Of course everyone goes through the predictable life stages of developing a sense of self and gradually coming to the realization that others are watching and some are keeping score. When I was a precocious (according to my mom) kindergartner, I used to sing freely on the playground and proclaim my destiny as a famous recording artist. My role models at the time were an eclectic mix of Amy Grant, Whitney Houston, Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins, of course) and Diana Ross (I was all about some Motown). As I reached puberty, my dreams of singing stardom disappeared along with my baby fat and my clothes and hair became an all important focus. I had to look cool even if I was starting to get the impression that I was never going to be the most popular kid at school. But horror of horrors, my best friend Heather and I showed up on the first day of 6th grade wearing exactly the same red, black, and white sweater and matching hounds tooth-printed leggings from the Limited Too. How could this have happened? How we could have failed to compare fashion notes for the most important day of our 12-year-old lives still baffles me. Fast-forward to high school where I start thinking more about "who I want to be when I grow up" in terms of college and career. By that time I had already ditched the idea of becoming a 3rd grade teacher. I still wanted to help people in some way, maybe as a counselor or social worker, but mostly I saw myself getting married and having a few kids, and thought that would be enough to keep me busy. Still, I was much more concerned with fitting in and not making a fool of myself in public than about my future vocation. Every unchoreographed move seemed a risk at humiliation. So I stayed in my impenetrable bubble of close friends who would come to my rescue should I find myself in a socially awkward situation and would vote for me as class Vice-President even though they knew as well as I did that I had no chance in hell of winning. Why did I run for student office as an introverted student at a large public high school? For the same reason that pushed myself to excel in college and in every job I ever had: to try to win the approval and respect of others. Even now in my 30s, married and caring for two adorable children, I have to resist the temptation to prove my worth to the world. Without irony I find myself wondering how to value my productivity: in a tally of laundry loads washed and folded, well-balanced meals cooked, floors swept, or in books read or hugs and kisses given to my children? Or in the number of words written on a page? In articles published? How am I supposed to know if I'm doing my life well? What is it all for?
Is it not enough to be faithful to love God and to love others? It should be, yes. But unfortunately I often stray into the territory of social comparison and worldly measures of success. I want my identity as a child of God saved by grace to be enough. I know in my heart that Jesus is more than enough for me. And yet, I struggle with feelings of inadequacy. I am constantly attacked my inner thoughts that I am not good enough as I am. My inner critic tells me that I am a lazy mom, an awful housekeeper, disorganized, foolish, and selfish. In the juggling act that is motherhood, I am constantly wondering if I have my priorities straight. When I am washing a sink full of dishes, I am berating myself for not reaching out to my neighbors. When I am up to my elbows in dirty diapers and about to "lose it" as my 3 year old throws another tantrum, I wonder if I should go back to work outside my home to stay sane. When I am giving my full attention to a friend in need, I am wishing I could think of the right words to say and then kicking myself for forgetting to pray with her. When my husband comes home late, I am frustrated that I have to get through the tumultuous hours between 5 and 8pm on my own and dinner is cold--my dreams of a lovely sit-down dinner disappointed. None of the above is unusual I suspect. But maybe that's why it feels miserable to even admit such weaknesses. Deep down I have this inner yearning to BE someone greater than I think I am. To be the kind of person who doesn't deal with such trivialities or if she does, does not let them get her down. Basically, I want to be an idol I've created in my own image. Ouch! It hurts to admit that. But if I am willing to be honest, it is true. I tend to look at the lives of the women I admire from afar and think they have it all together. And although it might be comforting if I knew that they too struggled with many of the same spiritual battles that I do, I would be disappointed that I could no longer point to a human being who seemed to be able to reach the personal goals of perfection that I aspire to. To some degree we are all wearing a mask based on the image we want others to see and hiding our real, imperfect selves for fear that if we were ever "found out" we would be rejected. Within each of us is the knowledge that we are not all that we wish we could be. And though we may foolishly try to fulfill this desire through selfish and idolatrous means, I believe that at our heart's core God put within us this yearning for perfection. We long to become the sons and daughters of God that we were created to be: to be holy as He is holy, an image-bearer of the Lord Almighty. Even creation itself groans just as we do waiting with eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed (Romans 8:22).
Instead of looking outside of myself for the blueprints of how I should look, speak, and act in order to be deemed significant in the eyes of others, I need to look at the one from whom I came: to the Creator God who formed me from the dust of the earth, from the rib of Adam, and knit me together in my mother's womb according to his mind's eye (Gen. 2; Psalm 139). Only by the grace of he who delivered me from the death of my self-centered ambition, I have been made righteous in his sight and hold the power of his resurrection in my very being. His Holy Spirit gives me the desire to be loved and to love with heavenly passion. It is he who stirs my soul to reach for eternal heights of joy and freedom in all that I do for his glory. It is he who reminds me that this world is full of prideful one-upmanship, but that he has overcome the world so that we can overcome our need to be accepted by the world. Although he promised that the world would reject us as Christians, he assures us that he fully accepts and embraces us just as we are...not as we should be, not even as we want to be...but as we ARE. This truth gives me great joy and the courage to throw off my self-imposed burdens designed to impress others in order to carry the cross of sacrificial love.
Oftentimes in our understanding of the gospel we stop short. We stress the gospel message of Jesus bearing our shame and punishment on the cross, but we sometimes fail to remember that Christ not only redeemed us while we were yet sinners, he also wants to restore us in every way. From the first day of our conversion, hee begins the slow and painful process of healing and sanctification in our lives, molding and shaping us as he sees fit, like a potter forms the clay. We do not remain broken vessels but are gradually being transformed into his image from "glory to glory" (2 Cor. 3:18). I cannot overemphasize how far I feel from this reality most days but I have been blessed with the mustard-seed faith to believe that it is true. Although I may not see how my circumstances, worries, and nagging insecurities are going to be used as tools in the hand of the Master artist to achieve his best work, he is the most patient of craftsmen and has promised to finish his work until it is perfect. "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6)."
We were created in Christ before the foundation of the world to BE his workmanship and to BECOME like him day by day. Today I choose to submit to the knowledge that the Lord has chosen me in all my mess to be the lump of clay that he is molding into a beautiful jar to display his beauty (Jeremiah 18:6). How marvelous! It sounds too good to be true, but he says "...and this treasure is hidden in jars of clay so we will know that the surpassing greatest is of God and NOT from us (2 Corinthians 4:7). The world around me and the voice of the "Impostor" (as Brennen Manning calls him) points out my ugly flaws and picks at the wounds of my insecurity. But my God has bigger and better plans for me. I may not win friends and influence people, but I will bring a smile to my Father's face. What more could I ask for?
So like the prophet Isaiah I pray:
"But now, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand."