“Do not let all kinds of strange teachings lead you into the wrong way. Your hearts should be strengthened by God’s grace, not by obeying rules about foods, which do no help those who obey them.” Hebrews 13:9 (NCV)
Can we just get raw here for a few uncomfortable (for me), transparent moments? Here we go.
These are ominous echoes that are all too familiar for me. They have a painfully jagged-edged resonance about them that carve steep and rugged canyons deep into my soul whenever the opportunity to speak occurs. These echoes have a hair trigger so it doesn’t take much to unleash their cascading torrents of discouragement and accusation upon me. As the familiar saying goes, “that’s gonna leave a mark.” And indeed these merciless reverberations do. Every. Single. Time. After all, how can the end of a cracking whip not leave some sort of wound, some sort of a scar on this heart of mine?
I must admit that my fear of failure coupled with an even stronger need for acceptance makes me an easy target for such a whip. I am the head-bent-low straggler trailing the herd. For someone like me who desperately wants to earn another’s approving nod and smile this means I must perform to some particular level of expectation in order to win that person’s acceptance. As my thinking goes, failure to be successful very likely translates into my not being accepted. So, the idea of “failure” is more than just an unpleasant word to me. The thoughts and feelings it stirs in me make this ugly combination not only a robber of my confidence but a cruel, whip-bearing dungeon task-master as well as goading me onwards to attempting to scale unrealistic Mt. Everest sized goals. The very idea of the possibility of falling short of “the mark” in a variety of circumstances makes me want to silently slip away into the safety of some dark corner of a room where with any luck at all I’ll go unnoticed. This is especially true in social situations in which I don’t know anyone in the room. Out of direct sight is a good place to be for someone like me who deep down has come to believe the echoes have been right all along when they relentlessly proclaim: “You…you…you…have…have…have… little…little…little…to…to…to…offer…offer…offer…So…so…so…Why…why…why…would…would…would…anyone…anyone…anyone…want…want…want…to…to…to…talk…talk…talk…to…to…to…you…you…you? It’s a stomach-churning revolving door endlessly stuck in “Groundhog Day” mode just like in the movie starring Bill Murray. Round and round I go, where I come out is always the same. Self-fulling prophecy in all its false glory I suppose. Years of echoes from a variety of sharp-tongued whips will convince a person to hide and when necessary disguise their true self for fear of rejection. I’m guessing many of my friends would be surprised to read this, but that’s only a testimony as to my mask wearing skills that have been carefully crafted to hide my perceived deficiencies. Little do most realize I am actually the Alone Ranger.
So pervasive is this negative thinking that it has alarmingly bled over into my spiritual life as well. In his book, Grace Happens Here, Max Lucado succinctly captures my dilemma by saying, “We find it easier to trust the miracle of resurrection than the miracle of grace. We so fear failure that we create the image of perfection, lest heaven be even more disappointed in us than we are. The result? The weariest people on earth.” Indeed. I must admit that although I wholeheartedly embraced His grace at the time of my salvation ever since then I’ve been wearing myself out attempting to earn His love through my works. In doing so I have cast His marvelous gift of grace as wrought by His Son into the ditch alongside the road. In place of His grace I picked up the mask. Apart from His grace my fear of failure coupled with my desire to earn His acceptance as someone else had literally worked my relationship with Him into an incredibly uncomfortable and tight fitting corner that was being continuously surrounded by thick coats of paint that would never dry. The not-so-merry-go-round of trying to live up to my own self-imposed demands and expectations in order to please the Lord was literally crushing me and preventing my relationship with Him from being all that it could be. Over time being the masked man takes a toll on a person, you know? Hindsight now tells me that if you wear a mask long enough you can become so comfortable wearing it that much of the time you no longer even realize it’s on. Now there’s a scary thought.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death?” Romans 7:24 (WEB)
Sensing my years-long problem that was slowly eating its way through me, my mentor and dear friend, 2Tim, put it this way, “You are in need of a good solid dose of grace.” Amen! Truer words have never been spoken to me. Fortunately, the rest of the story is that I am not the Alone Ranger after all. No, not at all. Thankfully there is Another far greater than myself who is full of compassion and kindness. One who is unwilling to allow me to continue wearing my mask and oh so gently removes it and the weighty chains associated with it.
Let me tell you a story.
As my wife and I walked down the fishing pier I was captivated by several birds flying alongside the railings. They were hunting for dinner. Tirelessly they would hover over a small patch of ocean in hopes of spotting the tell-tale glistening of a fish swimming just beneath the water’s surface. When a flash caught their eye in the water 20 feet or so below them they would courageously nose dive straight down without any hesitation. Sometimes, however, at the very last second for whatever reason, they would abruptly pull up just before smashing into the water and immediately return to their original hunting position. Other times they would dive head first directly into the water and then quickly bounce back up into the air with their wings flapping furiously to regain the lost altitude. This was a wonderful, non-stop ballet for the most part that continued for as long as we were there. Surprisingly in spite of their best efforts they often came up empty with no fish. Whoa! Stop right there. It was exactly at this “ah hah” moment that truth smacked me right between the eyes. Hear me out! Isn’t it fair to say that these birds have been perfectly designed to do what they’re doing? Who can answer this question with anything other than a resounding “yes?” So, doesn’t it follow then, that if these incredibly gifted creatures are not successful at catching a fish each and every time they try then why should I allow myself to be subject to the unyielding taskmaster of perfection as I do?
Let’s reimagine the story now. In this version Jesus is standing there on the pier watching the birds hunting for dinner. And guess what? You’re one of the birds. Spying a gleam of silver in the water below you plunge head first into the water. A second later you reappear out of the water, but with no fish. As you reposition yourself you glance over at Jesus and the two of you make eye contact. What is Jesus’ reaction? Do you see Him rolling His eyes in disapproval and then turning His back on you because you failed to catch anything? Can you honestly see Him being angry or disgusted with your unsuccessful effort? No, I can’t either. His reaction is most certainly just the opposite, in fact. I wholeheartedly believe He completely delights in your sincere trying. I see Him laughing and grinning out of sheer enjoyment as He watches you, His creation, diligently going about your business. His reaction is not based on whether or not your mouth is full or empty. Surely He rejoices and celebrates over each of your attempts regardless of the outcome doesn’t He? So, let’s finish playing this out now. As the two of you make eye contact He grins at you with a smile that lights up even the darkest of wet paint surrounded corners, gives you an approving wink with a contagious twinkle in His eye, and then encourages you to try again with a gentle nod of His head back towards the water. Nourished by His acceptance and encouragement your resolve to keep on fishing skyrockets. What just happened? In that shining moment, that glorious grace-filled moment of encouragement and approval in which time seemed to stand still, the accusing echoes began to fade away sapped of their strength, power, and control over you. Friend, let this scene play out in your head and heart as many times as it takes until, like me, you’re finally able to be William Wallace’s Braveheart crying out, “F r e e d o m!!!” If ever a hopeless captive has been compassionately set free in the warmth of His grace it is now.
Let’s look at yet another story about fishing.
“Simon Peter said to them, ‘I’m going fishing.’ They told him, ‘We are also coming with you.’ They immediately went out and entered the boat. That night they caught nothing. But when day had already come, Jesus stood on the beach, yet the disciples didn’t know that it was Jesus. Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Children, have you anything to eat?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ They cast it therefore, and now they weren’t able to draw it in for the multitude of fish. That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It’s the Lord!’” John 21:3-7 (WEB)
For those of you like me who have had perfectionism’s boot on your throat pressed down even more tightly by the need for acceptance, have lost sight of the true meaning and beauty of grace, and have determined to fight this battle alone how do you see this story in John now? Put yourself in the boat along with the others. Is there anything in these verses that comes even close to suggesting that Jesus scoffed at you and the rest of the disciple’s lack of fishing success? He certainly didn’t turn His back on any of you because you hadn’t caught any fish. He didn’t roll His eyes at your empty nets. He didn’t say anything like, “You people are just awful. You should seriously look into another way of making a living.” No, quite the opposite is true, in fact. In these verses He’s encouraged you all to keep on fishing, but this time to do it on the other side of the boat. Stop. Something just amazing happened, did you catch it? Not only did He offer encouragement, but He offered something far, far greater. He offered Himself. He got involved in your efforts by inviting you to follow His lead. He came alongside you and gave divine direction. Why would He do this? Because He is relational at His very core and as mind boggling as it is, we were created to do “life” with Him, side by side. He delights in shepherding us and being an active part of our lives. The truth of the matter is that if we were to always be successful at everything we do then wouldn’t it be our nature to see ourselves as having no need of Him? As it turns out our inadequacies are opportunities for closeness with Him. Why? Because it’s in our weaknesses that we are made strong through Him just as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12. Why? Because it’s all for His glory, and not ours. Perfectionism is all about our own glory. To pursue or be driven by perfectionism in order to make ourselves “worthy” to be in His presence is as far as the east is from the west is regarding grace’s redeeming role in our lives taking us further away from Him. There’s some true irony for you, eh? In my quest to be perfect so that I can become acceptable and able to draw near to Him I actually distance myself from Him because…”I’m not good enough.” That’s been the merciless goal of perfectionism all along…to separate me from My Savior. The truth is it’s never been about me and what I’ve done regarding my ongoing relationship with Him. No. It always has been and always will be about what He’s done first and foremost. Grace speaks life. Grace truly is amazing. Grace high fives you. Grace sets you free! “Hallelujah!”
“I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.” Psalm 139:14 (NKJV)
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10 (NKJV)
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” 1 Corinthians 3:6-8 (NKJV)