catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 21 :: 2013.11.15 — 2013.11.28


When need meets grace

I remember being a young pastor and the board overseeing my ordination process decided I needed a focus group to help hone my preaching skills.  So they appointed a small group made up of clergy and lay people for me to meet with.  Every week, I had to preach a sermon to this small group of six.  At the end of each session I would stand ready for their critique.  One afternoon, the pastor heading the experience said, “Sami, you’re doing well, but as you deliver your message I can see you are looking at me and wanting me to smile.”  He was pointing out that my eye contact had more to do with eliciting a response from him than communicating a message to him.  When I heard his words I recognized immediately what was happening.  And I began to recognize that this was more than just a preaching thing.  It was a way of life.

My friend and I often joke with one another about “approval addiction.”  We both know that if there were an anonymous meeting out there for this sort of thing, we would be charter members.  But how does one ever say no to this kind of need?  Do you go around with a Post-it on your forehead that says, “Please reject me every chance you get; I am trying to get over my need for approval.”  Or maybe we should hang a sign from our necks that reads:  “Do not feed my approval addiction.  It will bite you.” 

I believe the one who really gets bitten is the one who is enslaved by it.  I remember well those moments of the bleeding soul that feels shredded by another’s rejection.  This inordinate need to have everyone approve of one’s choices, one’s very being, can be crippling.  It can take an ordinary day hostage with worry over a possible wrong move.  And I don’t know which is worse:  the overwhelming loneliness that comes when we allow our fears of rejection to isolate us, or the inevitable devastation that follows when we over invest in relationships that cannot bear the weight of so much expectation.  This addiction’s power does not rage as fiercely in my life now, but I still fight the urge to procure reassurance: “Did I do okay?  Do you think I said too much?  I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, did I?” 

I know where it began, this need to please — back in the place of my childhood, when my folks divorced.  At the bottom of my grief was this secret fear that something in me caused love to walk right out of my life and into another state.  I began looking for outward signs pointing to my own okay-ness, adopting perfectionism as the easiest way to win others’ affections.  If I could garner enough rewards for good behavior, then my worst fears could be ignored.  But there was always the lingering worry that gnawed: “Maybe I’m just not good enough.”  Ultimately my whole self-concept revolved around the secret belief that I was irrevocably broken. For that little girl with the broken heart there could never be enough golden stars to convince me otherwise.  But I also couldn’t give up my quest for proof of my own worth.  To do so meant admitting my worst fears were true.

Is it so bad to want to please others?  No, not really.  But something vital to our well-being is relinquished when we elevate people-pleasing as our highest goal, the sign of our value, the distinguishing element that signifies worth.  Sometimes I play a game with myself: I do something deliberately that I know others won’t approve of, something that is important to me that will look like a waste of time to everyone else.  I do it and don’t ask the world for permission.  I do it for the exercise of standing tall in something I believe is important, something that doesn’t matter to anyone else.  So that when the time comes for me to stand tall in the things that matter greatly, I will already know what it feels like to stand alone.  

The core issue is really one of security — do I feel secure enough in my person to stand in my authentic decisions, even when others have chosen otherwise?  Am I courageous enough to love my own familiar self, even when every indication points to broad spectrum disapproval from others?   How do you get to the place where you can say “no” to the need to feel another’s acceptance, inclusion, giving of merit?  How do we say “no” to manipulating ourselves into something else so that others will give us what we want?  How do we say “no” to that thing in us that will manipulate them into giving it? 

Just for the record, I hate being manipulated. 

And I am not proud to admit that there have been moments I have used manipulation in a myriad of ways to feed a need for approval.

I have found there really is a better way to live.

It is a turning away from the need-driven fanaticism that reduces life to a series of emotional transactions.  No!  I will not live this way anymore!  Instead, I choose relinquishing the never-filled neediness and resting quietly in my own poverty; beholding self and saying “I am enough”; beholding what is present with me and saying “it is enough”; allowing the other beside me to come and go as they need, knowing God will provide what I really need.  This is a profound reordering of our universe, turning oneself toward Grace.  It is receiving each moment as gift, our hands and hearts open to greet what comes with gladness and thanksgiving.  It is the wisdom of the weaned child who is content to lay upon its mother’s breast not because she is the source of food, but because she loves and is beloved:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.  (Psalm 131, NRSV)

I often need this kind of moment.  And because I do not usually come to it of my own accord, God will arrange a meeting.  How much I have been like Peter, doing life the way I thought it needed to be done, only to hear Jesus say that I am about to get sifted.  These sifting seasons happen suddenly.  Unexpected upheaval leaves my head spinning.  My heart stops and the breathing is labored and it seems all I can do is sigh.  The winnowing tosses everything heavenward.  I only get to keep those things weighty enough to come back down — only what is true, essential, pure.  All else is blown away.  Yet I stand in this truth: I’ve never missed the thing God’s winnowing fork took away.

Being winnowed down to the essential self is a freeing experience.  Turns out that approval is not as needed as I once believed.  What I do need is Grace. 

This came home to me in a powerful way not long after that preaching experience.  I had been deferred for ordination within my denomination.  The board overseeing my progress felt I needed some more work, some maturation.  I was completely devastated.  At the annual meeting for our clergy and lay leaders, I was acutely aware that this would have been the moment of my consecration.  Instead I saw it as another painful reminder that something in me was broken, something I didn’t know how to fix.  I thought everyone else in the world had somehow escaped this crushing feeling of inadequacy.  In my eyes they were worthy; I was not. 

One evening of the conference was reserved for a worship experience celebrating Holy Communion.  In this large auditorium, delegates came forward to partake of the Bread and the Cup.  I felt lonely in that massive place, surrounded by others who had managed to breeze through ordination, those who were already successfully established in ministry, those who had passed judgment on my work and found me wanting.  I felt utterly alone.  But I joined the line of people moving forward, ready for my turn to receive the Lord’s Supper. 

I’m not sure when the realization came.  Maybe it was standing in line.  Maybe it was when the servers said the familiar words:  “The Body of Christ broken for you; His blood shed for you.”  Perhaps it was in the aftermath of that Holy moment.  There came a clarity, Light shining in the dark misunderstanding that clouded my heart and mind, sweet words of Truth: we all have to come to the cross the same way

No matter who we are, no matter our accomplishments and accolades, no matter our bitter defeats and failures, we all come to the cross as those who need what only Christ can give.  We cannot manufacture our own forgiveness.  We cannot be exempt from needing it.  We are not ranked according to worth as we approach.  Every person comes to Christ as a sinner in need of Grace.  And our approach is on our knees.  We have a sweet guarantee of acceptance through His love, not because of anything we bring with us, but simply because Jesus chooses us.  Every time.  Without fail.  I left that communion experience understanding that I have been just as chosen, just as accepted, just as much in need of Grace, as the highest ranking official in our ecclesial body. 

In the years since then, I have been living into this understanding.  I’ve come to realize that rooted within my need for approval is the proclivity to make others’ opinions into idols, giving them God-like power in my life.  No one, no matter how good, how noble, how well-spoken or thought of, is to have that place.  That spot belongs to God alone.  Once I realized this, and began living as if God’s opinion of me was the only one that mattered, those chains of insecurity began to melt. 

I live a much freer life now.  Since then I have completed my ordination journey, thankful for every bend and curve in the road.  I believe this is the secret, to live with gratitude.  Every experience holds within it the power to show us something important, the ability to move us closer to God.  Someone I admire very much said it best: “Inside each frustration is a seed full of lessons.  When all the lessons are learned, the frustration disappears.”  And when the frustration disappears, we are free to live the life God has desired for us all along.

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