we are leaning on him.
How do we obliterate this other accusatory voice that is so mean to us? How do we quiet it, invite it out, banish it from our souls? If such a voice ever hurts us or claims us, we must not set up dinner for it and invite it to stay. We must not pull up an easy chair for it, thinking it is our friend.
We must consciously determine that we will give place no more for the enemy of our soul.
Discerning the Lord’s Voice
The way to silence this accuser is not found in a technique or a set of self-help rules. It is something far more profound than that. Instead we must truly come to know the Lord and recognize his voice. When God’s love washes over us through the Spirit, and we feel his encouragement, then the critic who sometimes resides inside us is shown up for the puny imposter he is. The contrast is marked. The contrast is huge.
Because Moses had already experienced the power and majesty of the presence of God, he could not be fooled when Satan came ranting and claiming that he was the Only Begotten. In the same way, when we know the Lord’s voice, we begin to recognize the critic for what it is.
Moses said, “I could not look upon God, except his glory should come upon me…but I can look upon thee in the natural man” (Moses 1:17). He wasn’t fooled.
This critic does not love us. This critic cannot help us. Its only purpose is to diminish us and teach us to resist the real God.
The critic rants that we are not enough. The Lord’s voice gives us hope starting where we are. The critic’s voice tells us that life is a race marked by a scarcity of rewards. The Lord tells us he has enough for all.
The critic’s voice is harsh. We see a description of the voice of the Lord in third Nephi. “It was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice, it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake” (3 Nephi 11:3).
What is the true nature of God?
The knowledge that we must come to is an understanding of the true nature of God. That is something we learn personally, on our knees, bit by bit and line upon line. Before we have made that effort, we may say words to describe him, such as “he is loving,” but our descriptions fall so far short of his majesty and graciousness, that they look like shadow puppets on a stage, without the Spirit to teach us what they mean.
We read that his love is higher than the heavens, and endures forever, that he can be counted on as immovable and redemptive through time and eternity, but what does that mean? This understanding has to register in our deepest soul, and not be mere lip service.
Absent his presence, what too many of us do is make up who God is. We cast our own version of god upon him. We may think he doesn’t love us, if our world isn’t going just right. We may think we are smarter than he is and would like to advise him. We may think that he is limited in his understanding of our needs and our dearest desires. We may think he is arbitrary.
We may think that he is the critic on our shoulder who makes life so difficult for us. At its most extreme, we may be listening to the Adversary and calling him God.
We are busy fancying who he is and, making up what he is, based on our limited mortal understanding. Then, ironically, we resist this god of our own creation because we suppose he is critical or unjust or uncaring.
If we are living the gospel anxiously and stressfully, we have misunderstood who God is and what he is offering. Some part of us may be supposing that we are working our way to heaven based on our merits. Since our merits are usually so far short of what we can imagine, we are fatigued.
In college, I was once talking to my friend, Julie, who had just finished reading about the Beatific Vision, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The Beatific Vision is, as Dante described it, when one is permitted to have a vision of God, and all is peace and rest, the strivings and fallibilities of life are put aside. It is, as it were, a point of stillness and joy, glory and completeness.
She lamented that she did not ever see that point in living as a Latter-day Saint. In her still young understanding of the gospel, eternal progress seemed to her as meaning a lifetime of stress and work and falling short. It sounded exhausting, too much, a lifetime with a critic, a going to bed at night and arising the next day to be beaten thin all over again.
Not a Time to Pull Away
If we can hear a critic on our shoulder, this is not the time to resist and pull away, even slightly, even in the intensity and sincerity of our prayers. It is not the time to flag in spirituality. It is the time, instead, to climb in deeper. We need to offer responsiveness instead of resistance toward the Divine. It means we are aching to hear God’s kind voice instead of the harsh one we have mistaken for his.
Responsiveness puts us in a place to feel God’s love, and feel it personally, wholly and intimately. This is not mere abstract description then, but felt reality, and there is nothing so delicious. We have no earthly model for someone who loves us as he loves us, therefore it eludes our minds and imaginations.
Even the people who love us the most do not love us as he loves us. They do not have that eternal, glorious capacity.
So we have only the merest hint of what his love is unless we experience it through his Spirit. Through his Spirit, we are invited into a glorious new world. As it washes over us, we feel loved, as in no other way. It is sweet beyond all that is sweet.
With Him We Travel Lightly
As we become more alive in Christ and know the attributes of God, we travel with more ease. We travel lightly, not only because the critic disappears, but because we come to know more intimately of his goodness, his trustworthiness, his love, his unbounded intelligence and knowledge. We realize that our own merits are small. The offering to him of our resume would not be impressive, even at our best.
We come to see “And since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself” (Alma 22:14). Anything? That’s what it says.
The Lord intends to give us way more than we deserve because of his nature, not because of ours.
“No flesh …can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” ((2 Nephi 2:8)
To be forever anxious about our performance, is in some ways to deny the atonement. It is to misunderstand God’s very nature and the nature of our existence here.
To be so stressed means we have not gotten far enough into spirituality to comprehend Christ’s true gift to us.
So great are the frailties and imperfections of men, according to Joseph Smith in Lectures on Faith, that we cannot exercise the faith necessary to salvation, unless we understand the excellency of the character of God, “that he is slow to anger and long-suffering, and of a forgiving disposition, and does forgive iniquity, transgression and sin. An idea of these facts does away doubt, and makes faith exceedingly strong.”
Joseph Smith here suggests that everyone, not just some, but everyone, would be faltering and faithless, because of their own weaknesses and imperfections were it not for the Lord’s atonement. Our faith is not in us or our good character, it is in him and his.
If not a perfect performance applauded by all critics, then, what is left that we can give the Lord? It is the gift that is uniquely ours to give, the only gift we have—that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
We stop asking the questions of a fallen world—which center around, “Am I good enough?” Instead, with great effort, we crank our attention away from our constantly clamouring self to him, who is waiting with open arms.
We let go and trust that he is able to do his own work—just exactly as he has told us—which is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life.
We trust that if we put him first, instead of our weary, worrying selves, that he is able to make all things work together for our good.
What is required is that we love him, not hate ourselves because we are in a fallen state.
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