Tobymac blasted through my headphones as I rounded the corner, my legs burning and my body wanting to give up. It was a gallop through the Sticks, back home already after my junior year of college in the City had concluded.
As I rounded the corner, the sky threatening to pour down all of its misfortunes on me, I found myself sprinting through the body shop that faced the main road. This shop always felt like a dangerous journey through an abandoned industrial park, when it was only a street corner garage with a couple of semi-trucks parked out front.
Today two of these trucks sat next to each other, with a small sort of alley formed between their massive bodies. That alley was a tunnel for me, and I skipped over a mud puddle to sprint through the small space. For a moment I felt untouchable, too fast for anyone to catch me.
As I burst through the other side, powerfully driven forward by the heavy bass in my ears, the little droplets of rain on my cheeks, and the sweat pouring down my forehead, the world faded into oblivion, and I felt no insecurity, no fear, and no need to impress or perform.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
THE TRAP OF PEOPLE-PLEASING
The day before, in the early afternoon, I’d sat on a clear spot on my bed. Almost every space on the surface of my bedroom floor was covered in a box, or with a piece of furniture that was covered in boxes. Family heirlooms that had been passed down to me lie strewn across my covers. Old books, new books, books I’d been given to read, books I needed to give away, all of them in stacks on shelves, piles of them labeled “to keep” and “not to keep.” I sat with my legs crossed and hands folded in my lap, looking around.
As I’d been packing, my thoughts went to my insecurities and to why I couldn’t remember Scripture to fight them off. My thoughts went to my inability to please everyone, to fix everything. My home was a tense walk along a rickety bridge, and my family members were loved but walking on eggshells, beset by the judgments and criticism of others.
I went back to middle school in my head, when I’d take on so many extracurricular activities and say “yes” to every extra project, extra babysitting job until my integrity was compromised and I’d forgotten what it was like to just say no. I got to the point where I was crying and whimpering to my mother “I can’t make everyone happy.”
This was people-pleasing in its earliest stages. I thought I’d completely given that up to God then, and so I couldn’t understand why I was still dealing with it now.
Mom came in through my open door, on the back of which hung a green canvas wreath made out of my hand prints from the first grade. On the front, a hand-made poster covered in verses about my identity in Christ, titled “The Battle Plan.”
“Honey,” she said. “Do you mind if I practice for a little while?” Practice meaning practicing her trumpet. She played in church alongside an elderly gentleman, who played the trombone.
“Sure, Mama,” I said. She turned to leave. “Oh, wait.”
“What do you need, babe?”
I sat there sheepishly for a moment, staring at my piles of books before answering her.
“I am feeling a bit overwhelmed,” I said. The great thing about my mother, all mothers I would hope, is that she knew I wasn’t only talking about the packing and unpacking and sorting through. And so for the next twenty minutes or so, I quietly told her of my fears, of my insecurities, with I think the fewest words I’ve ever used in such a deep conversation.
During spring break, during this entire semester, really, I struggled with people-pleasing. There were days when I was on campus when I was paralyzed with leaving my dorm because I was afraid of what people would think of me, how my actions would affect the entire fate of the world, and how I would fail to glorify God in some way or other. I knew the thoughts were wrong, and that these were prideful chains that were dragging me down and away from the peace of God that He so freely offers, but I felt helpless to free myself.
Thank God for His great ability to strengthen, challenge, convict, and empower His saints.
THE FREEDOM OF THE RUN
Before finals ended, I was trying to prepare to leave one battle–the battle of being at Pratt—to go into another—the battle of going home. And as I did, I still fought with thoughts of “there are people who have it so much worse than you do,” or “why is this difficult for you? there are so many great things going on in your life, and you have so many things that other people don’t,” and so on. And I’m having to remember that if I’m comparing myself to others in the first place, then I’m missing the point (2 Corinthians 10:12). The point is, going home is hard, and that’s okay.
Going back to when I was running…It was the feeling of being untouchable and unaffected that reminded me of God’s desire for me to be secure in Him and in my identity in Him, instead of being paralyzed by thoughts of how I might affect the people around me.
“He knows, and foreknows, all things, and his foreknowledge is foreordination; he, therefore, will have the last word, both in world history and in the destiny of every man; his kingdom righteousness will triumph in the end, for neither men nor angels shall be able to thwart him.” —J.I. Packer, Knowing God
All of what God does and chooses to do in the world and in the lives of others is His will, and His will is not dependent upon my ability to do everything right, to calculate the reactions and insecurities and pitfalls of others in response to my actions, or to be able to fix everything. The fate of the world does not rest on my shoulders. Thank, God.
My fear and terror come from the countless stories I’ve heard of people being hurt by Christians, wounded by members of the institution of the church, and therefore hardened to the gospel, and shut off from anything having to do with God or His Word. What terrifies me is the idea that I might be one of those Christians, that I might somehow be the reason that someone does not come to Christ, or that I will present an inaccurate picture of the gospel, that my humanity will be the only thing people see, instead of seeing Christ acting through my imperfections.
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)
And yet, I can’t control that. No matter how hard I try, I cannot control how people react or respond to my attempt to obey. God has asked that I follow Him, that I have faith in Christ’s payment of my sins (John 3:16-17), His redemption of my soul and both my earthly and eternal life (Romans 6:11-14), and His use of it as He sees fit (Isaiah 55:8-9). He has asked that I trust Him and that He be everything to me, and yet He has promised to grow me in trusting Him and in seeing Him as everything.
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
He has given me all things that pertain to life and godliness. He has completely equipped me to do everything He’s asked me to do. I cannot control the people or circumstances around me. I cannot hope to have such great knowledge as to be able to understand what everyone is thinking, feeling, experiencing, etc., nor what they will do in the future, or how it will be affected by their past. I cannot please everyone, and I will let people down. I will fail in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of my family, even in the eyes of my closest friends. And I will really, really hurt people, both intentionally and unintentionally, because, while God has redeemed and renewed me, the weight of sin is still everywhere, and I’m still human.
How I wish I could be perfect and able to never substitute anything for God in this life. How I wish I always knew what to say. How I wish I knew how to perfectly and effectively love others the way God so deeply and transformingly loves them…But thank God for His grace and His ability to both change me and work in the lives of others in spite of my shortcomings.
“But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)
Thank God for the fact that He is God, and I am not.