At a time when many of us have already realised how unrealistic our New Year’s resolutions were and probably broken most of them, I find myself reflecting again on the standards we set ourselves, so often based on comparing ourselves with others or our perception of where we should be. And I have found God taking me to a deeper level of dealing with this in my own life. Typically, though, I find it has its roots in my early life.
Way back when I was in high school, my subject reports consisted of just two characters: a letter grade and an effort score. (Effort of 1 meaning you couldn’t have tried harder, to 3 being minimal to no effort.) While my parents didn’t say much - positive or negative - about the grade, they did have questions on anything less than a “1” for effort. The idea that the grade doesn’t matter as long as you tried your best seems to have much merit, but the problem is, how do I measure “my best”? What are the indicators that I have done just that?
Fast forward into adulthood, and I wonder how many of us don’t continue to struggle with (at least at some level) the idea “if I just work harder, am more consistent with my effort, keep pushing through, I will be able to perform. I will make it.” (Whatever “it” is).
The truth is, that we live in a world that IS driven largely by performance and outcomes, and the idea that any one can achieve whatever goals they like if they just put in the effort. Even in Christian circles, we honour and extol those who, by their hard work, intelligence, diligence or ingenuity excel and produce “amazing outcomes'“, either in their own “personal bests”, in business or in some other way rise to the top of the heap in their field. We buy into the lie that if we just put in more effort, if we try harder, we too can arrive.
But what are the measures we are using and are they correct?
When life is not heading in the direction I would like quickly enough, I seem to find myself back on this merry-go-round again. Inasmuch as God has taken me on a journey of breaking free from the performance trap, from the just work harder, focus more, set more achievable goals, have more accountability cycle, it is still easy to measure myself by my lack of achievement compared to others, whether this is real or perceived. When God was speaking to me about this at an earlier time, I was in the supermarket and the register went mad, printing out something like a metre of docket, all with the word “approved” printed over and over. The checkout lady was very surprised, “I don’t know what that’s about, but at least you know you are approved!” Ok, ok, I get the message - please don’t embarrass me any further, Dad!
Coming up to Christmas, I was determined to work hard to enjoy the season more than previous years. However, despite my best efforts, I found myself almost feeling ‘kicked off’ that merry-go-round. There was a sense of watching so many I know riding the crazy carousel of all the Christmas activities, while we stood by, feeling on one hand quite disconnected, while at the same time not wanting to be part of it - this madness that is perhaps more akin to a hurricane or tornado than a carnival ride.
Perhaps this is a little cynical, but from the sidelines, this was how I was feeling. And while there was an almost perverse desire to get on board and be part of it, at the same time, I felt incapable. Tied up in the middle of this was the feeling of isolation or even alienation. I wondered again if I was actually the problem.
In the middle of it all, I found myself wondering where God was and feeling disconnected from Him as well.
What if it is me?
What if it is my lack of effort that leaves me feeling distant.
And then I realised that I had painted Him in the colours I was viewing the world through: Perform, do what’s expected, keep marching, keep working hard for all the hours you are given. I realised that I didn’t feel like I was up to scratch with Him, either. Not good enough, not doing enough.
So I had to step back. Step back into remembering that His love isn’t conditional. His love for me isn’t based on what I do or don’t do or participate in, or even on anyone else’s approval or expectations. I can REST in His love whenever I want, without waiting for or even asking for anyone else’s approval.
One of the main things I felt God prompting me about in the last six months or so is to really check myself with the comparison game. This has been in quite a different context to the past. It is about checking my drive to be part of what others are doing that, for them, is very much in line with what God is doing and is calling them to do. What He has been showing me is that I am me, not them, even if we do have similar drives, gifts and callings.
He has been prompting me to not just get on board because it is a God-thing, but to ask whether it is mine to engage with. He has been saying to me, “Yes, it is good, yes, it is about Me and what I am doing My Kingdom, but I have something else over here that I want you to do. You are separate. You are different, but that is good, that is how I created you and what I created you for. Don’t try to be someone else, and you don’t have to get involved in everything I am doing, only what I ask you to.”
It fits in well with the verses where Jesus said that He “only did what He saw the Father doing” and “only said what He heard the Father saying”, which has become a little of my mantra over the last months. Jesus could have quite easily burnt Himself out with all the need around Him. It was vitally important that He was in close relationship with His Father in order to keep on track as well as deal with the demand and even the rejection. He had to know who He was, His purpose, and what His Father was about. He took regular time out to refresh and to listen.
The same is true for us.
We must be cautious about drivers like “God is up to amazing things” or “can’t wait to be part of this”, or even “you don’t want to miss this!” While it is great to be part of it all, if these things detract or distract from what God really wants us to do, we run the risk of missing what He has for us.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard, make commitments or set goals, join in. Quite the opposite. However, we do need to be careful of why we do this, why we push ourselves.
We must carefully assess the motivations of our hearts.
Is it about being a “better Christian” or being more Christ-like?
Is it about performing for those in our circles (be they church, family, friends or colleagues) or about the fruit of the Spirit at work in and through us?
Are we following the trend, the herd, or the Spirit? (And sometimes that is hard to discern!)
The challenge for this year: STOP. WAIT. ASK. Check your spirit. Is it FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or are you released/called to be part of it?
Oh yeah, and don’t bother working so hard to meet everyone else’s approval and expectations (or your perceptions of these!). It doesn’t work, you won’t ever live up to all the expectations out there, and besides, you already have the approval of your Heavenly Father. What more could you need?