In regard to human behaviour, Jesus taught us many things during his time on earth.
In the story of the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11), he showed himself not only to be an empathetic observer but also an astute judge of human behaviour generally. When the Pharisees arrogantly acted as judge and jury in the case of the embarassed woman, considering themselves impeccably qualified to do so, they demonstrated the tragedy of human beings acting without personal insight into their own lives.
Today we can also observe similar situations: the divorced man who cannot see his part in a marital break-up, but can only blame his former wife; or the student who fails to appreciate why he or she had failing grades.
Jesus conveys to the Pharisees that they themselves are not without sin. Eventually they get the message as to their own sinfulness and sheepishly disappear. In other words, Jesus teaches us not to condemn others before we take a hard critical look at ourselves.
Condemnation by another is hard enough to contend with, but self-condemnation can be even more diffcult to bear, given its potential destructiveness. In this context, Jesus leaves us with an important lesson in loving and living with ourselves, in spite of our sins and failings. He addresses the woman: "Has no-one condemned you?". "No one, Sir," she replies. Jesus responds: "Then neither do I. Go and, sin no more."
In other words, God does not condemn us even though others - including ourselves - may do do. In this scene, Jesus was also indicating to the Pharisees that they should be critical of themselves - but that this was not the equivalent of self-condemnation.
There is a fine line between self-criticism and self-condemnation, but also a great difference. Because of this, people tend to be reluctant to examine themselves critically for fear that this amounts to self-condemnation. They wrongly equate the two. For healthy self-criticism can produce insight - an insight that helps us to better know ourselves, with the resulting possibility of change and growth.
Self-criticism is absolutely necessary for emotional and spiritual maturity. The amount of insight people gain through this can often mean the difference between a healthy or sick marriage or family. Self-criticism in the Christ-like way is positive and constructive. Once we cease fearing it, it can become a freeing, self-satisfying, learning experience.
It challenges us to accept and love the reality of who we truly are, not the false image of what we wish we were. Thus we limit the sometimes unrealistic expectations and consequently useless frustrations we can bring upon ourselves. Furthermore, the better we read ourselves, the more we can know and understand others, and be sensitive to their needs.
Self-criticism is based on the understanding that we are good and worthwhile - made as we are in the image and likeness of God - but that we can become better. We realise we can learn from our failures and grow - for without recognised failures we cannot change or know ourselves and our limitations. The paradox is that in failure, which is part of life, we change. The important question is how we handle and react to our failures.
God loves us in spite of our mistakes. If we can do the same, we shall have attained genuine self-love. Self-condemnation, on the other hand, portrays us as worthless and second-rate, because of our failures. We can actually hate ourselves because we are not perfect, and such self-condemnation is destructive and un-Christian.
Many perfectionists find life difficult because no matter how "successful" they may be, they always find a flaw. They fail to experience much, if any, satisfaction, because they are anxious about failing; when they do fail, they half expect it because they already consider themselves failures. Their refusal to accept failure can cause great chaos in their lives - for, in being hard on themselves they become even harder to live with. Above all, they are unable to be at peace with themselves, since the joy and peace of a Christian finds its source in a forgiving God who asks us to forgive ourselves.
Self-criticism, then, brings new life and hope into our lives; self-condemnation brings only despair and death.
When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for condemning the adulterous woman, he asked them to be critical of themselves. When he spoke to her, he asked her to sin no more. He suggested she learn from her failure, but above all, he assured her that if he did not condemn her, then neither should she condemn herself.
Among Christ's last words on the cross were: "Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
In other words, Christ's forgiveness was and is essential for the joy and peace of the Christian life.
Fr Dennis Byrnes is parish priest of All Saints Catholic Church, Kempsey, in the Lismore Diocese.