There is that familiar verse Let the little children come to me, and stop keeping them away, because the kingdom from heaven belongs to people like these – Jesus said it to well-meaning but misguided religious types who were preventing children from getting close to him to receive good things (Matthew 19:14, NET). What would you have done? Would you keep children away from Santa? Would you act like the cardinals in Rome this week? Can you identify with that child?
From our earliest memories we build up a picture of our personal identity which it is often hard to shake off, even when we can see errors. We believe lies we tell ourselves about our image, worth, capabilities or dreams.
For many of us, despite good intentions from those who raised us, growing up in an achievement-oriented culture has meant a fixation on significance through merit alone. This simplistic model does not work – what about those who can never pass the merit tests? What about those too young?
My counsellor showed me a great diagram this week. It is taken from the clinical psychologist and learned theologian Dr Frank Lake’s work. She showed it to me because, like many people, I have been going around the circle in a destructive direction. The way I have been living has been anti-clockwise: a cycle of works.
1. I strive to achieve things, in order that:
2. I will feel significance in the world, which provides some:
3. Strength to keep going (in my own identity), so that:
4. I can feel accepted, until that feeling goes, and I return to 1 again, a little more dejected and a little more defeated.
It is not sustainable, not healthy for me or others around me and not a fair understanding of how my life matters. Instead, she showed me how to look at the diagram clockwise.
1. I am accepted – by God. Just as I am. No questions asked.
2. This acceptance strengthens me to find ways to sustain myself – time alone, journalling, creatively, with others or whatever suits me best.
3. Through being accepted and sustained, I discover I do have significance in whatever I find myself doing.
4. This leads to achieving things (big or small) out of response, rather than out of duty. Achievement fuelled by God’s limitless love and shocking grace. Achievement not to show off or brag, but to be truly alive. Achievement which blesses others first out of love (not duty) and which feeds the cycle so that there is continued awareness of God’s acceptance, his sustaining, my significance. Exciting, promising, daunting. Part of the big trust adventure we are finding ourselves on as a family.
I walked home starting to think this all through, realising that it matters that I show my children that they are first and foremost accepted. As it happened I was passing a bookshop and called in, where I came across a brilliant book: Grace for the Good Girl, by Emily P. Freeman.
How encouraging to read the thoughts of a person so like me, who recognises the patterns of hiding behind works and good behaviour – and then discovers the audacity of living in God’s grace and what that really looks like worked out. Just the thing I’d been working on. So freeing. Such a relief. I don’t have to prove anything, achieve for anybody, produce anything for all the wrong reasons, failing at so many steps along the way and hoping that not many people notice. I can be truly me, trusting God for the significance he places in me and taking his beautiful guiding rather than stipulating the directions myself. I can enjoy the good things he has for me. I can learn to let go of striving, instead living for others for all the right reasons and becoming energised to do it well if I’m doing what he’s called me to.
For all sorts of reasons I have a battered self-image and felt for many years I needed to find my worth in making others’ lives better. It doesn’t work. I can never achieve enough to satisfy myself, and so the grind of guilt and anxiety eventually pushed me into burnout.
From here on, I want to lean on God’s understanding rather than my own. To be transformed by the renewing of my mind. To step out of the boat – and keep walking. He’s never let me down, and like a child drawn to something remarkable, I don’t want anything to get in my way.
As God keeps reminding me,
Great things are going to happen.
I can’t wait.