In December 2021, a jury in Chicago found actor Jussie Smollett, a one-time star in the TV hip-hop drama Empire, guilty of five of six felony disorderly conduct charges in connection with an incident the previous year. Smollett claimed at the time that two masked men assaulted him, put a noose around his neck and doused him with chemicals.
After investigating his claim, however, police concluded that Smollett paid two men $3,500 to carry out the scheme, which the actor characterized as a hate crime against himself. Prosecutors said that the 39-year-old actor orchestrated the attack as a hoax to raise his show-business profile.
Smollett was sentenced March 10, 2022 to 150 days in county jail. The revelation that the incident was a setup of his own doing dealt a severe and possibly fatal blow to Smollett’s career – just the opposite of what he apparently was hoping to achieve by the faked attack. After he was arrested, Smollett lost his role as a singer-songwriter in the final season of Empire. And during the trial, he admitted in court: “I’ve lost my livelihood.”
On March 16, 2022, Smollett was released pending the outcome of an appeal.
Howard Breuer, CEO of Newsroom PR, put it bluntly when he said, “Smollett now joins Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer and Kevin Spacey on the Mount Rushmore of the indelibly canceled.”
I bring up Smollett’s story not to add to his critics, but as a modern-day example of something God says in our passage from Jeremiah about the people of Judah: “… my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols” (v. 11). And in even sharper detail, God said, “my people … have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (v. 13).
The theme of these verses is how some abandon the Lord for something far less and fail to recognize that God is the source of life and well-being. Smollett, by his hoax, did something similar and exchanged his rising-star career for exile from the work he loved.
Both Smollett’s folly and Judah’s failure to keep faith with God were forms of self-sabotage. That failing is more common in human behavior than we might expect, given how much loss it entails. But self-sabotage happens when we do certain things that were, at best, adaptive in one context but are no longer appropriate or helpful in our present life stage. Consider this list of some behaviors that could be described as self-defeating or self-sabotage:
- Avoidance of people or situations that might cause fear, hurt or pain. The idea is that if one avoids risk – if you don’t commit to a job, person, direction or goal – you can’t fail.
- Not standing up for oneself, or an inability to ask for what one needs.
- Constantly seeking attention or approval from others.
- Aggression, bullying, and verbal, emotional or physical abuse to hide one’s own feelings of insecurity, unworthiness and poor self-image.
- Substance abuse or other addictive behavior (overeating, gambling, overspending, risky sexual patterns, workaholic syndrome, etc.).
- Picking fights with friends or partners over inconsequential matters.
- Refusing to accept responsibility for one’s own mistakes.
- Inability to receive constructive criticism.
And there are many more behaviors that could be included.
Experience, some say, is the best teacher, but acts of self-sabotage suggest that we frequently do not learn from our losses and instead, go on repeating self-defeating actions in our lives. The person who always comes to work late and those who complicate their lives by postponing important obligations are effectively shooting themselves in the foot, again and again, and eventually, they have no foot left.
We might assume that people committing such acts are emotionally immature or hauling around painful baggage from a troubled past.
The young essayist Kris Kidd may be a case in point. He has a gift for putting into words the depression and self-destruction that has marked his experience in life thus far. One reviewer of his work – Office Magazine – says that Kidd gives readers “a monstrous glimpse into his inner world.” Here’s something Kidd wrote about his self-inflicted wounds:
“There is stability in self-destruction, in prolonging sadness as a means of escaping abstractions like happiness. Rock bottom is a surprisingly comfortable place to lay your head. Looking up from the depths of another low often seems a lot safer than wondering when you’ll fall again. Falling feels awful. I’d rather [expletive] fly.”
Kidd manages to make self-sabotage sound like a devil-may-care place to camp, but it’s no place to build a more permanent life structure, and it’s no cause for celebration either, even if Kidd has been able to monetize his dysfunction.
Kidd is in his late 20s, but in truth, even some of us who are more mature and healthier sometimes do things we know will handicap our future and hurt others as well. We may puzzle over our motives, but we do these things, nonetheless.
One way of moving forward is to ask ourselves what we are getting out of unprofitable behavior that exchanges the water of life for dry and cracked cisterns. When we look at such conduct and re-frame the question from “What’s in it for me?” and ask what we are getting out of it, we may find that the reward isn’t very much, but it may be a short-term gain that postpones the hard work necessary to fulfill our longer-term responsibilities.
Psychologist and former priest Eugene C. Kennedy says that asking ourselves what we are getting out of our self-destructive behavior “helps us achieve the self-knowledge … which is indispensable for further steps toward maturity.” The answers we find to the question of what we are getting out of our self-harming behavior, he says, “leads us to ask other questions [that] can bring us into corners of our personality [that] are strongly influential but from which we have shielded ourselves.” Kennedy goes on to say that if we want to see ourselves whole, to see our actions in a way that can lead to a new understanding of ourselves, we can begin, the next time we are “puzzled by some self-inflicted psychological reversal, by asking ‘What am I getting out of this anyway?’”
The answers may be revealing.
But maybe this is not just a psychological question. The apostle Paul asks his version of it in Romans 7, and there it’s a religious question as well. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” he asks (vv. 15, 24). He has a divided self, but his discussion in the next chapter of Romans regarding life in the Spirit of God tells where his hope and redemption lie. We should hear that as an affirmation that we can – with God’s help – see and step away from the destructive things we do to ourselves.
And then there’s the imagery of today’s passage from Jeremiah. Cisterns were a big part of daily life in the ancient Middle East. This was a desert climate, and there was no such thing as indoor plumbing. A cistern is an underground storage tank that collects runoff from the roof in the rainy season. In the height of summer, the cisterns offered their accumulated supply through many thirsty days. Cistern water didn’t taste the best – the “living water” from a stream or brook was preferable by far – but still it could sustain life.
There’s a problem with the people Israel, as Jeremiah sees them. They’ve failed to properly maintain the all-important cisterns of their spiritual life. They’ve allowed them to fall into disrepair. The people Israel, the prophet thunders in judgment, have become “cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” God’s words of comfort and assurance do flow into them, but those precious blessings flow right back out again.
This passage’s reference to exchanging fountains of living water for a dry and cracked cistern was probably in Jesus’ mind when he conversed with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. The woman had spoken favorably of the water that came from that well. But Jesus responded, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again” (John 4:13).
So, what’s the solution to our faith problem? Jeremiah’s answer is obvious: repair the cistern! And Jesus’ words toward our self-defeating behavior – behavior that prevents repair – affirm that the gains of such conduct are short-lived. But then Jesus added, “but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Can that not be a clue that facing the truth about our behavior is a step toward living a life watered by God and sustained by the Lord’s presence?
In that regard, we should listen to Psalm 51, which is a prayer of confession. The psalmist acknowledges, “You desire truth in the inward being” (v. 6). That’s the case whether the needed truth is about the sinfulness of some act on our part against others, or a harmful pattern of behavior toward ourselves. So often we ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?” The better question is “What am I getting out of this anyway?” That question is one way to get at the truth in our inner being and place ourselves where the Spirit of God can help us change.