Dear 3 year-ago me,
Congratulations on getting married and getting accepted into Redeemer. You look like you couldn’t be more excited — as if this is something you’ve waited on for years. The Lord has given you an extraordinary gift in David and his encouragement. Cherish it.
People will make jokes to you about seminary (“more like cemetery” they will say). You don’t want to listen to them because you think you’re different. But their intentions are good and their warnings worth listening to.
You will be tempted to think of your time in seminary as a “means to an end.” You don’t now — you don’t “have” to have this degree to serve as a minister of the Gospel. Especially as a woman. As a result, you see this season as a true gift, the pursuit of knowledge of your Savior. Keep this intention ever before you. Pray hard against the temptation to see this time as a means to an end.
You see, especially towards the end of your time at Redeemer, the temptation will grow stronger. With past voices in your head of “you will be successful at anything you do,” you will start to be afraid. Afraid of what they will think when you don’t have a high-powered job right after you graduate. Afraid of the pay cuts you’re sure to face after being in the business world. Afraid of the word “internship.” Afraid that you wasted 3 years of your life slaving away with nothing to show for it. Afraid that you missed out on what everyone else seemed to be doing with their lives. Afraid that 30 is too old to start a new career. Afraid of not finding your place as a woman in ministry. In a word, you will be afraid to fail.
You see, this fear has tripped you up all of your life. It has led to seeing successes as disappointments. It has bred discontentment. It has darkened otherwise shining moments. And you will stare it in the face for the hundredth time.
But take heart. Remember that your Jesus has a plan. Remember that his way almost always looks mysterious. Remember that his life was one of humble servanthood. Remember that he is worth trusting with everything you’ve got. Remember that he has provided for you in countless unexpected ways up to this point. Remember his miraculous salvation in your life, a salvation that speaks more life into you day after day. Remember that the journey of seminary, not unlike the journey of your whole life, is to know him.
This is the best advice I have for you: Make your aim to know him. In every class that you take, are you meeting him? Are you in awe of his goodness? Is the overflow of that worship making your face radiant? Are you keeping your relationships a priority – because they are the most precious in his sight?
27 year-old me, you are in for a wild ride. Keep your eyes set on Jesus and you can’t go wrong.
And don’t be afraid to fail. In the failing, in the ashes – you will know him. And you will find life.
I approached the seminary season with great hopes of having all of my questions answered. I ask a lot of questions…so much so that my husband calls me “The Riddler.” Much to my surprise, my questions would birth new questions, deeper questions…questions that have left me feeling as if the very foundation I am standing on is weak. Instead of the newfound confidence I craved, both for myself and for my ministry to others, I have been left with newfound insecurities. I feel like my marriage to Jesus has somehow reverted back to the awkward dating phase, “So…Jesus, tell me about your family. Your favorite color. How you grew up…” It is a bit frightening and I am left vulnerable; vulnerable to answers that I don’t expect, vulnerable to being wrong about something I was so confident in before…vulnerable.
Yet, how would Jesus define my foundation? Would he define it was “thinking rightly” about him? In the same way, how does my husband define the foundation of our marriage? Is it defined as knowing everything about him? Is there room to “rethink” things I thought I knew about him that end up being wrong?
In Matthew 7, Jesus speaks about our foundation, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like the foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
The variable in this story is the one who either does or does not do the words that he/she hears. Each one hears, yet the emphasis is not on “hearing rightly,” the emphasis is on the doing. I would argue that right hearing leads to right action, and is very important. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t subject myself to a grueling 3 year intensive study of the Scriptures. However, for the sake of today, Jesus equates the one possesses a strong foundation with the one that does the things that he/she hears.
If I equate my foundation with “right thinking,” I am certainly on shaky ground. This perceived vulnerability has led to a wall in my relationship with Jesus – “If I can’t be sure about you, Jesus, then why should I come to you at all? Why should I trust you, if I don’t even know if I’m trusting who you really are?” The one person I can rely on and put full trust in has made me with limitations in my knowledge. As a result, certain parts of him are veiled, beyond my reach. He has chosen to reveal himself in time to humans made from the dust, rather than in one moment of full clarity.
The reality is, my foundation in marriage and in relationship to Jesus is seen most clearly in covenant actions – first and foremost, actions or vows made on my behalf. The very foundation of Christianity is on the actions of God in history. Jesus not only “thought rightly” about me, but he chose certain actions: humbling himself and taking on the form of human flesh, resisting temptations and dying on my behalf. He certainly thought well, yet earned his “well done, good and faithful servant…not, “good argument” or “good analytics!,” but “well done” on the basis of his actions. Because he obeyed the greatest commandment to love God and love neighbor, he stood strong against the most destructive of storms: betrayal, shame and even death itself.
With Jesus as both my foundation and example of true humanity, I build on the foundation of love with which he loved me. Even in my wrong thinking, he loves me, and beckons me come. And because he loves me, I know love and am free to love. He is more concerned about my building on his unshakeable foundation of love – trusting him in the things I do see of him and loving my neighbor in the ways I ought – than my abstaining from love because I don’t fully know and can’t fully see. He waits for me to come, to hear, and to respond.
Raise your support in 100 days!
We came out of the training ready, expectant. The promise (ok, my heart twisted it into a promise) made me excited. “We’ll go through half of our savings and still feel like we’re “trusting God” while maintaining a position of control. Yes, Lord, I want my faith to grow! No, Lord, I don’t want to go “too far” with this test. Don’t lead me to the point of true surrender, the point where I don’t know where the next day’s manna is going to come from.” Maybe I wasn’t saying (or thinking) these words exactly, but it is where my heart was. It was exposed on day 1.
Right after David retired from the fire department, we got his “cash out” check and it was half of what we expected. He called and after hearing the department’s reasoning, he answered everything calmly with “Well, this is very disappointing…very disappointing…” Meanwhile, I was on the opposite couch and gauging from the conversation and his body language, I knew. I didn’t know whether to scream or cry. When he got off the phone, I was angry with him, that he wasn’t more mad on the phone (Christian wife A+). They needed to know how much this hurt us. They needed to know that our well-being, our very manna, was at stake. Or so I perceived. David responded calmly, “God knew this would happen, this is not a surprise to him.” Back to the drawing board – we would have to do this in shorter time than we thought.
Again, on day 100, I got angry and…scared. First, the anger. What started as a gentle nudge, “David, how many people have you called today? Who is your accountability partner?” turned into endless questions dominating my mind’s space. I couldn’t sleep. And for those of you that know me, I sleep. A lot. I was consumed. His answers, however incomplete, gave me some sense of control. “If he contacts 10 people every day, and 50% of those return his call, and 50% of those support us, we’ll be done in 2.5 months!” I couldn’t stop my heart’s own madness. I had never struggled with anxiety more than a fleeting thought, and here I was – drowning in it.
Then, the promise in the midst of the testing.
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
12 you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Seek first the kingdom of God, don’t be primarily concerned with manna! Every time I was faced with a tempting thought to withhold generosity: to cancel our monthly charitable giving, to make the woman we were ministering to day and night pay for her own meals, to stay at our free apartment even though we didn’t have time to do the ministry that came with it…again, “Seek first…” echoed in my mind and heart. Give it up, give it all up for His kingdom. He will take care of you.
Lilies are my favorite flower. David has bought me Stargazer Lilies throughout our relationship, marking significant days such as our engagement, wedding and various birthdays and dates. They remind me of God’s creative and delicate hand forming and fashioning His creation in ways that reflect Him.
Little did I know, in placing a love for lilies in my heart, God has given me a promise for times such as this: a time of growing, stretching, trusting, seeing my need like never before. Lilies, in this season, are becoming a reminder of God’s faithfulness and care.
We are standing face to face with a decision that can easily provoke anxiety in the most courageous person. We are willingly giving up financial “security” (and a car, health insurance, etc. among other things) to follow Jesus. In the West, we hold tightly to the promises we think that money, a “secure” job, a career make to us. This master’s voice is seductive, but it is not trustworthy. After all, you cannot serve two masters: the Lord and money (Matt 6:24). But if I’m honest, money comforts me in times of trouble and helps me to sleep at night.
I’ll admit, it is scary. Now that the time has come to follow through with the decision, second-guessing comes naturally, but we both know that it is what we’re supposed to do to follow in the Lord’s footsteps. So, we will follow Him.
In Matthew 6, Jesus reveals the root of all anxiety: unbelief. He graciously gives many promises to strengthen the believer’s faith. Jesus could simply have said, “You fools, do you not get it by now?” but instead, he graciously approaches His followers by elaborately using promises and metaphors that pointed them back to His character. He knows that we are but dust, He knows that we need His reminders. This book is full of reminders.
“And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Soloman in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”
John Piper adds, “Compared to the flowers of the field you are a much higher priority for God, because you will live forever and can thus bring him eternal praise. Nevertheless, God has such an overflow of creative energy and care, he lavishes it on flowers that last only a matter of days. So he will certainly take that same energy and creative skill and use it to care for his children who will last forever.”
So, we throw ourselves at the feet of a faithful, caring and powerful Master. One that doesn’t fail in His promises, one whose voice we can trust. The seduction of His voice lies in His proven faithfulness. We pray with confidence, knowing that our Master knows our needs and cares for us. We pray, More of You and less of me, Your will be done, be glorified, let us worship you.
Tears streamed out of my eyes as this reality bounced off the walls of my heart and home. Like any good physician of the soul, she brought the Truth to my situation like it was tailor made for it. God’s word never returns void, it accomplishes what He sets out for it to accomplish. And her words would plant a seed of hope: hope that began its journey by exposing my perfectionistic tendencies that united me to shame.
The “Successful” Perfectionist
I have struggled with a desire to be perfect since birth. My mom says that I wouldn’t even try to walk until I knew I wouldn’t fall. This pattern has echoed throughout my life in meaningful ways. In 4th grade, I told my teacher that ‘B’ stood for bad. In high school, I cried uncontrollably after the state cross country meet and state soccer game because I didn’t live up to my own expectations. I punished myself when I didn’t do well in athletic practice by running more hills, more laps. More recently, I have found myself secretly fearing that I am not measuring up as a Christian woman or wife. I’m not great at cooking, I don’t yet have 5 children (much less, 1) and I have an unshakable desire to spend my time both in and outside of the home. Those of you that struggle in this same area don’t even have to call to memory your moments or nagging thoughts of perceived failure. You know them, you live in the shadow of the sense of rejection, failure or inadequacy they produced. And chances are, as the instances multiplied, so did the overwhelming sense of shame.
This weekend, I attended the CCEF Conference on Guilt & Shame. One of my favorite sessions was Mike Emlet’s discussion of perfectionism, a topic I have never heard formally addressed. All of the thoughts from this point forward reflect his musings on the subject and how to fight it.
Less “Common” Forms of Perfectionism
Most people that struggle with perfectionism know it; however, there are less common forms of “perfectionism” that reflect the same sinful attitude:
The Procrastinator: You procrastinate because your standards are so high that they’re essentially self-defeating from the beginning.
The Controller: You are hard on yourself and others. Typically, if you are hard on yourself, this attitude easily transfers to thinking about those around you.
The Pleaser: You live (and die) by the standards of others.
The Tortured Decision Maker: You find it hard to make decisions and you have a general aversion to commitment.
Although most of us can identify with one (or in my case, all) of these struggles, insight at the level of the heart will free us to see what is really going on and serve as a starting place to fight.
1. Misplaced Security
“Ultimately, perfectionism is about wanting to find in yourself what you can only find in another” – Mike Emlet
Are your standards rooted in God’s law, or are they formed on the basis of your own expectations (or the expectations of others)? Even if they are rooted in God’s law, your response to failure says everything. If they are based on your own expectations (or the expectations of others) both the standard itself and response are faulty. Our security is rooted in our position, not performance…or standing, not standards. Sin means relationship breaking more than rule breaking.
2. Mistaken Timing
Perfectionism robs you of the present, as you dwell on past failure or fear of future failure. We live in the “already, but not yet” and we will not break free of our failures and weaknesses this side of heaven. Perfectionism demands that our future hope be fulfilled in the here and now.
3. Malformed View of God & Self
God is distant and wrathful; God requires us to earn His goodness. None of us would say this out loud, but as we live with a perfectionistic attitude, we act as if this is the character of God. At the same time, the perfectionist views him/herself as the ultimate judge and jury. There is a co-existence of pride (I hit the mark!) and shame (I am such a failure).
Start here. Pray for wisdom to see how a perfectionistic attitude has infected your daily interactions. Take heart.