“People who know better, do better.” Have you heard this saying? It’s from Maya Angelou, who was a sage among us mere mortals, and it was popularized by Oprah. I think it means that in any given area of life, people won’t do better until they’re educated in that area. We can forgive ourselves for mistakes we’ve made when we realize we just didn’t know how to act right.
But what happens when we do know better, and we still don’t do better? I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately, as I struggle with some familiar shortcomings. I’ll just look up one day and think, “My God, haven’t I already conquered this?!?” If you are even remotely self-aware, you might begin to notice that when you go astray it’s down a very familiar road. There are the same stumbling blocks, the same places you’ve been bruised before. Possibly, you too find yourself walking that dark and dreary road in spite of believing that you’ve already conquered this area of struggle in your life, that God has enabled you to move past this issue or temptation. For me, I can get so discouraged when I realize that my negative attitude is repeatedly an issue for me. Maybe for you it’s relational drama, food, anger, or a sexual sin. What I have noticed is that we don’t all just “do better” even after we struggle, go to God, learn how to behave better, and move on. Sometimes we find ourselves, against our better judgment, repeating the same old stuff, different day.
I’m not immune from discouragement here, but I do have a few thoughts and I wanted to share them in case you ever find yourself in this scenario. First, I know God works with us through our issues, even when we repeat them time and time again. Just as he doesn’t always offer immediate cures for physical illness, he doesn’t always heal our psychological hang-ups after our first bout either. Sometimes, he is allowing us to continue to grow by showing us there is more work to be done. Sometimes, he is humbling us and preventing pride from leading to a greater fall. Sometimes, we haven’t genuinely asked for healing. Sometimes, he wants us to seek him more, or teach us about a specific type of prayer, or show us any number of truths. I’m not advocating dwelling on past issues if you are truly over them (if you are, great! Praise God!) but I am saying this: you are not alone in repeating yourself.
A second thought here: perhaps, in the places where we struggle most, it isn’t so much about knowing as it is about doing. Do you struggle with envy? With attitude? With pride? Be intentional about asking God to give you contentment, to soften your harsh mindset, to make you humble. Your shortfalls are guideposts to where your character needs work; use them to direct your prayers for God’s intervention in your life. Then simply do. Once you have done better once, it becomes something you can practice and it gets easier over time. And once you have done better, you can know better because the truth will play out in your own life and give you wisdom.
I’m reading a study right now by Dick Woodward called A Spiritual Compass. Woodward points out that Jesus himself advised us to first do and then to know. In John 7:17 Jesus tells us to obey the instructions of the word of God, and then see if by obeying we can tell whether they are true. That’s shorthand for letting your actions lead you to faith. Don’t stop trying, because each small victory makes it easier to grasp, deep in your heart where change “sticks,” that the path of righteousness is superior to our chosen path of sin.
Finally, please don’t be discouraged when you try and fail. I say when, not if. You are a person, and this is a process. When I was working as a child advocate I had to learn to meet parents where they are. I couldn’t meet with a single mom who hadn’t even graduated from high school, who lived in public housing and struggled with addiction, and expect her to be the role model her kids needed. It was enough to just make sure the kids were safe at home; I couldn’t expect her to have deep insight into why they were acting out or to recognize the importance of curfews or tutor them in algebra.
Similarly, I believe God meets us where we are when we earnestly seek him. And because we are human (meaning flawed) we may have to earnestly seek him from the same sinful place over and over, broken in self-disgust, humbled by our inability to “do better” this time. The good news? He meets us there. I know, because he has met me here, time and again. I hope that you can be encouraged to know you’re not alone and no one is perfect: don’t give up! Seek him, and keep on doing better.