Does God Want Us to Beat Ourselves Up Over Our Mistakes?


I’ve noticed that when people come on the spiritual path, their progress tends to follow a pattern.

There’s the first exhilaration of finding the path. Then there’s the excitement of our first experiences of God.

And then a time comes when, no matter how deep our sincerity or how deep our devotion, we slip and fall.

We see it even in the lives of the great saints – how it seems there’s always a moment when they stumble.

In the story of the Last Supper, there’s a poignant moment when we see this happen to the disciple Peter.

With his closest disciples gathered around him, Jesus tells them, “I am going to a place where you won’t be able to follow.” Jesus is subtly warning them that he won’t be with them much longer. And Peter, who seems to have been a larger-than-life, very dynamic sort of fellow, announces that he will follow Jesus wherever he may go. Instead of receiving Jesus’ words sensitively, he affirms his own energy.

Rembrandt, Peter Denying Christ
Rembrandt, Peter Denying Christ

I’m in the process of writing a book about my years with Swami Kriyananda. And in reviewing my experiences with him, I’m stunned by how often my actions were not unlike Peter’s. More often than I like to contemplate, instead of listening receptively to Swamiji’s guidance, I asserted my own viewpoint, much to my later chagrin.

I often wonder what vital messages he could have given me, if I had listened with an open and receptive heart, instead of putting forward my own understanding.

Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going to a place where you cannot go.” And Peter replies with his characteristic high spirits, “I will follow you anywhere!”

Peter’s enthusiasm is greatly to his credit. But our faults are often our virtues, carried just a little bit too far.

Peter was a saintly disciple with a big and enthusiastic heart. But in this moment he was too full of his own energy to understand the subtle message that Jesus would very soon be leaving them.

Jesus says to Peter, effectively, “Oh, really? – are you sure that you’ll be able to follow me?” And then he predicts that before the cock crows to announce the dawn, Peter will declare not once but three times that he doesn’t know him.

Here was Peter, the acknowledged leader of the disciples, asserting what all of them would surely have wanted to say. “There is no place you can go that we won’t follow!” And Jesus tells Peter, quite matter-of-factly, that he will fail.

Fritz von Uhde, The Last Supper, 1886
Fritz von Uhde, The Last Supper, 1886

It’s greatly to Peter’s credit, and a tremendous example of discipleship, that when the Roman soldiers came and arrested Jesus, even though he must have been terribly frightened that he, too, might be taken away and tortured and killed, he was able to say, “If you take him, you must take me.”

The disciples who were with Jesus were sorely afraid, but in that moment of testing, it was Peter who proved that he would follow Jesus wherever he might go. When the Roman soldiers came to arrest them, with the power to throw them in prison and kill them, Peter alone had the courage to cling to Jesus’ arm and say, “If you take him, take me.”

I’m sure we would like to think that we would have that kind of strength. But we can never know how we will react until the moment of actual testing.

Jesus had said, “Thou art Peter, the rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Peter was among Jesus’ most spiritually advanced disciples. But when the Roman soldiers asked him, “Are you one of his followers? Didn’t we see you with him?” Peter declared, “No!” And at the third denial he heard a cock crow, and Jesus’ words came to him with their full force.

Now, having denied his master, Peter faced a very serious choice. He could decide, as many would have, “I am too crushed and humiliated by my failure to carry on. I am paralyzed with mortification over my error.”

Jesus had exposed his weakness in the presence of his brother disciples, and the prophecy was fulfilled – he did exactly as Jesus predicted. Even though he was a man of great faith and courage, when pressed, he became terrified.

Our first thought may be that God was testing Peter to see if he would summon the courage to stand by him in that moment of peril. It would have been a tremendous demonstration of his discipleship. But I’m equally certain that the most important test was the one that came after. What would he do, after having failed so miserably?

In our lives as disciples, we very often find ourselves in exactly the same situation. We vigorously assert our determination to be true to our ideals, and then we find ourselves failing, again and again.

It’s impossible to gauge the strength of the forces arrayed against us in our own subconscious mind. We love to draw mental images of ourselves that are pleasing to our ego. And those images are not untrue. But they are a limited view of ourselves.

Until we are fully Self-realized, we cannot know all of the karmic forces hiding in the recesses of our nature.

Unwelcome impulses rise up from our hidden depths, and we can’t know what created those impulses. We’re barely aware of the influences from our childhood, much less the tendencies we’ve carried over from past lives. And when those tendencies lead us into error, the ego tempts us to reshape our mistakes in flattering ways.

As Swami Kriyananda said, “Reason follows feeling.” When we’re feeling a desire for ice cream, the mind trots along and supplies all of the perfectly good reasons we should have ice cream. And if we feel a need to appear better than our mistakes and weaknesses, we’re perfectly willing to recast them in a more ego-pleasing light.

We aren’t always in full control of our actions – our latent tendencies can reach up and catch us by surprise. And this is why how we behave after a fall is a better measure of our spiritual maturity than the fact that we’ve fallen.

Will we be perfectly honest about our failings, and face them humbly and unflinchingly? Or will we deny the truth?

It was a measure of Peter’s greatness that he was able to rise again so quickly after he fell. We can’t know what bitter tears he must have shed over his denial of Jesus. But he didn’t allow his anguish to crush his spirit and paralyze him.

After Jesus was taken away, Peter found himself gathered with the other disciples behind a locked door, as the Bible tells us. And Swamiji said that the disciples’ instinct to band together was a sign that they had the right understanding.

Jesus had been arrested, and as far as they knew, he had been killed. But instead of running away, they instinctively sought each other’s company. And it proved that they were faithful to their own experience of Jesus.

Faced with the calamity of the Master’s arrest and impending crucifixion, they sought their strength by gathering together to seek their guidance from God. And it was a sure sign that they were faithful and true.

The Bible tells us that they were gathered in fear, because they couldn’t know who among them would be arrested next, and who would be killed. Yet the question uppermost in their minds was, “What will we do with the teachings, now that the Master is gone?”

Peter was with them, and we can only imagine his humiliation. Christ had predicted his error in the full hearing of his brothers, and they had witnessed his fall. And he could easily have nurtured his failure and made it his defining truth. But he did not. And because he refused to let it define him, he was able to be with his spiritual brothers when Jesus appeared before them, and during the forty days when Jesus continued to appear to them.

One day Peter found himself walking on the shore with the resurrected Christ.

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” In other words: “Take care of my flock.” And Peter said, “I will, Lord.”

After a time, Jesus again said, “Feed my sheep.” And Peter replied, “I will.” And for a third time Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” And Peter said, “Master, I’ve said that I will.”

Peter Paul Rubens, Christ’s Commission to Peter, c. 1616
Peter Paul Rubens, Christ’s Commission to Peter, c. 1616

Jesus made him affirm his faith three times. Jesus could not have absolved him of his failure, if he hadn‘t kept his heart open. And this is what we must remember when we ponder how we can pass our spiritual tests.

We visualize temptation in many colorful forms: as anger, greed, lust, revenge, addiction, a closed heart, and so on. And these are truly some of the major ways we can be tempted. But it’s extremely important to understand that God tests us in the small moments of our lives, and that we are being continually asked to choose whether we will stray, or if we will walk with the Master.

How will I respond to my tests? Will I embrace the spiritual life entirely, or will I look for a way to escape when challenges come?

Our spiritual truth has more to do with our attitude than with the temptations that God places before us. The real spiritual test is how we will behave when we’re displeased by the conditions that God sends us.

There’s no denying that we’re often unhappy with the conditions of our lives. “Everything about my life is perfect, except for this one person I can’t stand because they’re such a pain to deal with at work.”

Instead of asking for God’s help and guidance, and following with all our strength and humility, we feel bound to deal with it ourselves, either by pushing it away, or denying it, or trying to gain an advantage over the other person.

We think, “This experience isn’t part of my life – I shouldn’t have to deal with it!”

And God keeps placing it squarely in front of us, until we embrace it as our own, and learn to pass the test by seeking His help and following courageously.

Don’t imagine that you won’t be tested, and that you won’t fail. But we must always remember that our failures are only half of the story.

I’m deeply encouraged when I read about the saints who’ve fallen. It pleases me greatly – not that I’m happy to see them fall, but I’m profoundly encouraged to see that God didn’t judge them, and that He helped them rise again after they corrected their attitude.

In the lawsuit that SRF filed against Ananda, we found ourselves opposed by souls of high spiritual stature who, to my mind, did extremely bad things, believing all the while that they were doing the right thing.

Many of us were dismayed to see how these great souls could behave so badly. Swami Kriyananda said that he actually experienced a crisis of faith over this issue. Because the question naturally arises: if this path is valid, how can saintly people who are following it with utmost sincerity make such awe-inspiring mistakes?

Swamiji said that he arrived at two conclusions. First, that we are subject to delusion until we are fully Self-realized. And second, that when we reach the top of the mountain, we can look around and see that there are many paths leading up the mountain. And we can be magnanimous in our acceptance of each person’s path without judging them, because our own position is secure.

Nothing can touch you, once you are free. But as long as you’re struggling, still climbing the mountain and gripping the next little shrub and looking for the next toe-hold, your perspective will be limited.

It’s not a time for pausing and holding a philosophical discussion about your options and whether your path is valid. Every part of you must be focused on what you’re doing, on going forward as best you can, and being generous-hearted with yourself when you stumble.

Again, Swamiji resolved the question of how great disciples can commit serious errors by the simple thought, “I know what this path means TO ME.”

I know what God has done for me; and it isn’t my business what he’s doing for others, or what He isn’t doing for them.

My faith can grow only by having my own experiences. And, how many times has God responded in my hour of need? And what greater proof do I require? How many times must God prove Himself before I will believe?

I love to think of the saints who’ve fallen. I think, “If great souls can miss the point and stumble, and if God simply doesn’t care, but forgives them and lovingly helps them get back on their feet, it means that there’s tremendous hope for me!”

Durga Mata told how she arrived at Mt. Washington for the first time and learned that Master was preparing a banquet in her honor. In India, it’s a tradition to hold a joyous celebration when a great soul returns to the guru.

Master was cooking a dinner to welcome Durga, and she felt uncomfortable, because she was a woman of great determination, and she didn’t feel it was right to let others take care of her.

Durga Mata’s memories of her life with Paramhansa Yogananda are preserved in a wonderful book. Click the image to see the publisher’s page.
Durga Mata’s memories of her life with Paramhansa Yogananda are preserved in a wonderful book. Click the image to see the publisher’s page.

She declared, “I won’t be a burden to anyone,” and she ran off. Later, she learned that Master was very disappointed. But in that moment, she wasn’t able to feel his loving vibrations of welcome, because she was engulfed by the energy of her own consciousness.

And the thought that strikes me is: “If a great soul like Durga can err, it means that I can be relaxed about the long project of overcoming my delusions. If I fail, I will stand up, brush myself off, and start moving forward again, without shame.”

I remember a time, years ago, when a friend of mine did something that caused a great deal of inconvenience for Swamiji.

Several days later, she was still feeling moody and downcast about her mistake. And when Swamiji saw her, he said, “What’s wrong with you?”

She said, “I’m upset because I caused you so much trouble.”

He replied, “Such egoism!”

To be egoic is to be obsessed with yourself. She wasn’t egotistical, thinking she was wonderful. But she was too self- involved.

He said, “Are you so shocked that you could make an error, that three days later you’re still worshipping it?”

Are you so horrified by a tiny dark spot on the great white wall of your self-image that you’re compelled to obsess over it endlessly?”

How realistic is that? It isn’t our mistakes that define us, but what we do about them. And on the path, humility is all.

We may be wholly sincere, but it doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. And until we can learn to accept our limitations, we may risk getting stuck in them and unable to move forward.

It’s strange how we’re forever affirming our oneness with Spirit, yet we find it so terribly difficult to accept our mistakes.

Our weaknesses are bound to ambush us. And then people will crow, “You’re behaving badly!” And we’ll say, “No, it’s someone else’s problem.” And twenty-five years later we realize, “It was my problem all along.”

You mustn’t lose heart. And the way to keep your heart steady is to understand that God loves you exactly as you are.

We’re so surprised when we wake up and realize how much God loves us despite our weaknesses. But God isn’t surprised or dismayed by our mistakes and our lack of understanding. He wants nothing from us but our continual improvement.

Because Peter refused to worship his mistake, he was able to be among the disciples when the spirit descended to them at Pentecost. Titian, The Descent of the Holy Ghost, c. 1545. “When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed as resting upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4).
Because Peter refused to worship his mistake, he was able to be among the disciples when the spirit descended to them at Pentecost. Titian, The Descent of the Holy Ghost, c. 1545. “When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed as resting upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4).

Who would have thought that Peter, who was so full of faith and inner strength, would deny Jesus not once but three times? But Jesus knew, and he was perfectly comfortable with knowing, because he was perfectly attuned to reality. By putting Peter through his difficult test, he was helping his disciples understand: “I know your hearts better than you can ever know them. And I am completely unconcerned with your mistakes.”

Years ago, I found myself in a mental conundrum, as I’m inclined to do. I wasn’t functioning very well, and I wasn’t feeling in tune. And when Swami saw me, he walked up and said, “How are you?” in a concerned and sensitive way.

Something in his voice prompted me to reply, “I don’t know – how am I?”

He said, “I’m worried about you.”

I said, “I am, too.”

I hadn’t realized how confused I was, until he spoke to me. And, fortunately, in that moment I didn’t try to run away from the truth or pretend that I was okay. “I’m worried about you.” “Yes, and I’m worried about me.”

God and the guru know us better than we know ourselves. And they aren’t surprised, and they certainly aren’t upset.

When we fall, in fact, that’s when they’ll say, “Good! This is something we can work on.”

You’ve made a hash of a situation. You’ve made a colossal, cosmically impressive mess of things. And it’s critical to recognize that, second to devotion, which is the first and most important thing on the path, the second is to have a sense of humor. And, above all, we need to have a sense of humor about ourselves.

I’m not saying this lightly. It’s a very important spiritual truth.

When Swami went to bed, he would often wear a T‑shirt that said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

We would see this enormous consciousness walking around in this silly T‑shirt, and it was hilarious because it was so incongruous.

Taking yourself lightly doesn’t mean that you don’t take yourself seriously. Because our salvation is the only serious thing there is. And how we’re doing in our consciousness is the only thing worth considering. But we do need to take it lightly.

“I am a project of God. I’m a project of the guru. And they will stay with me until the project is completed, no matter how many times I may stumble.”

Meanwhile, we’re definitely going to commit some mighty impressive boo-boos along the way. And the best way to pass our tests is not to have a big complex about them.

Everybody suffers, and it isn’t fun when it’s happening. But when it’s over, we need to learn the lesson and let go of our regrets and shame completely.

People make a big complex out of their sufferings. They make themselves victims, or they worry that it will happen again. And, trust me, it will happen again. And your unreasonable fears are only going to spoil the fun between the tests.

So, don’t bother. Don’t give the bad times all that much weight. Because wherever God has placed you, have faith that it’s where you need to be.

In a Christmas message that Swamiji wrote to the Ananda members years ago, he said:

“I’ve always had a desire to escape the material plane of consciousness. The astral world has always been more real to me. But increasingly, I’ve begun to appreciate that Heaven is where God puts you, because if God put you there and gave you those circumstances, what other definition of Heaven could there be?”

No matter how miserable you feel, and no matter how challenging your circumstances, if the Divine Mother has put you there, you can be sure that it’s because it’s perfect for you. And what else would you want, except what God wants for you?

Is it easy? No. But is it worth doing? Yes!

Let us help one another. Because in accepting our wrong attitudes and mistakes in a relaxed and compassionate way, with a sense of humor, we’ll learn to accept ourselves, and we will be able to forget ourselves and remember God. And we’ll be doing our part to make wherever God has placed us a heaven on earth.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 23, 2015.)

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