INSTAGRAM AND MENTAL SELF-MUTILATION
The latest apps like Picflow or Video Story sew a bunch of photos together into one Instagram slide show—perfect for your year in review. My photo stream is full of them today. I can see the 2013 highlight reel of any number of friends in snapshots. It’s funny how fantastic this makes our lives look. It’s all the best moment of the year crammed together into fifteen or twenty seconds. Even the worst year can look pretty amazing in an Instagram slide show! It’s easy to look an acquaintance’s slide show and feel a twinge of envy.
For most humans, this kind of reflection is our annual tradition as the New Year turns over. It’s time for happy memories, wishes for revisions, and plans for self-improvement. I always experience an interesting tension between regrets that I am not where I want to be and motivation for the fresh New Year. This self-reflection, however, is a bit of a slippery slope toward self-comparison. There are always others around my age and experience that are so much farther down the track than I am. Self-comparison leads to self-criticism—Get it together, Anna!
I have several friends who have had an exceptionally difficult year. Needless to say, they did not post an Insta year-end slide show. When your life is not on the upswing, this kind of New Year’s mental self-mutilation is even easier to slip into, particularly for leaders. My prayer for any of you experiencing this kind of self-torture today is grace for the journey. The Bible talks about the ups and downs we will face. Our leadership journey is going to have fantastic seasons and others that feel very lonely and difficult. Thankfully, Jesus promises to be with us at every step, and to bring us to a great place of vision and his presence.
“And how blessed all those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!”
(Psalm 84:5-7 MSG)
This season will not last forever!
USE YOUR OWN MEASURING TAPE
The path out of self-disappointment starts with a liberal application of God’s grace. As leaders, we tend to measure out God’s grace generously to those we minister to, but withhold it from ourselves. Grace for the journey gives us permission to learn from our mistakes rather than disqualify ourselves. Grace gives us permission to move at a sustainable pace rather than watch our relationships wither on the altar of our to-do list. God’s grace gives us permission to love the strengths we have rather than hate the weakness that are part of our humanity. Our journey is our own, and not comparable to anyone else’s.
As leaders, we tend to measure fruitfulness based on statistical performance, opportunities, and the perceptions around our ministry. We go through seasons when what God is building in us is bigger than what he is building through us. Those seasons when he is strengthening the foundations of our lives and building character can look barren on the outside, but they are vital for the next season. If we aren’t aware of what he is doing in our lives right now, we can spin our wheels chasing after success when just maybe, this season is designed for us to get healthy. Health produces fruit, and not the other way around.
Learning grace for the journey means learning how to measure our progress in rhythm, at the right places and the right times. Too often we measure sporadically, or use someone else’s measuring tape. Our measuring tape should be the vision and values of the ministry we serve, not the vision and values of the church whose conference we love to attend. If we measure our progress according to the vision God has called us to, then we have an accurate picture of our progress. Hillsong is called to write original worship songs that the church worldwide can worship with. If your church’s primary vision is to feed and clothe the needy in East Jahunga, then the fact that you aren’t producing original worship songs sung around the world isn’t a fail.
Too often we measure by comparing what we have built to what people we respect have built. Paul talked about our journey as a race, and it’s easy to get focused on winning by being more successful than other leaders. The kind of race we are in is more similar to a marathon. Long distance runners aren’t nearly as concerned about what place they finished the race in as whether or not they beat their PR. Their goal is to beat their personal record, to run their personal best. We are more like distance runners than sprinters. Measure against your own progress, no one else’s.
Women in particular can be guilty of measuring themselves by someone else’s measuring tape. We measure by comparing our lives to our best girl friends’ lives. We literally compare our body measurements. We tend to take our kids’ failures and successes and measure ourselves by them. Girls, your kids’ mistakes do not disqualify you any more than their successes validate you. Your kids measuring tape is not for you!
GOING IT ALONE: ALWAYS A SERIOUS MISTAKE
It’s human nature to want to withdraw from relationship with people we respect when things aren’t going so well. We don’t want them to see us vulnerable, or maybe we don’t trust them to handle us with love and acceptance. I have friends who have pulled away from good relationships in hard times. They stopped attending the conferences they used to attend, don’t reach out like they used to, and they felt hurt that no one was reaching back. It would seem foolish for me to feel hurt for something I changed, but it’s a trap many of us fall into. I have to take responsibility for my own relationships; I can’t blame someone else for my choices. If I disengage from relationship, then I will go through hard times alone.
One of the many things I love about my husband are his skills at building and maintaining friendships. He is able to genuinely and wholeheartedly celebrate the successes of his friends. Just as quickly, he gives love and support when things are going badly. Not everyone is able to do that authentically. I have been in leadership environments where people struggled to celebrate their friends’ successes. Being part of a leadership community requires that we don’t give ourselves permission to think that someone else’s progress diminishes ours or that their success makes ours smaller. If we want true friendship, we have to learn to authentically value and celebrate the progress of those we are in relationship with. The nature of true relationship and true community is that we cheer each other on, not one-upmanship.
At various moments over the years, I’ve caught myself watching someone else’s success, examining it for weaknesses. I’m not sure why, but maybe their weaknesses made their success seem more achievable. If I am cheering someone on with my mouth, but in my head looking for something to criticize, then I have made myself smaller. The same applies to you. We probably all have had to face this battle at one time or another, feeling inadequate in the face of someone else’s triumph. We have to catch ourselves at it, give ourselves some grace for the journey, and then decide to value the success wholeheartedly. After all, we win when then church globally wins. Our friends are not the competition we need to try to outdo.
PINEAPPLES AND BELL PEPPERS ARE BOTH FRUIT
Pineapples and bell peppers may be culinary opposites, but they are both fruit. Fruit comes in thousands of different shapes, sizes, color, and textures. Some are sweet, some are not. Traveling from temperate America to the tropics will give you a rapid revelation of how limited our awareness is about fruit. We tend to categorize things neatly: apple, banana, orange, grape. There are things out there that simply defy categorization.
The same is true about kingdom fruit. It looks wildly different on different ministries. We get fruitful where we put resources, leadership, and energy. What we work toward is what we produce. We have different passions, different styles, and different levels of resource that all produce churches that look and feel very different. The growth in every church environment is fruit. Fruit is found in people–numbers growth, leadership development growth, and character growth. Fruit looks different on every ministry. We are all filling different kinds of roles and answering the different kinds of needs that Jesus calls us to.
Every kind of fruit is valuable and important. Our tendency is to focus on others’ strengths but our own weaknesses, undervaluing our own fruitfulness. We have to learn how to value the fruit we can produce! We are uniquely capable of reaching specific kinds of people. The church needs what you were specifically designed to bring! Just because it doesn’t look, smell, or taste like someone else’s success doesn’t make it any less a fruit. The fact that we have the potential of producing more fruit or healthier than we are now doesn’t make the fruit we do produce any less valuable. Celebrate each step of the journey of fruitfulness.
If you have been caught in the torture of mental self-mutilation, comparing your year-in-review to someone else’s, pause here. A change of focus is required, moving from the failures to the wins. Take a deep breath in, and thank God for this year’s journey. What he has taught us has taken us a step forward toward strength, health, and purpose. No one else’s progress diminishes that strength. Eyes up, shoulders back, smile in the face of the next challenge ahead, and into 2014 we go! And good luck in East Jahunga!