The Unbearable Pressure to Do Great Things for the Lord

My quest for significance left me anxious and deflated.
The Unbearable Pressure to Do Great Things for the Lord
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Getty / Envato

Several years ago, the self-help sections of bookstores were stocked with bestselling books that sold messages such as, “You can do it,” “Anything is possible,” or “Awaken the giant within you.” These books sought to inspire us to do more with our lives, to achieve something spectacular. Today that message has shifted. Now bestselling self-help books are more likely to address how to cope with low self-esteem and shame and overcome the feeling that we’re not accomplishing enough with our lives. As the Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton points out, “There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem.”

I was born in Tokyo, Japan, one of the busiest, most work-oriented cities in the world. My wife, Sakiko, and I regularly return to Japan to visit her family. When I am back, I find myself wondering what my life would have been like if my family had not moved away from Japan when I was a child. If I had grown up in Japanese society, there would have been enormous pressure on me to attend the right preschool, the right kindergarten, the right elementary school, the right junior high, and so on. Eventually, I would have felt the pressure to find a job at the right company and then the additional pressure to become a dutiful “salary man.”

As I ponder what my life could have been, I breathe a sigh of relief: “Thank God I am not part of that relentless rat race!”

But if I am honest with myself, I know I haven’t escaped it.

That pressure to achieve and succeed followed me from my job at Sony to my work as a pastor. The transition from the business world to the church didn’t free me from feeling that I needed to make something exceptional of my life and my ministry.

My good friend Jeff once told me, “For a long time, you have felt like you needed to be the guy. When you were younger, you felt the need to be the guy on the football field; as a younger man, the guy in the business world; and now, the guy as the pastor.”

He was right. I still have that desire to accomplish something significant—to stand out in some way.

Twenty years ago, when I first came to pastor Tenth Church in Vancouver, I was intimidated. I felt nervous about the challenge of pastoring a historic church that had dwindled from more than 1,000 to a little more than 100 members. The church had cycled through 20 pastors (including associates) over the past 20 years.

On one of my first days at the church, the secretary told me, “Ken, I just want you to know that if this ship sinks now, everyone will blame you since you were the last captain at the helm.” She was trying to motivate me to work harder, but her words depressed me! During those days, I felt constantly anxious, trying to keep the ship of the church afloat. I wasn’t doing this for the glory of God but to avoid humiliating failure. I didn’t want to be seen as a loser.

Adam I and Adam II

I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “Be true to yourself.” But the truth is that we have many selves. Sometimes we feel as if there is a committee of voices within our heart, each vying for different, competing proposals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Scripture suggests that we are complex, multidimensional beings filled with a variety of motives and desires. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his book The Lonely Man of Faith, points out that in the Book of Genesis we are given two different portrayals of Adam. He contends that each of these “two Adams” corresponds to a different side of our human nature. He refers to these as Adam I and Adam II.

According to Soloveitchik, Genesis 1 introduces us to “Adam I.” This Adam is driven by God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28). He feels compelled to conquer, create, and control. In a modern context, this means that our Adam I wants to understand how nature works so we can conquer disease or create a thriving business. This Adam feels pressure to produce and be successful. Soloveitchik points out that this calling is good and necessary. We need a healthy amount of Adam I to get things done in the world.

Soloveitchik continues in Genesis 2 by describing the persona of “Adam II.” In contrast to Adam I’s desire to conquer, create, and control, Adam II is led to a garden. He is called to serve it humbly (v. 15). A couple of chapters later we read that Adam walks with God in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). The two Adams have different desires. While Adam I wants to produce goods, Adam II yearns for relationship. He longs to connect with his Maker and feels lonely until Eve appears. Adam II is not as interested in how nature works, but why nature is there in the first place. He seeks to find meaning in life.

Soloveitchik recognizes that these two aspects of Adam reflect something true about every person: We each have this dual persona. Part of us strives for success (Adam I), while another part of us longs for connection with God and others (Adam II). And these personas don’t need to be opposed to one another. We all need a good dose of Adam I’s drive and ambition to energize us for action—whether it’s purging our garage, learning a new skill for our job, or seeking to make our world a place that reflects more of God’s justice. But we also need to tend to Adam II’s longing for relationship, spiritual connection, and meaning in life. A healthy person will find a balance between these two drives so they complement each other in a holistic, life-giving way.

I find both of these Adams alive within me. There is a Ken I, who loves to work and achieve, and a Ken II, who values relationships with others and treasures intimate moments with God. And I know that when one of these parts of my identity overshadows the other, it affects how I relate to my wife, my son, and the people around me. When these two Kens are not in balance, it shapes how I treat my body and engage my work.

I realize that it’s awkward speaking of yourself with Roman numerals. And I also realize this is an idiosyncratic reading of Genesis. But I still find it helpful to think of these two parts of myself as Striving Adam and Soulful Adam. One part of us strives to impact the world around us through our work and effort. And another part of us seeks soulful connection through relationships with people and by experiencing ultimate reality.

Striving Ambition and Soulful Investment

A healthy balance between our Striving Adam and Soulful Adam relieves us of our need to be successful, rich, or widely known in order to win the respect and approval of others. This frees us to pursue the will of God for our lives.

My mentor and close friend, Leighton Ford, embodies this joyful freedom in his vocation. Leighton was ambitious for God, and with an earnest Striving Adam, he yearned to have a significant impact. After graduating from Wheaton College, he wed Billy Graham’s sister, Jeanie, and became part of the “royal family” of the Christian world. A rising star, Leighton began preaching in large football stadiums around the world. The Religious Heritage of America named him Clergyman of the Year, and Time magazine identified him as the person most qualified to succeed his brother-in-law, Billy Graham.

Leighton’s son, Sandy, had become an accomplished track and field runner. Like his father, he aspired to become a minister of the gospel. Unexpectedly, he was diagnosed with a rare heart disease that caused arrhythmia. After an operation to address his condition, Sandy seemed fine. But then, while running with a college roommate shortly after his 21st birthday, the arrhythmia struck again. A few days later, he died on the operating table.

A few days after Sandy’s funeral, Leighton went to Sandy’s room near the university to gather his son’s belongings. As he looked over Sandy’s desk, Leighton found an unfinished poem. It was titled “To Dad, for his 50th birthday.” The words of the poem remain etched on Leighton’s heart to this day:

What a golden honor it would be to don your mantle, to inherit twice times your spirit.

For then you would be me and I would continue to be you.

Leighton wept. He thought of the promise of this beautiful life, a promise that would no longer be fulfilled, a mantle that would never fall on his son’s shoulders.

In the midst of his searing loss and pain, Leighton felt God drawing close to him. He sensed the Holy Spirit calling him to begin a new ministry, one that would mean stepping out of the limelight. He felt led to invest himself into a small group of younger men and women to help them “run their race” for God through one-on-one spiritual mentoring. Leighton’s suffering and his experience of God’s love clarified what was most important. His pain, paradoxically, freed him from the need to pursue the path of conventional success.

Through an unassuming ministry of spiritual direction, Leighton, now in his 80s, has been blessed with many sons and daughters. He is no longer an A-list Christian celebrity, but his influence is deep and wide. And he is now at home in his own skin, truly content with his life and calling. He models the marriage of a healthy striving ambition and a soulful investment in personal relationships of love and depth. As Sandy’s poem foretold, the mantle of Leighton’s ministry has fallen—not on Sandy, but on his many spiritual sons and daughters.

A Fruitful Balance

During my early years at Tenth Church, I felt desperate to see the church experience a turnaround. I was clocking 70-hour work weeks, but my efforts weren’t bearing fruit. We would experience a little growth, but just around the corner face discouraging decline.

When I got married, I cut back my work week and something surprising happened. Even though I was working fewer hours, my ministry became more fruitful. The church grew healthier. Fast forward several years—I became a parent, and I reduced my work week further still. Again, I found that while my family life improved, the church thrived as well.

What made the difference? As I scaled back my work hours, I began to embrace certain spiritual practices—including meditative prayer and specific gratitude exercises—which deepened my sense of connection to God and enabled me to be more present to my family and those around me. Because of this, my work began to flourish.

I still feel the pull at the end of the workday to stay in the office a little longer and answer a few more emails. But I’ve learned over time that a small sacrifice in one area of my life and a corresponding investment in another area can lead to a fruitful balance where Striving Ken and Soulful Ken work together in harmony.

Ken Shigematsu is senior pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of Survival Guide for the Soul, ©2018, from which this content was taken. Used by permission of Zondervan.


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