There are those of us who have a voice constantly chanting in our heads, shaping what we think about ourselves and what we assume that God and others think about us. This voice is often confused with the voice of God because its message seems noble. Formed by culture, parents, influential adults, and even well-meaning sermons, the message amounts to this: “You’re not good enough. Do better.”
Always Trying to Measure Up
A potential employer would likely be impressed by this “inner drive” to “do better.” Social media would applaud such a motivated and “driven” person. Indeed, this inner voice has led many to enjoy successful lives. Some strive for good grades simply because they do not want to disappoint parent or teacher expectations. These “good kids” rarely get into trouble as children, and their performance reviews at work are always positive, since their bosses recognize that they give their best effort.
This drive to “do better” because “you’re not good enough” is fed by social media. While some individuals post their carefully-staged, greatest moments of parenting, the guilt-ridden “normal” parents are too busy helping with math and doing laundry to build a working model of Apollo 12 from gluten-free, sugar-free, kale-flavored popsicle sticks.
In ministry, such people are hounded by the constant realization that their church is not as successful as another. The guilt compounds as they imagine the attendance numbers would probably have been higher if they had only tried harder. Such people are constantly aware that someone else sings better than them, reads more than them, preaches better sermons than them, or has completed their advanced degrees before them. Even if they were the best in every category that matters to them, they would never consider themselves to be good enough.
Caught in a Performance Mentality
In the pew, these people feel like they don’t measure up to what they hear preached. They could never pray as much as the pastor and older saints appear to pray; in fact, they have never heard a sermon on prayer that didn’t make them feel guilty. They know they are supposed to have victory all the time, but their latest failure unceasingly haunts them until it is replaced by a more recent one. They think, “How many weeks of perfect spiritual performance must go by before I’m good enough to measure up?”
There are those of us who have a voice constantly chanting in our heads: “You’re not good enough. Do better.”
In their walk with God, those driven by the hounding voice of “do better” identify strongly with verses that talk about “pressing on toward the high calling.” They feel they are not disciplined enough. They are unhappy with how they look. They struggle to keep up with the chores as well as they think they should. They need to do a better job of staying connected with friends and helping people. They strongly sense a need to do better at basically everything.
The response to every spiritual challenge is a need for improvement. If they are being treated unfairly, they feel bad for not having handled the relationship better. If they feel discouraged, they need to be stronger. To these people, being plagued by feelings of anxiety indicates a need to work on their faith, because they are clearly lacking.
Why This Is So Hard to Overcome
Careful, serious-minded Christians often get trapped in this thinking. We go to church together because our “do better” mindset is fed and inspired by teaching that is focused on challenging, not coddling, us. We have assimilated into a subculture of people who all want to measure up to what is expected of us by God and others.
In our subculture, we brag about being a perfectionist. Perhaps we realize it is a disorder, but to us it is also a badge of honor: we have a high standard of “do better.” Houses ought to be perfect when company arrives, and thereby we hope the assumption is made that perfection is the norm. Parents pass this mindset on to their kids, and pastors unconsciously allow their unhealthy “do better” overemphasis to dominate their preaching.
In a “do better” culture filled with “do better” people, Christian teaching that seems to overemphasize grace is instinctively mistrusted. A book can be written or a message preached on the exacting nature of God, and it is accepted without qualification. God thunders out, “Be holy,” and we scurry to get in line. We have no problem with that image. But when a book is written or a message preached on the accepting nature of God, the story changes. To appease our “do better” voice, we temper God’s approval to avoid overemphasizing. God’s holiness is supreme and needs no equivocation. God’s grace shouldn’t be overstated.
In a “do better” culture filled with “do better” people, Christian teaching that seems to overemphasize grace is instinctively mistrusted.
We wish we could believe in a grace that displayed itself powerfully for more than just the moment of conversion. We wish we could rest in a grace that accepts us. The God of Leviticus rings true to us; the God of Hosea is confusing. We may mentally affirm Galatians’ teaching against salvation through works, but we struggle to translate that into a Christian life that exists in the realm of grace.
In our mistrust of radical grace, we have created a distorted image of God and undermined the very thing we need to embrace. No one would ever say that they have a distorted understanding of God, but many overlook the beauty of God’s grace. A God whose bullhorn only sounds the message of “do better” is not the God of the Bible.
“Please Pass the Grace”
Imagine looking at your Thanksgiving plate. You’ve got the turkey, the stuffing, the potatoes, the cranberries, and your family’s favorite veggies. The warm, puffy dinner roll is propped on the edge of the plate. It looks great, but something is missing. You scan the table, and there it sits in all its steaming, gooey glory: the thing that completes the turkey and stuffing, the thing that is so essential to mashed potatoes that it has become part of the name. “Please pass the gravy.”
As you look at life before you, there is something missing. An aversion to sin is an essential part of the meal. The call to holiness is also a core element. The biblical standards and expectations have their place. Our own personal performance expectations are balanced on the corner of the plate. But there is something missing that would bring our plate into balance: grace.
Grace accepts us in the moment of salvation but also continues to be the basis of our acceptance throughout our Christian journey. Grace enables the growth in the “do better” areas, but also carries us when we inevitably come up short. Grace turns our picture of God from one of sternness to beauty. Grace allows for a God who smiles and thinks of us fondly.
Grace enables the growth in the “do better” areas, but also carries us when we inevitably come up short.
Learning to believe in and experience this grace is possible. Like a small child in a swimming pool who rests in his father’s capable grasp, it is possible to let go of a white-knuckled Christian walk and rest in the grace and love of God. What is found when we let go is not a God who ceases to call us to be holy and to press on toward the high calling. What is found is a freedom and a joy that inspires life, instead of simply demanding it.
If the “do better” overemphasis is so damaging and difficult to escape, how does one begin to address it? Perhaps the following steps can help us bring this voice into balance as we begin experiencing the warmth and acceptance of God:
- Read the Bible looking for God’s loving acceptance. In our aversion to only mining comforting verses from the Bible, we cannot forget that they also are there for a reason— to reveal the nature and care of a loving, nurturing God. Consider starting with an extended meditation on Romans 5:8–10 and Romans 15:17.
- Extend forgiveness to others. If we strive to live out forgiveness–to picture grace–then we can discover in the act what it looks like for God to offer grace to us. We choose to release someone from their debt to us, even if they have not acknowledged having wronged us. As we recognize the miracle God has enabled in us, we realize that we cannot “out-grace” God. He gives us His love more selflessly than we have tried to give it. He thinks good thoughts toward us more naturally than we choose to do the same toward our offender. Our action of gracious forgiveness becomes a small picture of the grace God gives.
- Read from a variety of theological perspectives. I am currently reading a book that I don’t entirely endorse, but it is jarring me out of the comfort zone of my own thinking. It is challenging me on whether I really am a person of grace. In its overstatements about grace, it is forcing me to reckon with the idea that grace is bigger than my conception of it.
- Replace the voices you hear. If the people in our lives all present themselves as perfect, we must allow other voices to prevail. Find someone who is real and flawed.. Find an older person who is very comfortable with who they are, and let them speak affirmation. When a grace-filled mentor builds us up with kindness and honesty, it is incredibly meaningful. A good mentor needs to be willing to speak corrective words–and we need to be able to hear them, but such a person also has a vital role of building us back up with grace-filled words that we need just as much.
- Give more grace and less criticism. It is so easy to turn our inner “you’re not good enough” voice out onto other people. In doing so, the generational cycle continues with our children and others whom we influence. In an effort to feel better about ourselves, others are torn down. What if criticism were replaced with grace-filled thoughts towards others? What if we practiced assuming the best of others’ motives? Would the thoughts we learn to apply to others not perhaps become a model for our new thought patterns regarding ourselves?
As I sit here, I wonder how I could have “done better” communicating grace to people who carry this burden of not measuring up. Allow me to summarize like this: God does not love us only at our best; He simply loves us. He does not accept us only once we have proven ourselves acceptable; He accepts us simply when we turn our hearts His direction. In fact, he loved me at my worst, accepted me for Christ’s sake in full knowledge of all my flaws and future sins, and still embraced me and made me his child. The loving voice of God is not the harsh voice of condemnation, screaming “do better” at every turn; rather, it is of a gracious Father whose kindness is only imperfectly reflected in the most beautiful acts of selflessness we see around us.