Quit trying to be good enough: It’s never going to work.

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!

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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?

 

Are you above the law?

For some years now, I have been asking the question of which is more helpful: the transformation of societal structures and laws or the transformation of hearts.

While some I have talked to have immediately stated that it is not an either/or question, I do believe that there is an element where the transformation of hearts must take precedence over our laws and structures. This is not to say that laws are not important. In terms of protecting the weakest and most vulnerable in our society, they are vitally important. However, without transformed hearts, we will always look for ways around laws that are inconvenient to us and as a society, we will always be fighting a losing battle against others who want to do the same.
This brings me to current issues in many Western nations. One of our greatest battlegrounds at this time would appear to be around the issues of changing a variety of laws in the name of progression.

As I have watched the debates rage on social media and the like, I have wondered what part I should play.

Do I lend my ‘great wisdom’? Do I proudly state my stance? Do I stay in the background, keeping myself safe from the melee? 

Discussing this with a friend, she shared a picture God had given her just that morning, which she has given me permission to share further. (Interestingly, as I shared this picture with a third friend, she told me that another friend of hers had been given the same picture!).

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The question my friend asked God was what her role should be in these discussions. The picture He gave her was of the Titanic. There were three groups of Christians in this picture. There were those who were down in the hold trying (ineffectively) to plug up the holes in the hull. Then there were others up on the deck enjoying the music and ignoring the fact that the ship was about to sink. And the third group was busy helping people to get into the life boats.

Even as my friend shared this picture with me, in my own version, I saw another huge ship pull alongside. It was immensely bigger and had everything that anyone could ever want or need and was perfect. It seemed to glow (no words to describe it), but I knew this ship was God’s ship. It is His promise that there is space aboard His ship for all who want to join it, that His ship is truly unsinkable – we need have no fear in the face of our current ‘ship’ sinking.

Just as people believed about the Titanic, there are those who believe that Western society’s structure is great and the best form it can be, that it is ‘unsinkable’. I think this is a false view. While we can be quite scathing about the Titanic and the arrogance of people who think they have got it all worked out, I do believe that we can have the same attitude towards ‘the way the world works’. We can think that we can work it all out and make it ‘fair’ and ‘happy’ for everyone – well, at least the ‘everyone’ who matters to us.

The problem as I see it is that much of the foundations our society has been built on are shaky or unstable. While some of them might seem good, or even appear to come from Godly principles, without the right hearts behind them, many laws and societal mores can simply become (or feel like) a big stick with which to beat people with.

Although Jesus came as the fulfilment of the Law and to make it perfect, there is an aspect in which this can simply take us back to being like the Pharisees (lawyers) of Jesus’ day, making rules and regulations as the benchmark of who is in and who is out.

Jesus was completely against this and had many harsh words to say to those who tied heavy burdens to those who could least deal with them. (Matt 23:1-12). We must be very sure of our own motives – are we trying to prove ourselves more righteous and knowledgeable than someone else at some level? Are we trying to force them to live up to standards that we ourselves don’t keep? Especially when they don’t even believe the same as we do.

My reading of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, particularly the passage from Matthew 5:17-48, is that Jesus is pointing out how difficult it is to be righteous. Who has never wanted (at least at some level) to kill someone else (or that someone else would do it for you), or never looked at someone and thought they were more than a bit ok. And then Jesus goes on to lift the level on the things we should do as well. I don’t believe we can truly do many of these consistently without His help and grace.

Adding to this are Paul’s writings reminding us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23-). He continues on to suggest that rather than helping us to be good, the Law actually shows us how much we fail. It shows that we don’t have it in us to do that which is right. In a nutshell,

laws don’t really help us become better people – they are really just mirrors to show us our failings.

So what is the answer?

There are two things that come to mind. 

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The first is Galatians 5:22-23: (you might want to (re)read what comes before this, too)
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."

The lead up to this passage is all about freedom. Rather than freedom to do what we want, though, it is freedom from the need to indulge ourselves or “self-comfort”. When we are free in Christ, we are free from the screams of our bodies, emotions and minds to make us feel good (as well as those of others). However, we have to submit these things to God, which brings me to the second thought.

Why do we struggle so much to bring these desires to God?

In my own experience and the experience of numbers of friends, what is often termed our “sin nature” is largely an outworking of the places within us that are impacted by brokenness and damage we have sustained, either from what has been done to us, or (just as often) what we have perceived about what has been done.

There are numbers of ways this manifests in our lives. It can have its foundations in fear and self-protection and these may be expressed through irrational anger or withdrawal, or a combination of both. It may be through acting out sexually or through food, drugs, bad moods, manipulation and control as we try to get our needs met in inappropriate ways.

We can try hard to change these behaviours and at times may succeed, at least to a degree. However, if we never deal with the wounds beneath the behaviours, we are at best managing them. In my own experience, I have had significant healing in a number of areas which means many of those behaviours don’t need to be managed anymore. They have gone completely.
I think we get stuck in the space of law because of our tendency to like what we are able to measure. It makes us feel safe to know what is acceptable and what is not.

We are not too dissimilar to the Israelites. They liked the comfort of knowing exactly how to behave so much they added another 603 laws to the 10 original ones God gave them, just to make sure they were doing the right thing. In our hunger to have it nailed down, rather than sharing our relationship with God with others, we have turned the Good News into a behaviour code.

This is something I have struggled with most of my Christian life. I came across a statement from Daniel Kolenda a number of years back that put it into words perfectly for me. He said that far too often we give people an explanation (the ‘Gospel message’) with no experience, rather than giving them an experience that requires an explanation

Perhaps it is because we have only given intellectual consent to the idea of the Gospel without experiencing its power ourselves that we cannot share it with others. If (when) we have experienced the transforming power of the love of God personally, we cannot help but share it. And when we come from this position, we are far less likely to make others live up to a series of rules to be right with God. Rather than trying to be good enough to come to God, we can allow His loving kindness to lead others to repentance and allow the Holy Spirit to be the One to convict. We can let go of our need to judge others.

The end point is that we have a choice to make. We can rely on laws to make us feel safe, either in our beliefs or in other ways, or we can rely on God. If we decide to trust in laws, even those from the Bible, to give us our sense of safety and security, either in this life or the next, unfortunately we will be let down. As Paul says in Romans 8, it is not the Law of sin and death that can bring us life and make us righteous, but the Law of the Spirit (which is the Law of Love), that gives life to all. And above such things, there is no Law! Each of us, then, has the choice to live above the law. 

In the end, we make a choice – we choose to live under the law (whatever that looks like and all it entails), which brings us death or we can choose to live above the law, not only living the true abundant, free life ourselves, but bringing true life and freedom to others. Are you willing to put the law to death in your life?

 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:13-15)
 

The Deafening Roar of Silence

I am an extrovert. Take away human contact for too long and I quickly cease to function well. My energy and creativity drop and the most mundane tasks become difficult. 

However, in more recent years I have also come to value time alone; time with peace and quiet. 

Fortunately, I live somewhere I get plenty of that, even though noise and people are never far away. But there are those times when I just love to decrease the sensory input. At those times, even music can be an intrusion.

Of course, not everyone is like this. I know many who rarely enjoy a really quiet environment. There are those who, to my amazement, love to have the tv or radio running in the background from morning to night. The idea of not having noise is isolating at best, for them.

For me, though, heading up to the mountains this week for a day of cross-country skiing was one of those welcome time outs. As we left the resort and headed up the trail, all noise of people, vehicles and generators drifted away behind us. Although there were the occasional other skiers, they quickly disappeared and we were on our own again. Eventually, we became aware that the only sound apart from ourselves was the thump and crash of ice and snow falling off the trees.

At one point, we stopped for a snack and a bit of a rest and just listened to the silence. Complete and utter silence. Not even the sound of birds. You don't realise how noisy life is until you are in a space where there is absolute silence. It was beautiful. I longed to just stay there, and if it weren't for the cold and the need to ski back to the car park, I could have quite easily set up camp and remained indefinitely.

As we stood and quietened even our breathing, listening to the sound of silence, the sound of nothing, I became aware of noise that wasn't noise. The words that came to mind were 'the thunder and roar of God'. I am not sure how to really describe it, whether it was just the awareness of His majesty in the beauty of His creation, or the fact that as all other distractions were stripped away, His sovereignty was somehow obvious - we were in the presence of royalty. It was like the majestic music from a movie, or even the reverberating sound check in the cinema. And yet, physically it was silent. It was one of those moments where I would have liked to build a little memorial, like the piles of rocks the Israelites left at places of encounter with God. Like a sign, "God was here".

We had been discussing the whole creation idea earlier in the day, what it was like for God to create from nothing, to dream up the ideas, the seeds of what it would all look like. My husband shared the thought that creation was an expression of God, it is a reflection of who He is, but more than that, He is within and through it. He permeates creation. He is the life blood that pulsates through it all. Perhaps this was part of the thunder and roar. Hearing His heartbeat in His creation. 

Sometimes we can hate the silence because of what we cannot silence - the voices of despair, of pain, of loneliness, of hunger, of anger or bitterness that scream out at us if we don't have enough other distractions. We can fill up our lives with other stuff so we don't have to deal with that which is too hard. Perhaps we don't even realise we are doing it, until silence comes crashing in on us. And for some, silence is to be feared, because we don't want to face that which dwells within. 

And yet, I want to promise, to give a commitment that what we fear, what we dislike so much can be exactly what we need. Like Elijah hiding in the cave (see 1 Kings 19:11-14), in pain and despair, longing for God to speak, make it all right - first there was mighty, loud wind; then an earthquake, then fire, before the gentleness and stillness of God came upon him. He wanted God to act strongly, to be loud and present and forceful, and yet God came in silence, in stillness, because this is what Elijah actually needed.

So it is with us. While we want to keep running from the 'demons' that chase us down, that haunt us, we stay exhausted; we are never free, never rested. We remain trapped in the lie that these things have power over us; that living in fear is the only safe way to live. It is only as we stop and wait on God, that His stillness, peace and gentleness can start to infiltrate us with His answers, His rest for us, and His freedom. It is in this place that we start to find what really defines us - is it Him or the world, Him or our circumstances? It is only when we cease striving to deafen the silence, we discover the space to find the One who truly defines us.

Bondage: What's your style?

When was the last time you engaged with a little bondage?

Personally, I really value my freedom. I live in a culture that would appear to value freedom, particularly the freedom of the individual, above almost everything else. The freedom to carry a gun, the freedom to marry whom I choose and freedom of speech are just a few that pop easily to mind. And watch the public outcry if a ‘civil liberty’ is even perceived as being curtailed.

How is it then, with all our appetite for freedom, that we can find ourselves in bondage?

As I engaged in my own little bondage routine at the gym recently, (not to the treadmill, but those other pesky machines), I became aware of Taylor Swift’s song “Mean” playing in the background:

“You have pointed out my flaws again.
As if I don't already see them. 
I walk with my head down, 
Trying to block you out, ‘cause I'll never impress you…
Someday, I'll be, living in a big ol' city, 
And all you're ever gonna be is mean…”

The lament conveyed here is not new to many of us, and is possibly why the song is so popular. The cry for vindication, for justice and for freedom from the opinions (real or perceived) of others is one that many of us can relate to. 

“One day I am going to show you just how wrong you were about me!”

Unfortunately, though, instead of being set free by “showing” others their error we are actually held in bondage by this desire for exoneration. If my goal is to prove anything to anyone else, I will always be bound by my need for validation from them.

And so, in all our desire for freedom, we can actually live in so many bondages. Bondage to the opinions, desires and expectations of others; bondage to acquiring the next gadget, refurb, experience, holiday; bondage to creating or maintaining an image that we believe will make us acceptable to or belong with others; bondage to the ladder of success in our career and relationships.

In my experience, the desire for acceptance manifested itself in me as an extreme difficulty in saying ‘no’ to others. Even when I didn’t want to say yes, I would find myself agreeing to something and then feeling trapped. I had constant battles with rehashing conversations and situations, beating myself up for a variety of failings I perceived in myself.

However, this is only one illustration of a variety of bondages I found myself in trying to get my needs for value, acceptance and belonging met. I also tied myself in knots trying NOT to need value, acceptance and belonging from anyone. I lived in a vicious cycle of trying to maintain feeling good about myself and failing dismally.

 So what does true freedom look like? And how do we live in it?

As long as we look to others, to material goods or to achievement to meet our deeper needs of acceptance, value or belonging we will continue to live in the cycle of unmet need. Although some of these work for short periods, like the proverbial addict, we keep coming back for the next and bigger fix.

While it is true that just like food, there are areas of our lives where we do need fairly consistent input, what we put in has a great impact on the output. When we use things that were never meant to bring fulfilment or value to our lives, it is like only ever eating junk food. We are left feeling empty and dissatisfied.