I recently confessed to a friend that I often struggle with “imposter syndrome,” or feeling like a fraud in the small successes I’ve had. Rather than tell me I’m better than that, or it’s harmful to feel this way, this friend—let’s call her Sarah—suggested that a little imposter syndrome might just motivate me toward greater performance, as long as I don’t take it too much to heart. Her response surprised me.
That exchange reminded me of other conversations my friends and I have had with her, where Sarah’s perspective helped us see ourselves differently—more kindly, even—than we would have on our own. For instance, when someone confessed that she felt terrible about herself for being jealous of others’ successes, Sarah suggested that the woman take time to explore the desires behind the envy rather than berate herself. On another occasion, Sarah refused to allow a colleague to apologize for an error she made out of ignorance. Instead, Sarah told her that mistakes are simply how we learn.
When my sinful actions, or even just innocent mistakes, would more likely send me down the path of either shame or self-pity, Sarah’s always there with a kinder, gentler version of the story: So you’re human? Deal with it.
At times, I’ve wondered if Sarah’s mindset might be a little more humanistic than the theology I grew up with, where preachers reminded us that we all are the worst of sinners, the scum of the earth, “a worm and not a man” (Psalm 22:6). Maybe Sarah thinks just a little too well of people? I’ve thought. Maybe she doesn’t take sin seriously enough? But lately, I’ve begun to realize I might be the one thinking about this wrongly. Maybe it’s not a matter of giving people too much credit. Maybe I think too little of God. And as a result, maybe I’m not seeing myself as God sees me.
In Psalm 103, David provides a glimpse of both humanity and divinity from God’s perspective. Very early, David offers a litany of his own sin and weakness and a testimony of how God has saved him from iniquities, diseases, and circumstances beyond his control. But he doesn’t leave us with the impression that God sees us only as sinners and missteppers. Instead, He treats us tenderly, “as a father has compassion on his children.” He remembers that we are “but dust” and our days are fleeting “like grass” (Psalm 103:13-15).
God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, though apparently we do. If I choose to berate and punish myself for being human, I’m holding myself to a standard God never set.
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities,” David writes. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:10-11). What David seems to be telling us is that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, though apparently we do. If I choose to berate and punish myself for being human, I’m holding myself to a standard God never set. According to David, God knows I’m human, and He loves me anyway.
At the same time, God doesn’t want us to use our humanity as an excuse to revel in sin. Sometimes we don’t take our failures seriously enough—we don’t admit when we’re wrong; we don’t learn from our mistakes. This, too, results from a view of God that’s too small. We imagine He doesn’t know what we are up to or simply gives a wink and a nod because we’re “in the family.”
It’s a tendency David shared with us, like the time he committed adultery and had the woman’s husband killed in battle. David didn’t see his own sin—not until God sent the prophet Nathan to help him. David was crushed and said to God, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge” (Psalm 51:4).
Maybe I think too little of God. And as a result, maybe I’m not seeing myself as God sees me.
Interestingly, some biblical scholars believe David wrote Psalm 103 and Psalm 51 that same year, following these events. Together, they teach us that when we treat our sin seriously, just as God does, and extend to ourselves the same forgiveness He offers us, we become more like Him—even while fully acknowledging our humanity. Through the counsel of another, David came to see himself—both his guilt and his favor—as God did. Sound familiar? “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” Solomon wrote to his sons. “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, so a man’s counsel is sweet to his friend” (Prov. 27:6; Prov. 27:9).
My own friend, Sarah, helps me see myself more clearly, just as Nathan helped David. And we can all be this kind of friend to others. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14).
Yes, sometimes we need to prompt our friends to face their failures and humbly submit to God. But other times we need to invite them to extend to themselves the same grace God does. In every case, Paul says, we need to be patient. Though we can help each other grow in faith, none of us will ever really view ourselves—and our sin—the way God does. Not in this life. That, too, is part of being human.
It’s also the reason I’m thankful for the Sarahs and Nathans I know. Because without friends to point the way, I lose perspective. It’s their gentle reminders and occasional rebukes I’ve come to rely on. And it’s my friends who give me eyes to see.
Illustration by Keith Negley