Obedience Over Excellence
I confess that I struggle with perfectionism. It seems that even despite my best intentions to the contrary, I so often set up this image in my mind of what excellence looks like, and then I beat myself up as I struggle to attain it…or descend into shame as I inevitably fall short.
As a teacher of gifted youngsters, I see this happen over and over in our culture today. This idolatry of self as we set ourselves on par with God’s standard of excellence seems to be one of Satan’s most subtle means of attack, and so often as Christians we fall right into his trap. But, brothers and sisters, praise God that the message of the Gospel is one of mercy and grace!
That became all too real for me a few years ago when I was first starting out in ministry in Temuco, Chile. I learned a great deal in that time, and much of it came as I was “kicking against the goads.” I’d like to share one such occasion with you now from an excerpt which comes out of a prayer letter I sent in August of 2014:
“Three months ago, after returning from an out-of-town trip, I arrived home to see my Chilean roommate had unexpectedly moved home. Some of you may recall that this was on the heels of a few other significant changes: visa complications caused my first teaching job to fall through, and a ministry project from the US on which I had been working was put on hold. The final result of this was that I suddenly found myself with a lot of alone time in a foreign land. Suffice to say, the honeymoon period was over, and I still was not confident stepping out on my own in the Temuco. To top it all off, I became quite ill (the result, I believe, of a very cold, wet winter in an apartment without heat) and had to stay in bed for about a week. It was a perfect storm of disappointment, depression, and homesickness, and I continued to withdraw further and further into myself. I was struggling a lot, but I didn’t know how to communicate this. In a very literal sense, I didn’t have the words in Spanish, but even to my family and friends, I did not want to show what I thought would be seen as weakness. But most of all, I admit I was afraid to confess my fears in honest prayer with God.
One night, finally when I felt like my chest was about to burst, I cried out to God, Why am I here? Why did I leave everything I had, everyone I knew in the US to be sitting in this room cold, sick, and miserable? I’m not serving anyone like this. I want to go home! These last words were the taboo phrase I had forbidden myself to say, somehow thinking that if I uttered them aloud, I was failing not only in ministry, but in faith. Well, I said them, not just once but many times over the next few days. But in the midst of the tears, something else was happening… I was finally communicating honestly with God, and he was soothing my heart, allowing the pains of broken pride and unfulfilled expectations to bleed away, to be replaced with nothing but mercy for broken-down me.
Obviously, I’m not home, so what happened? I communicated my sorrow and fear to God, and in return I have been reminded how much my heavenly Father loves me and wants me to entrust my difficulties to him - not believing that troublesome monster of pride which fools me into thinking I must handle life’s difficulties on my own. Psalm 139 reminds me that God knows me intimately; there is no thought or feeling hidden from him. I don’t have to be strong for him; instead, he is strong for me because I am his!
As I considered going home, the Lord recalled the words of Psalm 118:7 to my heart: “The Lord is for me among those who help me.” God showed me his mercy as I spoke my fears aloud and sought prayer with friends and family in Temuco and the US. When we pray, so rarely do our external circumstances change; what does change, however, is our perspective and ability to encounter what lies before us. In this albeit painful process, the Lord drew me closer to himself and renewed my heart for Temuco based on his power, not my own.
By the grace of God and with a renewed perspective, I also encountered new circumstances: my health got better, and I got out of bed. With help, I found a new apartment and new work once again teaching English as a means of ministry. The clouds are passing, and I am stepping into the sun.”
Looking back on this letter with a few years of perspective, it would be lovely if I could say I learned my lesson about not setting this unattainable standard of self-sufficient excellence for myself and the importance of being honest with the Lord, but the truth is, it’s still a struggle for me. (Alas, even in learning from my own mistakes, I am not excellent!) But when I quiet my pride and fear and ask the Lord what He’s teaching me over and over again, it’s this: God asks not for my own definition of excellence, but for His own definition of obedience. Of course, part of obedience includes responding to those clear directives from the Lord, but that’s just the half of it. When I am trying to serve the Lord but life seems to be going terribly wrong—either by divine plan or human screw-up—and in exasperation I cry out “God, I’m failing here. What is it you ask of me?”, it’s in those moments that the voice of the Holy Spirit speaks to my heart saying, “Daughter, accept my grace.”
Brothers and sisters, life can be messy; we can falter in our faith and take missteps and feel like we’ve just screwed up entirely. If you are reading this and you have ever felt that way, you’re human! But, let me also remind you that mercy and grace is what the Gospel is all about, and accepting the grace of the Lord is a matter of obedience for those who believe. If we are trying to serve the Lord under the guise of obedience, yet we set the standard of perfection and excellence so high that we don’t allow ourselves to struggle and by necessity depend on the Lord in the process, we are sadly rejecting the very message we are sharing.
God is eagerly waiting to cover us in His abundance of mercy and grace, a gift which is renewed each day. As we take this message to others, let us remember to take it to our own hearts as well.
Mary Garrison is a high school English teacher in Lecanto, Florida. She met her husband Ivan while serving as church planters in Temuco, Chile, from 2014-2017. Mary and Ivan continue to serve in missions and church planting in Chile, the US, and North Africa.