By nature, I’m not much of a risk taker. My habit has been to stick to the things which make me feel pretty confident and not venture too far from the path. On one hand, in certain arenas, I feel pretty darn successful. The down side? I feel so restless.
A couple of years ago, it became inescapably clear that I needed a change. I’ve taught school off and on since college—eighteen years in the classroom over a 24-year stretch. The pace of teaching has always tested my strongly introverted nature, but that last year teaching was a lulu, let me tell ya. Once I quit and had plenty of time to process my past and contemplate the future, I noticed a disturbing pattern. Six years in the classroom, burnout, quit. Five more years, burnout, quit again. Two years and quit. Five more years … you get the idea.
I decided to use my newly acquired free time figuring out why I’m such a basket-case. A few counseling sessions later, and I can give you a lengthy explanation of how perfectionism drove me from the classroom, leaving me feeling conflicted about failure and my identity.
Perfectionism covers a lot of ground. It has an enormous reach which entails just about every hang-up imaginable. I’ve decided it’s a disease we all have; some just manage the symptoms better than others. It can manifest itself in a lot of different behaviors. One person may set such high standards for herself that she works herself to a breakdown. Another will likewise have high standards and be so afraid of failing to reach them that she won’t even try. Oddly, both women are perfectionists.
And I am both women. In an area where I’m fairly certain of my abilities—like teaching—I could work myself to an early grave. But I would also steadfastly avoid anything that might expose my weaknesses. I know I’m not alone. We all want to feel successful.
Still, even when things were going well, I felt restless. For a long time, I’ve wanted to trade teaching for a writing career, but that’s risky. And risks are always expensive. In order to carve out time for study and research, writing and platform building, I would have to quit my job, leaving my Beasleys without the security my paycheck affords.
It would have agonized me, making the decision to quit, but my mental health settled the issue. I like to think of this as God drop-kicking me out of the nest, forcing me to flap and float–and trust. Now I have time on my hands. Time to write.
Time to work hard and take a risk.
Time to devote tons of effort and energy to something that might end in failure.
Would it surprise you that God has used this excruciating process to reshape me? Nah, of course not. No surprise in that–we’ve all been there. He always stretches me when I’m in the middle of something awful. I would be hard pressed to think of something He showed me in the midst of a struggle that I would give back in order to have an easier road. Now, would I forego the pain if I could? You bet.
It feels a little like He ground me into a powder, added water to make clay and worked me over.
In all this, He taught me a few things about taking on challenges. First, we avoid them because they seem risky. But God wants us to bear fruit. Christ followers should always pray through things and then engage in work knowing that what we do, we do for His glory. There is absolutely no fear in bringing our work to God’s altar for His blessing and trusting Him to make it fruitful. We fear we won’t get the “right” outcome. But avoiding a faith challenge robs us of the opportunity to see what He can do when we offer our work to HIm.
Consider John 15:16. He chose us to bear fruit. You’ve been appointed to work and produce for the Kingdom of God. And not to bear just any ol’ fruit, but fruit that will last! Look at the second half of that verse. God obviously doesn’t give us anything and everything that we want, but when you read those words in context, Jesus is talking about what fruit a branch (that’s us) growing from the vine (that’s Jesus) can bear when we ask to be used.
He wants me to grow as a branch coming from Himself. He wants me to glorify Him and grow His kingdom. He wants me to be so singularly identified with Him that He can produce good fruit from my work. He’s ready to say yes. I may not get the outcome I hoped for–maybe I won’t ever write a best-seller. But if He uses something that I write to draw someone to Christ, am I going to call that a failure? No!
Second, taking the risk might be an act of obedience. I went a few years ago to Lysa TerKeurst’s She Speaks conference for speakers and writers. I planned on pitching to publishers while I was there, but I chickened out. I figured that I would use what I learned from the conference and come back the next summer with a book proposal. But life happened. The following summer I got pregnant, miscarried, and began a descent into the aforementioned burnout. I wrote almost nothing for two years.
Having quit my job, I returned to writing. When it came time to decide if I wanted to go back to She Speaks, I had several projects that I could pitch to publisher reps. I just needed to decide what to focus on, register for the conference and sign up for publisher appointments. This time I felt certain that, if I’m going to spend money I don’t have to go to this conference, I have to meet with publishers.
The prospect was so terrifying that a couple of months went by and I still hadn’t registered.
Having prayed for several months grappling with perfectionism, I decided that avoiding the publisher appointments would be the same thing as resubmitting myself to the fear of failure rather than trusting the Lord. Galatians 4:9 got my attention: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (ESV) In this letter, Paul addresses the Galatians’ temptation to return to the law rather than trusting in the grace of Christ.
While I know that my salvation does not come from works, I saw a link between perfectionism and the Galatians’ predicament. Do I want to return to those elementary principles and be their slave? Or do I want to act in faith?
I am in the habit of trusting my abilities, rather than Christ. Huh. That’s a sneaky form of self worship, don’t you think? In my former life, I would continually submit myself to a process doomed to failure because, by putting my faith in my abilities, I factored the Lord out of a critical equation. Ergo, my fear of failure sets me up for failure.
If you are a Christ follower, taking on any challenge should be an act of faith, not works. He wants to produce fruit for His kingdom from our offerings. Will I work hard? Yes. But because I work for His glory, not my own. That is an act of obedience.
Finally, taking on a challenge of faith will put you on your knees. It will compel you to worship Him. Taking a risk in obedience to God forces us to recognize how powerless we are without Him. We are always dependent on God—completely dependent, in fact. But if we hide out only doing the things that are safe, relying on ourselves, we hardly notice how much He props us up day after day.
When you place your trust in Him to confront a challenge, it brings into sharp focus how little control we have over outcomes. When He works on our behalf, and we see Him bear fruit with the offering we place on His altar, we see His glory.
And then the worship just pours out. You should have seen me at that conference. I cried through every song during the worship sets. I have no idea if I will have the “right” outcome from sitting down with those publishers at the conference. But, He made me see how much I need Him. I’m so glad I took the risk.
I’m a work in progress. More challenges will follow, and I pray to remember how exciting it is to see Him work when I follow Him in obedience.
And, as always, I’m praying this post lights up the screen of someone who needs it.
Joy and peace,