I play tennis each week. We play doubles and it is organized as a ladder system, which means that if you win the most games out of the four players present, you move up to the next highest group, and if you win the least you move down. I'm a decent player and I hover around the 2nd or 3rd group from the top. Every once in a while I make it to the top group, but I can never win enough games to stay up there. I found myself not looking forward to the weeks I would get to the top and feeling really irritable, both while playing and then afterwards. What was going on here? It was just tennis after all. There's no reason it should affect my mood that much- unless there was something deeper going on.
James Macdonald says, "The closest we can come to total honesty is to admit our inability to be truthful with the face we see in the mirror. Personal honesty is too painful" (Act Like Men, 44). I'm still relatively young, but as I've gotten older, reality is setting in. I'm realizing that I've told myself some stories about who I was and I've made a lot of excuses for myself. If I didn't get the playing time I wanted on the high school basketball team it was easy to blame the coach for favoritism. When I played tennis in college I told myself similar things, believing that I was being overlooked or that if I "really tried" and didn't care so much about my academics I would be the best on the team.
Here in the present, I have been faced weekly with the reality that I'm just not quite as good as the guys at the top of the tennis ladder. At first I fought this by thinking I was just rusty or doubles isn't my strength, singles is. When that stopped working, I tried to avoid it and became more and more irritable. But eventually I had no choice but to accept reality, and it has been freeing. As I've done so, I have been able to revise my athletic history and let go of a lot of bitterness toward coaches and teammates. I'm not a dominant athlete and I never will be. I have limitations. There will always be many who are smarter, faster, and stronger.
So why am I going on about my athletic history? It was good for me to acknowledge reality in this area, but gaining clarity in this area led me deeper to seeing the pride behind much of my behavior and with it, my tendency to defend and excuse myself.
We Are All Defense Attorneys
When the Holy Spirit shows us an area that needs repentance, we must overcome the instinct to defend ourselves. We must silence the little lawyer who steps out from a dark closet in our minds, pleading, "My client is not so bad." Your defense attorney will defend you until the day you die- and if you listen to him you will never see what is wrong in you nor face what needs to change. For you to succeed in warfare, your self preservation instincts must be submitted to the Lord Jesus, for Christ alone is your true advocate- Francis Frangipane in The Three Battlegrounds, 24.
Behind every attempt to defend, justify, and flee reality is pride. This shows up in our relationships. How do you respond when your spouse criticizes you? How do you respond when your boss calls you in for a performance review or a good friend calls you out on a behavior pattern they've noticed? When you are consciously aware of a failing or pattern of sin in your life, how much effort do you put into hiding it from others? Are you quick to confess and ask for help or do you justify the behavior? I see this all day long in my office, and it grieves me. This is the essence of finger pointing and escalating conflict. I have discovered a rule in my own life and in counseling- If someone criticizes you about something, some part of it is probably true. It is in your best interest to default towards humility and repentance rather than defensiveness and self righteousness. One path takes you to God every time, the other takes you out into deep and unsafe waters.
Each time we let our defense attorney have the floor, we are inviting darkness into our life and we are avoiding the freeing light of humility and confession. Frangipane goes further and says, "The strength of humility is that it builds a spiritual defense around your soul, prohibiting strife, competition, and many of life's irritations from stealing your peace...Remember, Satan fears virtue. He is terrified of humility; he hates it because humility is the surrender of the soul to the Lord, and the devil is terrified of Jesus Christ."
So a couple weeks ago I made it back into the top group and these things were consciously on my mind as I played. I had a blast that week and I also played the best I've ever played in that group. I kept inwardly repeating to myself reminders that I didn't have to be the best and admiring the skill of the other players when they hit great shots. If this story was about bolstering my pride you would think it ends with this finally being the week I won enough games to stay in the top group. It wasn't. Those guys are still better players than me. But I felt free that night and there was no trace of irritability as I left the court. This is a feeling I want to carry around with me wherever I go, and it is one you can have as well. Cling to humility and radical self honesty in your life.