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Returning Sent Ones: The Poison of a Self-Critical Heart


Hi. My name is Andy.

I recently returned from Asia, having served there for a year. I had some pretty big dreams for what I was going to do upon return. I had already mapped out the next one to five years of my life, which included aspirations for landing a barista dream job at one of my favorite local coffee shops. Not long after being back, I hit a massive wall of reality.

After a couple of months of searching, waiting, chasing around owners, and dead-end interviews, I was progressively coming to the conclusion that my next job idea was going to have to wait. Once again, I would be just another Starbucks barista.

Now to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having an average job. If I were honest, however, I think what makes returning so difficult for many sent ones is just basic pride. If you haven’t gone through the experience of reentry yourself, place yourself in the shoes of someone who is. You are transitioning from the experience of a lifetime (good or bad, you know it was special) to becoming just a regular guy again. You might start to internally label yourself a sub-par citizen when you consider that you don’t have permanent housing yet, and you’re scraping by on odd jobs. You find yourself sitting in McDonald’s a little too frequently, not sure what to do with yourself when all your friends go to work.

The right question to be asking at this point is, “Where is God in all of this thinking?” Well, God decided to give me a little picture to grab my attention. I had been cutting weeds at a farm for about a month so that I could pay my bills and eat. One afternoon, as I was attempting to scrub grass stains off my leg in the shower, I slipped. I landed on the sloped part of the far end of the tub, shooting me toward the faucet. As I stuck out my leg to stop my forward movement, my heel kept going and punched a hole in the end. I stood up completely uninjured but dumbfounded as I watched water rushing into the walls.

At this point, all of my stressors hit at once to produce the perfect existential storm. I became a victim of my own deceitful introspection and heart-crushing self-criticism. Because I could not find my rest in Christ, my soul began to be like the tub, like someone had kicked a hole in it from within, and all the water that was supposed to stay inside came rushing out.

The Antidote of Scripture

Not long after this moment, a good friend pointed me to 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 as the antidote to my poisonous thinking. I came to see that in reality my self-critical judgments were attempts at self-righteousness. Paul writes,

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God (ESV).

These verses are some of the most abused in all of Scripture, especially by unbelievers who enjoy their sin. Yet these verses are written for the benefit of those who have faith in Christ. It becomes immediately apparent when we examine what Paul is saying, that he is not talking about judging matters of overt immoral action. Rather, the key words that dominate this text are servants, stewards, and faithful. In other words, Paul is bringing to light the question of how one is judged obedient in their calling, whether someone is stewarding gifts well for his or her God-given ministry.

In this light, the message is clear: only God has the right to give a final judgement, commending his servants for their service. The lynchpin of Paul’s argument comes in saying, “I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.” When we stamp the label “failure” or “success” on ourselves with finality, we are high-jacking God’s judgment, who alone holds the authority to justify.

The Sidelong Deception of Self-Righteousness

A central aspect of our tendency toward sin is the creation of other standards besides God’s own judgment in order to justify ourselves according to our own preference. Saint Augustine defined pride in that way, describing it as a preference for one’s own strength while rejecting the aid of God. In book XII of The City of God he writes,

“And if we ask the cause of the misery of the bad, it occurs to us, and not unreasonably, that they are miserable because they have forsaken Him who supremely is, and have turned to themselves who have no such essence. And this vice, what else is it called than pride? For ‘pride is the beginning of sin.’ They were unwilling, then, to preserve their strength for God; and as adherence to God was the condition of their enjoying an ampler being, they diminished it by preferring themselves to Him.”

Whether we are global sent ones, whether we are returning sent ones, or whether we are senders, we all suffer because of this fundamental battle. We are not merely image-bearers; we are also often image-crafters, who like to steal God’s thunder.

You might be thinking, “I don’t see what was so horribly wrong in the earlier scenario you told. You just felt bad about yourself.” We often conflate pride as arrogance and think they are one and the same, but pride only sometimes reveals itself in arrogance. More often, I suspect, it looks like self-pity: “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Genesis 4:5).

For my part, I wished to acquit my guilty heart according to how well I would take up the challenge of returning well. I read books about reverse-culture shock and thought, “Okay, God. I will impress you with you my ability to do this, and then you will look at me favorably.” Self-righteousness is asking God to repent and agree with you rather than confessing your sin. That’s not how God works, and that’s not how grace works.

The only thing that can acquit us and heal a guilty, ashamed conscience is the beautiful blood of our savior, Jesus. And what a wonderful thing to ponder! All of our condemnation has been removed in Christ, and now we boldly approach the throne of grace and empty-handedly receive the commendation for our obedience, the reward for our faith. Rather than excusing ourselves by the law of our conscience, we must lay our consciences on the altar and be transformed by the renewing of our minds through the truths God has spoken about us.

Photo credit: Unsplash

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