How to Let Go of the Need to Achieve in a Culture of Comparison
Imagine being unknown and unproductive. Imagine embracing your own irrelevance and unimportance. Does this thought scare you? It terrifies me.
Achievement for me—and being recognized for it—was (and sometimes still is) one of the greatest strongholds in my life. Once I worked through the beauty and wealth issue with Jesus, I still did not know how to live like a seated person because of this lie: I believe that I am seated only when I am achieving. I believe I have a seat at the table if I receive recognition, honor, and importance because of what I accomplish.
If you look back on your own life, you might see that you, too, felt loved, important, and worthwhile if you were accomplishing something. In other words, what you offered the world was what made you special, not your intrinsic worth as a seated child of God. Like me, perhaps your life up to this point has been driven by goal-setting and achievement. You measure your worth by questions like these: “Am I a success? Am I important? Do I have a seat with these people in my career?”
What if your worth and importance were already decided and not based at all on what you were accomplishing? What if you were Mephibosheth—seated at the royal table, not for what you could offer but just because of a covenant promise? What if all this achievement isn’t really what your heart wants after all?
Henry David Thoreau famously said, “We can spend our whole lives fishing only to discover in the end it wasn't fish we were after." I’ll get to the point: our hearts don’t really want importance; our hearts crave the righteousness of Christ that declares our unconditional acceptance.
At the University of Virginia, I worked hard for awards and recognition. At the University of Michigan, I worked even harder for awards and recognition. I thought: I will earn that PhD and finally be at the smart person’s table. I will earn teaching awards and attention for my writing. I will publish and speak and mentor. I will finally have a seat at the indispensable professors’ table.
Are you as tired as I am just reading those sentences? Oh, if only you knew. This kind of living nearly destroyed me as I clamored for a seat at the “professor table”; I would earn the PhD, secure a tenure-track job, earn tenure, publish prolifically, and then finally have my place at the table I’ve been waiting for all my life.
Early in this process, God reminded me that this economy of ranking, comparison, and superiority kept me imprisoned in a state of acute self-consciousness and self-absorption. Back then, I recognized how academia kept me toggling between feelings of superiority or inferiority (often within the same afternoon!) as I fought to belong. I actually wrote my dissertation on shame and narcissism as a result. Now, ten years later, I still battle the tendency to self-evaluate and compare myself to others in my teaching. It doesn’t stop there; I measure myself against other writers, other mothers, and other wives. Am I achieving enough by comparison?
When God reminds me that I already have a seat at the table, I begin to realize that seated people don’t focus on achievement anymore. They abide.
This abiding—instead of achieving—revolutionized my life.
When I read John 15:5 in the context of being seated in Christ, I stop thinking about identity in terms of achievement. Jesus says this: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” That Greek verb for “remain” means to “abide, to stay in place, to be continually present with.” Jesus promises that as we stay continually present with Him, we will bear much fruit.
Much fruit: the fruit of good character and increasing Christlikeness (Galatians 5) and the fruit of good works and new believers. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). When I’m abiding in Christ, my life will begin to accomplish incredible things. But it’s not about achievement anymore that determines my identity.
Seated people abide. They remain seated. They enjoy Jesus and naturally and inevitably live Ephesians 2:10 where we know we’re “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I’m free to complete these tasks from a position of security. I have already received the fullness of Christ, His righteousness, and His power to accomplish all He calls me to do. Christ won a place for me, and I am seated in Him and with Him. I can stop fighting to win a spot.
This realization changes how I approach my teaching, writing, and ministry assignments. Just like with seeking health and finding freedom from affluence, when I live as one already seated, it purifies my motivations in my work and ministry. I’m motivated by Christ’s love and not a need to belong somewhere, earn a title, or feel superior in some way. Now freed from self-absorption and constant self-evaluation about whether I’m enough, I have energy and confidence to love others well and serve the world with joy. I do not fight for a seat at the table; whether I fail or succeed against some arbitrary standard no longer matters.
I’m already there. It feels so free to live a seated life.
Heather Holleman, PhD, is the author of Seated With Christ: Living Freely in a Culture of Comparison. She is a speaker, writer, and college instructor and serves on the staff of Faculty Commons with Cru. Heather lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and their two daughters. To learn more about Heather, visit her at http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/