Confessions of a (Sinful) Overachiever
Someone once told me that in another life and time I could have been a good monk. (The thought had crossed my mind too—albeit, I saw myself as a nun instead.) The truth is, I enjoy the disciplined Christian life. I embrace prayer, study, and fasting as ordinary means of grace. I’m discouraged by passivity and compelled to practice the spiritual disciplines with intentionality and purpose.
It’s been this way since my sophomore year in college, when my conversion brought a sudden and abiding appetite for God’s Word. I’d finish my homework just to have free time for the Bible. As I studied, I spent days fasting and hours in prayer. These early habits have persisted with the years, despite the natural changes that marriage, motherhood, work and schedules bring.
My practice of faith, like most things in my life, is sustained by a propensity for difficult work. I’m a hard driver, often choosing the coarse road. As a mother, I give birth without epidural, nurse for fourteen-months, make my own baby food, homeschool my little ones—all the while working part-time and teaching small groups. It’s admirable—if not for the pesky tendency to pride myself by the praise of these efforts.
No doubt, sin easily besets even our most righteous inclinations. A sincere desire for holiness and good works can slip and fall into messy sin: pride, judgmentalism, moralism, legalism, and the like. I’m capable of all these and desperately in need of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the only antidote for my sin-prone monkery.
But depending on your Christian subculture, monks like me will either be hailed as the cream of the crop or judged as “holier than thou.” I’ve heard both.
As a child, I belonged to a congregation that saw God’s favor accompanying certain spiritual performances. There were dos-and-don’ts, praises and shaming, and ready comparisons of one person to another. This kind of environment fueled a desire for godly conduct, but left many of us feeling exhausted and defeated once our willpower waned.
As an adult, I visited churches that viewed “Bible-toting and Scripture-quoting Christians” as slightly pretentious. The message descended from the pulpit and was cheered by the pews: these environments tend to condemn the “condescending Christian” without seeing its own harsh judgmentalism. The experience left me squirming in my seat—conscious of my Bible-toting and Scripture-quoting ways.
Yet these notions are not limited to the seemingly distant pulpit or crowded pew. They can be found in more intimate circles like our women’s fellowships and mommy groups. These subcultures within the broader ecclesiastical community can carry unique messages. And what we say to each other in these corners (whether about the super-achieving or struggling sister) reveals something of our understanding of the gospel.
We say a great deal about womanhood, motherhood and the pressures women feel to “do it all.” The chatter flows from our groups to our social media feeds, parenting blogs and one-on-one conversations. In all these places, I’ve noticed that women tend to either champion or dismiss the efforts of the ambitious mother.
For one thing, articles on the benefits of staying at home are neverending. But also growing is the trend of mom-shaming. Last summer, HuffPost Parents shared a story about mothers photographed by strangers while caring for their children in public. The pictures were later posted online without their knowledge and scrutinized by thousands. One mom was blasted for wearing her 5-year-old daughter in a sling, and another for nursing in public.
Perhaps in our personal circles we lean toward one side or another? Maybe yours is a community that exalts the homeschooling, organic-food-making, and theology-teaching mom—or even holds her up as the expected standard. Our effusive applause for “doing it all,” though well-intended as support and encouragement, can have other consequences. It can lead women to feel defeated when our strength wanes, or if we never hit those marks to begin with.
On the other hand, some circles may consider such performances and full schedules a bit “showy.” They may remark about the unnecessary pressure to bake from scratch, make crafts from Pinterest, and teach homeschool lessons. Articles framed as well-meaning yet nevertheless mocking the super-performing woman are shared. These attitudes can leave some sisters squirming and self-conscious of their achievements.
I know firsthand that more than praise or mockery, we can offer each other the truest antidote for whatever sin, pride, condemnation, or judgment we face: the gospel.
The gospel is not moralism. We are not made Christian by the keeping of particular rules or hitting the mark of certain behaviors. Nor is the gospel libertinism. Our freedoms in Christ are not devoid of godly discipline and right conduct. There are biblical boundaries that govern our behavior as believers—laws (precepts, commandments and doctrines) that we are called to love (Ps. 119:97).
The Church must never evade, accommodate, revise, or hide the law of God. Indeed, it is the Law that shows us our sin and makes clear our inadequacy and our total lack of righteousness. [Yet] The Law cannot impart life...We are justified by faith alone, saved by grace alone, and redeemed from our sin by Christ alone.
When we look at Jesus Christ, we see perfect righteousness: sinlessness within the liberties that God provides. Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Law yet never conformed to human-constructed holiness. Those susceptible to monk-like overachievement and laxity both need the righteousness that Christ offers. It tells the monk to look to Jesus for their acceptance, to shave off the potential for pretense, to enjoy godly freedoms in Christ, and to work for his praise. And the same message is given to the lax—Christ is mightier to save than moments of inertia are to ruin; yet his salvation is seen in your perseverance—so run as though to win the prize, God himself helps you.
Nana Dolce was born in Ghana, but lives today in Washington DC with her husband Eric and two daughters. She is a first-year homeschooling mother and a part-time director of outreach for a church. She has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and blogs at motherhoodandsanctity.com.