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After much thought and prayer, I settled on pursuing a marketing degree at a local, small Christian engineering and flight school called LeTourneau University. Most of my first two years were spent obsessed with finding fulfillment in how many people I could know and in how many activities I could get involved. I quickly became known as one of the friendliest people on campus. Some of the other students were really taken aback at my enthusiasm. In fact, some of the student leaders and faculty even had meetings about me to discuss what my driving my behavior could have been. I didn’t waste any time in broadcasting to my large circle of acquaintances that my eventual goal was to run for student government office, much as I did in 4-H. And for those two years, a part of me saw everything and everyone as a means to that end. By the time I was in my sophomore year, I was involved in seven different campus organizations, four of which I held some sort of leadership position. Everything seemed to be going so smoothly, too, and once again, that just contributed to the self-deception. Admittedly, with such extensive campus involvement (along with 16 credit hours a semester!) came some amount of exhaustion. The faculty and staff with whom I interacted tried to speak to me about just how much I was doing, especially as it related to the quality of work I would be outputting in each activity. Again, I felt the need to go on the defensive and prove them wrong—and sure enough, I was able to work hard on each of my endeavors, which further made me feel like I was in complete control over my life.
But it wasn’t going to last. Before long, I was rightfully humbled.
The first incident happened during my freshman year. I had started spending time with a group of students who had met through the school’s Honors Program and had begun to appreciate them as intellectual equals and love them as brothers and sisters in the faith. A part of me was reminded of the youth group from back in the day, and that was exciting. However, another part of me still felt like an outcast, an underdog. I honestly thought that they wouldn’t really accept me unless I was in the program with them, taking the same classes they were taking. A couple of them lovingly confronted me and told me that they didn’t care whether I was doing everything they did. They wanted to love me for me. But I was still convinced that I had to achieve something to earn more respect from them.
Over the next seven months, I undertook an ambitious quest to write a lengthy proposal in an effort to get into the program—one that was signed and approved with the blessing of our university chaplain, student body president, and numerous professors. But the committee in charge wasn’t going to budge, and before long, I was faced with the harsh reality that it just wasn’t going to happen. On a leadership retreat in the spring, I found myself with a number of the students in the group, sitting in a circle—a familiar setting. And it was there that I finally realized how foolish I was being. Here I was, trying so hard to earn their favor, when right then, I felt like I had nothing, and they were still listening. I cried tears of joy in front of them, so thankful that I had these people in my life, and so regretful that I had been seeking after the wrong things this entire time. And in the midst of it all, one of them put his hand on me and said, “You were vulnerable with us tonight. Now we know that you really are one of us.” I was taken aback. I was trying so hard to earn their trust and love, while all they really were hoping to see was that I was being real. That was it. And from that day on, our friendships truly blossomed.
The second humbling experience took place during my sophomore year. One of my friendships was beginning to fall apart due to a misunderstanding, and I had been rejected from two leadership positions on campus for which I had applied. For once, I didn’t feel in control of my life. I didn’t have it all together. In moment of frustration, I broke down in front of a couple of my friends. The same guy from before took me aside and lovingly reminded me that I was worth so much more than my achievements, activities, and accomplishments. And he was right. During this time, an older friend in the program recommended that I see a counselor on campus—a thought that sounded more and more appealing as time went on.
I went on a missions trip shortly after all of this took place, heading to a Navajo reservation in Arizona to help with some maintenance at a local church. My initial train of thought before making the trip was, once again, linear. I had heard so many wonderful stories about students going on missions trips and getting blessed from the experience, and I sure felt like I could use something uplifting. I was craving blessings in my life once again. But when I arrived at the reservation, with nothing but expansive desert, mesas, and canyons extending for miles and miles—I was crushed. “God, what on earth could you possibly be showing me here, in an empty place like this?” I cried out. But it was there that I started to realize just how full of distractions and misguided intentions my life had become—and that God wasn’t always interested in working in big, bombastic ways. Seeing the Navajos approaching their Savior with their hearts and simple lifestyles was incredibly convicting. They didn’t live around a checklist they kept beside them. They didn’t have a collection of principles to which they felt the need to always adhere so they could be blessed. Instead, they humbly approached the throne of God in prayer with their strengths and faults, entirely focused on Him. Their willingness to follow Him was out of pure, unadulterated love for Him. In fact, we had traveled there during the Daylight Savings Time (DST) change, which pretty much exemplified their way of life. We were told that although the state of Arizona did not recognize DST, the reservation did…but the church on the reservation didn’t. Thus, they included a notice in their church bulletin saying that they’d be observing two different times for a little while: “fast time” and “slow time.” Even the pastor had two clocks in some of the rooms in his house. That just blew my mind! As the week went on, I started to recognize the need to clean out my life and understand that ultimately I couldn’t be in control of it. By the time we went home, I resolved to let go of the vast majority of my activities outside of class by the end of the year, except for one: I wanted to apply for a chaplain position to reach out to my fellow off-campus students over the next year. Unlike the other endeavors I had pursued previously, I honestly felt God’s calling toward this position—and it had nothing to do with serving myself.
When I found out that one of the faculty advisers for the chaplain program was a man named David with whom I shared a comforting prayer at a retreat at the start of that sophomore year, I began to reflect on what my friend had recommended: Could this guy be up for counseling or mentoring of some sort? I had never even considered him before, but it was at least worth a shot. I asked him about both mentoring and being a chaplain and was blown away at the response: he actually mentored all of his chaplains! I knew God was at work here, and for once, I felt so free. I wasn’t trying so hard anymore. This opportunity truly was God’s handiwork, and all I had to do was just ask David with a servant’s willing heart.
Over that next year, David and I walked through a book entitled, Tired of Trying to Measure Up, by Christian counselor Jeff Van Vonderen. At long last, I began to see what I had become: a results obsessed people-pleaser. In the end, I wasn’t as concerned about pleasing people as I was about yet another result—eliciting their favor and ultimately pleasing myself. In this book, the author began with the premise that as Christians, we tend to be spiritually and emotionally exhausted people, tired from hearing and trying to adhere to various formulas in order to “get Christianity right.” This certainly sounded familiar, though I wasn’t quite ready to look back at the Institute in Basic Life Principles [IBLP] at the time. Ultimately, the root of living with this drive for achievement is not the grace of God, but the antithesis of grace—shame. It was the voice of shame that told me when I was little that I was a dorky kid who would never be cut out for deep relationships with other people. It was the voice of shame that told me that I wouldn’t be worth anything unless I worked my way up the 4-H ladder in high school. It was the voice of shame that encouraged me to look at myself with despair when my Honors friends lovingly told me that I could come to them as I was. It was the voice of shame that kept urging me onward to try harder because I just wasn’t good enough and needed to achieve more, more, and more. I trapped myself in this endless “give up or try harder” cycle, until I realized that I was already loved and accepted through Christ’s grace—and for once, I needed to rest in His care and assurance.
Since then, these past few years have been a time of true transformation. I’m going to be honest: I still struggle with linear thinking, especially with respect to relationships. For a while, especially after I graduated from college, my approach to dating shifted away from Gothard’s model of courtship but toward another formula I figured would sound more appealing to others: trying to be “just friends” for a while for the purpose of ensuring that everything didn’t feel rushed. I was enslaved to this narrative. Not surprisingly, many of the girls in my life whom I were interested in were confused when I expressed my feelings for them months down the road. It took a married friend to remind me that all I was doing was building up false vulnerability in them by doing this and that I needed to be more honest about my feelings, even though it was hard, instead of trying to orchestrate everything on my own terms and timetable.
So that brings us to today. I wanted to wrap this story up neatly with a bow and a happy ending as if I’ve learned all there is to learn. But that would simply be untrue. I still have so much to learn. I still have so much life to live. As I sit here typing this, I’m thankful for God and what He has done through life’s ups and downs. I’m thankful to Him for being there and for leveling the ground for all of us at the foot of the cross, regardless of how well we kept the law beforehand. I’m thankful that following His commands isn’t burdensome. I’m thankful that He has recently placed a very special, close group of fellow young adults in my life who have encouraged me on this journey as I walk out of the narcissism and manipulative nature I’ve built up after so many years under the shadow of IBLP… many a time while we sit in a circle.
As I reminisce about IBLP and those days growing up, I can see that, although its material contains much truth, I’ve also witnessed and experienced just how harmful exposure to it can be. I don’t harbor any bitterness toward my parents for that; they were doing only what they believed was right, and there was no way they could understand how it could affect a child growing up after being first exposed to it after considerable life experience. But as I see the material today, I notice many problematic elements, most of which fall under two banners:
First, there is quite a lot of discouragement toward real, genuine relationships with peers. Relationships typically involve only God and authorities, and if peers ever enter the picture, everything is designed to be packaged with the intent of doing something grand, even though God can still be glorified in our mundane, normal, day-to-day lives. The courtship formula epitomizes this approach to a tee. A man and woman are promised blessings and a rich relationship if they work hard enough for God by conforming to the principles laid before them, and when the relationship doesn’t mature and the blessings aren’t there, they are crushed. In some cases, one person merely uses another for those blessings because of the promise. In many others, the two people involved never truly get to know each other as real people, if only because of the enormous burdens and expectations placed upon them.
Second, IBLP and its formulas don’t truly encourage people to follow God out of love for Him, even though they claim otherwise. Instead, in all practicality, adhering to the seven basic life principles becomes about pursuing blessings, not the God who gives them. It’s summed up in the approach of “if you follow these principles, God will bless you, and if you don’t, He’ll remove His blessings from you.” A leads to B, and because B is so desirable, A becomes nothing more than a means to that end. There is no room for grace in the picture. If we follow this logic to its natural conclusion, then God is nothing more than a vending machine that dispenses what we want under the condition that we do all the right things. It’s even more burdensome when non-scriptural principles born out of personal preference and not on actual biblical truth enter the picture as requirements. Our lifestyle and choices ought to be made out of humble gratitude, not a sense of obligatory duty or as a bargaining chip to get what we want. And in the end, the complete joy that we experience through Christ and the glory of one-day communing with Him face-to-face outshines even Heaven’s most incredible blessings.
Ultimately, the Law of Linearity, or the Old Way of Living, as author Larry Crabb calls it, can be summarized by the following approach, which he describes in his book, The Pressure’s Off:
“When things work well, I publicly say, ‘Praise God,’ and privately whisper, ‘Of course. I did what I was told. I got it right.’ When things go poorly, I publicly declare, ‘God is working for my good. I will trust Him’; privately I wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’ … We say, ‘I trust the Lord,’ when we really mean, ‘I trust Him to honor my efforts to live well by giving me the blessings I want.’ … The Old Way identifies real desires in the human heart, desires for meaning and love and fulfillment and freedom, then goes no deeper. It fails to discover our pure, consuming, relentless desire to be in the presence of a perfect person, to gaze at the beauty of absolute holiness the way a beginning artist stares at a Rembrandt masterpiece. The Old Way sees only desires that point inward, to the self, and assumes that Christianity is centrally concerned to satisfy these desires through whatever does the job.”
As I’ve thought about it, that’s probably one of the major takeaways from this whole experience. My life had often been defined by my feeble attempts at making myself look like I knew what I was doing and that I had everything together…so I could gain more blessings to make those attempts even easier. Christianity and the commands of Christ were, for such a long time, just another means to that end. It was all about control. Ironically, this method of living is more characteristic of the way we act before coming to Christ. I always appreciated both math and grammar while in school because they were defined by clear rules, and consequently, it was easy to feel in control. I had the tools I needed to feel like I got everything right and, consequently, feel good about myself. I always thought that if I said the right words and prayed the right way, it would sound “just right” to God and to others—much like proper sentence structure or the quadratic formula. But as I look back on my life, I also see that the moments when people supported me the most were not the ones when I tried so desperately to earn their favor or adhere to man-made expectations.
They were the moments in which I truly felt free to be a mess.
Life is much more than a role-playing game. There’s no “level cap”; there will always be something God wants to teach me. Decisions aren’t a simple matter of eliciting another’s favor or achieving a desired result; the consequences and the possibilities are always much more complicated. And people aren’t factory-produced characters that come from cookie-cutter molds of “godly” and “worldly;” they are so much more than the talents, skills, shortcomings, and characteristics we ascribe to them. As I remember this lifestyle of results-based living, my constant yearning to find the “A” that would get me to the “B,” I can safely say that there truly is only one “A” and “B” that I need to look toward, and they are one and the same: Christ Himself.
Not the blessings. Not the results. Just Him.
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