I've Gotta Be Me

Here are some people I admire: the apostle Paul, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Xavier, John Calvin, J. S. Bach, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, Abraham Kuyper, Mary Slessor, Winston Churchill, C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Wayne Gretzky, and Wynton Marsalis. It’s always pleasant to stand back and gaze upon their awesome excellence of talent, or spirit, or goodness, or whatever.

Here are some people, however, I envy: Martin Marty, Mark Noll, Nicholas Wolterstorff, David Martin, Miroslav Volf, Lauren Winner.

The difference in the two lists?

Well, there are two differences. First, the people in the second list are all contemporaries who do something similar to what I do for a living, namely, academic work in the humanities. (That’s why you may not recognize all, or even any, of the names. Philosophers, historians, sociologists, and theologians are rarely household words!) The second point is that they all have enjoyed much greater success at some aspect or another of our common profession.

Ouch. It hurts to admit it, but it hurts more to live under it. How can I possibly publish as much as Marty? Or read as much as Noll? Or think as deeply as Wolterstorff? Or think as widely as Martin? And so on, and so on.

I find relief from envy in several antidotes. One is friendship. While I envy these people, I also am glad to count them as friends. And if someone else is going to be considerably more successful than I, it’s easier to bear if it’s a worthy friend!

Another and better antidote to envy, however, is much more basic: vocation. If God had wanted me to be like Martin Marty, he would have made me like Martin Marty. But he clearly didn’t, because he clearly didn’t.

Same with Michael Jordan. Same with George Clooney. Same with anyone else you admire—or envy.

Instead, God wanted me to be like me, so he cleverly made me just like that.

And what is that?

The Bible, of course, is the Book of books by which to consider such matters. A very helpful contemporary book on the subject, however, is Marcus Buckingham’s Go Put Your Strengths to Work (New York: Free Press, 2007).

Buckingham worked for the Gallup Organization for years, analyzing executives and businesses to help them improve. Out of this wealth of experience he has concluded that the best way for any of us to make the most of our lives is not to “work on our weaknesses” and not to seek to become “well-rounded,” but instead to identify and capitalize on our particular strengths. This “strengths movement” is hot in some places now, and I think it deserves to be more widely known.

Buckingham’s counsel—available in this book, on his website, and via other media—coincides powerfully with the counsel of the apostle Paul, who told the early Christians under his care to recognize their inherent particularity, to rejoice in it, to honour each other’s differences, and to work together for mutual benefit. In fact, Paul provides for us an image so apt that it is surprising Buckingham never makes use of it: the parts of the human body working in all of their particularity for each other’s good: eye, ear, hand, foot, and so on (I Corinthians 12).

Life is short, distractions and demands are many, and we can misspend ‘way too much of our time and effort on matters that don’t matter, or in work to which we are neither inclined nor suited. Buckingham’s book is, like all wisdom, deceptively simple and clear, and I’ve found it to be effective. It has helped me move away from activities that I am not good at, or even some that I am, but don’t have much heart for, toward those through which I can do the most good for others and enjoy myself best while doing them.

Take some time to go through the book, maybe a chapter every Sunday afternoon, and see if it doesn’t help you make better sense of your life.

I can’t be Nicholas Wolterstorff or Miroslav Volf or Lauren Winner. But I’m not supposed to be, and I wouldn’t be happy or fulfilled if I tried to be. Nope. I’ll do better being whatever it is that I genuinely am.

Even if the envy I feel about my friends never quite dissipates . . . !

0 Responses to “I've Gotta Be Me”

  1. Jon Coutts

    Well, if it makes you feel any better, some of us would have some of those names, as well as yours, on our lists.

  2. Doug

    This weekend my wife and I are meeting with a new seminary graduate and his wife. He will be taking his first church in the Fall. He is meeting with us to “pick our brains” about pastoral ministry.

    So I am collecting all the wisdom I can to try and help him get off on the right foot. This little blog entry was helpful.

    Thanks and blessings…

  3. Libbie+

    I like your honesty! Thanks for sharing it.

  4. dangoldfinch

    Thanks for this post. I received my alumni newsletter the other day. Every issue contains a short column by a fella I graduated with who is now a professor, etc. etc. Your remarks helped me identify and label my problem with envy. Serving God shouldn’t be a competition. Thank you again.


  5. SursumCorda

    Thanks for another insightful post, which I’ve already referenced on my own blog.

    Thank you even more for the apostrophe in “we can misspend ‘way too much”–I was beginning to think I was the only one left on the planet who spelled ‘way that way.

  6. Joann

    I like being me, too, flaws and all. But sometimes I struggle with my Christian faith because I often feel as though I have to be something I’m not in order to fit in as a Christian, everything I do is wrong and nothing I do is right, and I feel like I’m being judged and condemned by other Christians because I don’t seem as faithful as they are, even though I think I’m doing everything I know how to keep from going to Hell. In other words, I feel like I’m not being loved and accepted for who I am, and I’m being pressured into doing more than I know how. But you know what is finally helping me, even though I probably should have done this a long time ago? Trusting God with all my heart, mind, and strength and trying not to worry about what I should or should not be doing. Guess what? I recently started doing this, and now everything is falling into place, working out better than I thought it would, and I am no longer struggling with my faith as much as I was before. And you know what else? I’m no longer worried about what other Christians think of me, because God loves me just the way I am, and He doesn’t want me to be something I’m not or attempt anything I’m incapable of doing. So, instead of preaching the Gospel to others (I’m not a people-oriented type person, preferring instead to keep to myself, live and let live, and only hang out with my Christian friends), I can spread God’s message by wearing one of my Jesus t-shirts, saying “God bless you,” and privately praying for the souls of others without having to approach anyone in person. I’m not Jesus, I am Joann, so just because I’m a Christian, it doesn’t mean I should have to be like Jesus and do everything He did in order to be loved, accepted, and forgiven by Him. I just have to be me.

  7. Emanuel Goldstein

    The fact that Calvin let an opponent be burned at the stake is alone enough to discredit him.

    But rationalize it all you want if it makes you feel better.

  8. Mary

    What about the envy we can feel for other Christians? I envy those Christian women who have seemingly been sheltered from all of life’s meanness and cruelty. THere are a number of women like this in my church — “groomed as Christians” is always the word I keep coming back to in my mind. They were fortunate enough to grow in up in strong, loving, Christian homes — were sent to Chrsitian universities where they met loving, strong christian men. Now they have their own strong, Christian families. It’s like for them, God is merely the sprinkles on top of their already overflowing bowl of ice cream sundae.

    There’s no alcoholism in their families, no messy divorces, no wondering where the HECK you’re going to go for Thanksgiving, since every aspect of your family tree appears to be out of control and is simultaneously disfunctioning. I find myself thinking “It must be so easy to stand up in front of the church and optimistically tell everyone else that God has a plan for your life — if all you have to do is pray and God sends you a pony.” I love the Lord, but my life is still really messy. I still have siblings whose spouses are in jail, family members who are so evil and depraved I don’t want to ever introduce my children to them, parents who behave like children and can’t be trusted to behave at family functions. When I think of God as my father, it’s because he’s the ONLY loving father I’ve ever had — versus all these lucky, pampered women who know exactly what a father’s love means because of the wholesome way they were raised. I love being a Christian — but I can’t help but be jealous of all of the cradle Christians among us.

  9. John Stackhouse

    Be you, sister Mary. Lots of people need to hear about Christianity the way YOU put it, the way YOU feel it, the way YOU hang in there and make the best of it.

    And yeah, I understand exactly what you mean when I think of certain people who’ve had a much easier time of this or that than I have. Your words remind us to be careful to be thankful for what God has done for us, but not to “over-read” that and draw simplistic conclusions from it.

    One more thing, though. I’ve been around enough of these Christians you describe to warn that a lot of these people run into illness or financial setback or a family death or a disfiguring accident–and there’s no way to predict how they’ll cope. Some go to pieces. Others hang in there. And some triumph, praise God. Who knows what’s going on behind those shiny, big, closed doors? God alone…


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