When at the age of 16 I got my GCSE results, my Head Teacher Mrs Darnell approached me to offer me her sincere commiserations. I had been awarded 9 A-stars, 1 A, and a B – the latter in music. She thought I’d be devastated about the B in music. I wasn’t. Partly because I got nine A-stars (and the A was in textiles anyway), and partly because my older brother had got a B in music too.
I’m not a competitive person – which makes me quite irritating to play games with I think – but how was I supposed to know I had a problem with trying to be the best I can possibly be? I suppose it could be called perfectionism, but in many areas I’m not a perfectionist – take housework, physical exercise and doing my daughter’s hair as examples. But I suppose I grew up finding my identity largely in success. And you’re only ever as good as your last exam result, so you keep on striving, always skating on thin ice.
Why am I telling you this? Well, what happens when you’re such a high achiever that you get commiserated for your one lowly B grade? You grow into an adult who not only does NOT want to fail, but who wants to be excellent.
But just as I was becoming an adult, I became a Christian. Brilliant! But oh no! What do you do when you’re used to trying to reach the highest standard, and then you find out you can’t meet it, ever, because you’re hopelessly sinful and in need of salvation? Of course I know that wonderfully I’m saved by grace alone, through faith, which is itself a gift from God (re: Ephesians 2v8 (la de da**)). Hooray and phew! However, we are also told to repent of our sin and live holy lives. Yikes. Since this high-achievement has been the habit of a lifetime, it’s taking years to break.
In trying to be good on my own merits, I am “failing” at being a Christian, since the whole thing rests on me trusting that I’m saved by grace alone through faith. So then I feel like a terrible failure, and endeavor to try harder at being better at trusting in grace. But no wait that’s not right either, because it’s not about trying harder. What a failure I am at this.
Do you see where this spiral is heading? Only downwards.
Perhaps you can’t relate to this at all (in which case perhaps we could meet for a coffee so you can help me out?), but I really struggle to hold in one hand the seriousness of sin and the demand to be holy, whilst in the other hand accepting that I will never live up to the mark, and that I shouldn’t beat myself up about it.
Then I became a mum. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Far from achieving excellence in this field, I found myself struggling to even function. Feeding my baby and cleaning her up and dressing her and getting her off to sleep were tasks too difficult for me. And even when I cracked something, a new challenge was (and still is) just round the corner. There are no measurable results – no exams; no annual appraisals; most of the time there is nobody even there to say ‘that was impressive.’ For someone who tends to like achieving success, motherhood is a real, real, REAL furnace. How the Lord is burning off that dross to refine me into someone who really does live by grace. Ouch.
So, what to do? I think the way to break this cycle has rather a lot to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s not that the Lord is frowning at me as I mess up again, but rather he is smiling at me as I live in Christ. My pastor told me the other day that I should ‘live much in the smiles of God.’ What a revolution that will be for me.
I read this today:
23 The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for [Abraham] alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4).
Spiritually, my GCSE results are all U (Ungraded). I’m bankrupt. But in Christ, I’m justified – straight A-stars, without even a pesky B. So I think one way to break this bad habit is to focus on Jesus everyday, instead of focusing on myself. Of course, at the root of this ‘excellence’ I’m aiming for is the “mother of all sins” – pride. I want to be brilliant, and for people to tell me I am (how embarrassing). But if I’m focusing on Jesus instead of on Catherine, then I’ll be humbled, and at the same time given liberating confidence as I approach God my Father. He is smiling at me (really!) as I fold the washing, or clean up sick, or run for the bus.
There’ll always be someone better than me at whatever I do – that’s no way to find my identity. How amazing that I can find my identity in the Perfect One instead:
Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief!
Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in His beams. Feel His all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in His almighty arms. (Robert Murray M’Cheyne)
As always, please click on the speech bubble in the top right-hand corner if you’d like to leave a comment.
*For those reading this from outside the UK, GCSEs are big exams you do at the end of ‘High School’ in England and Wales. At school we are usually taught that the rest of our lives depend upon how well we do in them.
**Seeds Family Worship have a memory verse song using Ephesians 2v8 called Grace (la de da) – please visit their website to hear it.