In a recent movie, a character remarked that his girlfriend was callously confirming his inadequacies. It reminded me of my own frequent emotions- a prevailing sense of inadequacy and an associated guilt. I imagine I share those feelings with a lot of other people who struggle to measure up to some standard they can’t even concretely define. The measure in question is the one which says whether I have lived a successful life or not, have fulfilled my purpose and potential, done the best I can as a human being.
Our status within society attempts to define us against a number of standards of material success- income, net worth, etc. Beyond these we are also measured by education, physical fitness, prestige, influence, and many other factors.
If we consider more philosophical/religious measures of human performance, we encounter concepts like virtue and righteousness. These more spiritual measures are seen by many as the truer standard by which to judge one’s life as successful. A great number would probably suggest that virtuous or righteous living contributes substantially to success in material things or good standing within society.
Within the biblical story which undergirds Christianity, human inadequacy in this latter sense, i.e. in virtue and righteousness, is the main theme. Humanity did not, cannot measure up to God’s righteous standard, so God’s plan is one of dealing with human failure. The idea of inadequacy and guilt are woven into the Bible from the very beginning.
The institutional Christian church has hammered on this theme of failure and guilt for its entire existence, teaching that men are vile, wretched creatures who must confess their failures and throw themselves on God’s mercy by acts of obedience. One is left to wonder if the widespread anxiety in our society is the result of this theological indoctrination or is some kind of basic human trait which requires no outside stimulation. I suspect both these elements are involved.
Any successful spiritual discipline must deal with this sense of being unworthy- feelings of guilt, fear, and failure. The church seems much more intent on reinforcing mankind’s pre-existing sense of failure by its harping on various sins and the need to repent than it is on actually alleviating these debilitating emotions. Constant reminders about the prevalence and allure of sins of the flesh accompanied by dire warnings about impending doom only increase anxiety and other negative emotions.
There are a number of prevalent stories that seem remarkably nonsensical- a greater threat solves current anxiety, greater war effort solves the need for war, and more private guns in public places solves the problem of gun violence. Our cultural attachment to the Orthodox interpretation of the Bible is a major contributor to all these paradoxes.