Sunday, July 13, 2014

Failure is Not An Option

I Thessalonians 2:1 " You know brothers that our visit to you was not a failure."

Man I needed this scripture recently, and as always, God's timing is impeccable. I started a study with a ladies' group at church over I & II Thessalonians and the second week we covered this scripture.  Paul, Timothy, and Silas had just tried to visit Thessalonica but they were quickly run out the town after visiting Philippi and being stripped, beaten and thrown in prison there. They barely had a chance to even say "hello," but Paul is assuring his friends that the visit was not a failure. You see, they planted seeds, (and a church) they were obedient to the call of the Lord and they did the work to spread the gospel. I am sure things did not go as Paul, Timothy and Silas had anticipated; I am sure they felt a tinge of disappointment. I don't know if you know that much about Paul in the New Testament, but he is a pretty dynamic character in the history of the New Testament church and spread of the gospel. Even so, I am sure being beaten and thrown in jail was not really his idea of a successful missionary journey to a town of people he really cared about. Luckily for me, God allowed him to understand, and to assure others, that actually "failure" really wasn't an option as a descriptor as long as God was in control.

True confession: I have a touch of what people call perfectionism. Okay, maybe it is more like a serious problem. The weird thing is that it is only self-directed. I don't expect others to be perfect, and am probably one of the most tolerant of others' mistakes and shortfalls, but when it comes to my own, I am ruthless. A lot of that personal perfectionism is related to my many deeply rooted insecurities or maybe the two just feed off of one another. I am determined to be good enough and right and yet am terrified that I am correct when I think I am not; such a weird internal conundrum.

 My perfectionism is magnified when I have something specific to accomplish or there is a measurable end product. For instance, when I went back to school to earn my teaching degree it became a screaming billboard for everyone around me to see. I had to get all A's; anything less was unimaginable.

 I went back after working as a teacher's aide for 10-12 years, knowing I wanted to teach. I quit working and in four semesters of college completed 84 semester hours to graduate as quickly as possible. Yes, I took 19-24 semester hours each semester, even begging the dean at one point to allow the 24 hours that semester. That my friends, is perfectionistic encephalitis or "crazy" for short.

 I worked my tail off while taking all those classes. I even remember Amanda asking one day, " Momma, do you have homework every day?" What is silly is that the degree wasn't nearly as important as all those individual course marks. And to this day, one course, Mexican American History, is my biggest frustration. 

The class I really enjoyed. My professor was a crop pants, flip-flop wearing self-proclaimed hippie who was very laid-back (duh) and very knowledgeable. He basically just talked the entire time and showed us pictures of his travels and why he loved Mexican history so much. Lucky for me, I have a pretty remarkable memory and take good notes, (although they are usually scattered all over a page.)

 I was crammed into a class of mostly history majors and mostly 15 years younger than me. The best part about this class ( and I understand this will elicit audible groans from some of you) was that his tests were 100% essay. I don't know if you've figured this out yet, but I'm pretty adept at what I have always affectionately called "fluffing" in writing. That ability added to my memory allowed me to always do well on essay tests. I needed this one last history class for my degree plan and was glad it would be one I felt I could comfortably gain an A in.

The first test day rolls around and I purchase the little blue book (a composition book we had to have for every test). Prior to test day, the professor would give us six possible essay topics and on test day he would only give us two of the six to choose from; we were to write about only one of them. I looked over the two topics, selected the one I felt most comfortable about and began writing. I listed what I wanted to cover in the back of the comp book to make sure I didn't leave anything out. We had two hours and I wrote probably for an hour and fifteen minutes. I read back over the three and a half pages I had wrote, checked my spelling and that I had covered everything, and then walked to the front and put it on the stack on his desk. I felt really good about that first test. 

We came back to class two days later and he had them graded and after the lecture he passed back out composition books. I quickly thumbed through my essay and there were no red marks anywhere. I flipped back to the front and at the top of my first page I saw these words in red, " Very well written. Covered all the facts! Very concise." then I glance to the inside cover of the comp book and see in pretty red pen, "B+." What??? B+? I was very confused.  I flipped back through, reread it and still didn't understand. So after class, I stayed around and walked up and introduced myself to the professor. I told him that I currently had a 4.0 GPA and wanted to work hard to keep that if possible. I said that I had received a B+ on my test essay and asked if he could let me know what I could do to improve my future essay grades in his class. He sat there on his desk, one flip-flop in the floor and one dangling from his unmannicured foot, and asked to see my essay. So I handed it to him, hoping he would just give me an idea of what he was looking for. He flipped through it and said, " Oh, yeah. You wrote really well. I liked that you were able to cover everything so well." I stood expectantly for the "but..." and he didn't disappoint. " ...but, there is no way I am  giving anything better than a B+ for only 3 1/2 pages." and with that he handed the book back to me and dismissed me with a turn to gather his slides out of the slide machine. I quickly went from curious and insecure to indignant. I was floored that he would really base his grade on how many pages it took to say what needed to be said. He had just thrown down the gauntlet to a master-fluffer; he had no idea what awaited him.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to the next test date. The professor gave us the six possible topics and I set to memorizing every minute detail about at least five of them. One of the topics had to do with how the culture of a particular tribe was evidenced in America during a specific time period. This one was very broad and left a lot of room for fluffery; it was the one I spent the most time memorizing ideas about. The day of the test, my husband drove me the hour to the school I was attending for some reason. (I think he wanted to go to a sporting store in the area, but can't really remember.) I told him we had two hours to write, and I wasn't sure how long it would take me. Knowing that I usually do not take the full time, I am sure he expected me within an hour or a little after.

I sat down, with my blue comp book and waited for the test. He put the archaic transparency on the overhead that listed the two choices. BINGO! The one I had hoped for was there and without any further ado, I began writing as quickly as I possibly could. I wrote about everything from the medicine men of the tribe to the food seasonings to the colors in the embroidery. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I covered every single minuscule possibility of anything that impacted the culture of this particular tribe and related it to the time period asked about. When I was finished, I barely had time to quickly proofread my work and count the pages. SUCCESS! Right at the two-hour mark, I placed my comp book on the top of the pile and triumphantly walked out to my waiting husband.

Trey looked worried as he asked, " Was it a bad test? How do you think you did?" I smiled and said, " Oh, I think I pretty much covered it all and I don't think he can deduct from my grade due to a lack of pages written." The look I gave must have been that mischievous look that dripped with sarcasm because he immediately and knowingly smiled and asked, " How many pages did you write?" My answer? " 24." with a content sigh of vindication. He just laughed. (I think he is used to my overachiever- itis)

The next class period for Mexican American History, I was anxious to get our tests back. As before, he passed them back towards the end of the class. I flipped through my writing, finding no more than 3-4 marks in red. I flipped to the front inside cover and noticed he had not written any comments at the top this time. I expectantly glanced across the page to see in red pen, "B+". I guess I showed him...

As I walked out, I commented to a fellow student that I was confused as to how to get an A in this class. She immediately asked my major and when I told her it was Interdisciplinary Studies, she said there was no way I would get an A. According to her, and several others around, this professor only gave A's to History majors like her. I asked what she had received on her test and she said " A-, which I am super excited about since I really didn't know what to write." That course was the only B on my transcript for all those 84 semester hours; the best I ever received on a test was an A- once. For a perfectionist, a B+ is as good as failure, but it is not failure. I graduated and not once has a potential employer asked about my Mexican American history grade.

I tell you that story just so you get an idea of how deeply I am embedded in this perfectionism so that you can understand the struggles I have with not being "good enough" in general. I have a tendency to base my worth on my performance in things especially if there is a measurable end goal. (Which makes this blog something with a lot of power to get me wrapped up in success versus failure with each post depending on how many people read it or how they respond- this is a huge learning process for me to just allow God to use my writing however He wishes regardless of whether I see any results or not.)

Now fast forward to the last couple of years. In an earlier blog post, I told you that God had placed me within a company that allowed me to minister and speak into the lives of many women on a regular basis. This position came with lots of rewards based on performance and I excelled greatly at reaching certain goals. Within three months, I had earned a free car and after seven months, I was in a leadership (management) position. My position within this company has begun to change a little creating some new choices. We decided it would be best to return the vehicle so that our family did not accrue any extra expenses. It was a difficult decision, but one that I am completely at peace with now. The thing is though, Satan has whispered more than once in my ear that this was paramount to failure; despite knowing in my heart that God is orchestrating changes and that He placed me in this company in the first place for a specific reason, there were twinges of self-doubt and I fought the urge to succumb to the idea that I was letting other down and had failed them and possibly even God by not continuing to excel the way I had in the beginning.

And then I went to the Ladies' Bible study and later that week opened my Bible to read I Thes 2:1-6. Even more, God smiled at my weakness and sent me a reminder that He is in complete control. The very day the company came to pick up my car, my blog post, (the first one I had written in years) "When God Closes a Door..." exploded like nothing I had imagined! In one day, over 1000 people had read or shared that single post! The day I could have been slapped in the face with what my insecurities (and my enemy) would tag as failure, God showed me His success! In our weakest moments, that is when God can show us more than ever! I won't lie, I shed a few tears, but I was determined to not listen to the deceiving one and to press into the Savior who has never failed me. By the end of the day, I was so excited and humbled and emotional about what God was teaching me.

Reading from my study, these words jumped off the page:

I Thessalonians 2:1-6 " You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Phillipi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed- God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else."

First of all, I need to quit seeing things as failures especially when I know I have followed where God led and did what I was meant to do; sometimes we don't get to stay around long enough to see the real difference made. Sometimes, well many times actually, things do not end up like we thought they would. We could save ourselves a lot of stress if we would quit painting the rest of the picture when God has only made a couple of brushstrokes. (or maybe that's just me)

Secondly, I should not allow strong opposition to guide whether I do God's work. Although the company I am with is a Christian based company, interestingly, there has been outward opposition to being successful in it and to using it as a vehicle to share God's love to others. I think sometimes people get confused and forget that God can use (and usually does) some of the things we consider so strange to further His kingdom. Sometimes others are misdirected and in a well-meaning way feel the need to enlighten you to their perspective. In the end it really doesn't matter if we have the approval or understanding of everyone we know, as long as God is in control and we allow Him to lead us. That last part is key though, do not try to force onto God something you are doing for your own gain and expect it to sit well with Him or His children. I know in my life he has sent those who spoke in love to adjust my direction.

 Which leads me to the last thing about this passage that is utterly crucial: "We are not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else." I have to be so careful, especially with my tendency towards perfectionism, to not look for praise from others to decide if I am good enough. The truth is I am good enough and yet I will never be good enough. I know that is a strange thing to say, but what I mean is that I will NEVER be good enough to truly deserve God's love, but by the blood of His son, I am good enough: I am a loved sister, chosen by God! (I Thessalonians 1: 4) All those things that I consider failures, are just silly. I am a loved sister, CHOSEN by GOD!!! During a discussion once about not quite meeting a goal and feeling like I had failed, one of my close friends said, "Stephanie, your worth is not tied even loosely to your performance. If you walked away and didn't even try, your worth would not change a bit." How I am viewed by others might change, but God's perspective of who I am is unchanging, and should stay my focus. This can become a constant battle, especially for those who struggle with low self esteem or self worth. 

I Thessalonians 1:4 " For we know, brothers (or sisters) loved by God, that he has chosen you."

 Even if not another soul reads one of my posts, even if I never earn another free vehicle, even if I had never earned one to begin with, even if I have no friends or hundreds of friends, even if I lose my temper or listen to Satan's whispers too long, or let the praise of others become my focus for a time, even if...I am a loved sister, chosen by God; nothing will ever change that. 

So loved brothers and sisters, chosen by God, what does that mean for you? What is that "failure" that God wants you to see was actually a success? How will you look at future endeavors differently?  In our study, the suggestion was made to approach our Christian brothers and sisters with this same greeting. Even if you don't say it out loud, how would that change your interaction with people? I know I can't even say that in my mind without viewing that person with a little more love and a little more compassion. 

2006 when I got my degree
One last thing I have noticed about my struggles with feeling like a failure is that often I get so wrapped up in the one small event that I am not seeing the whole picture at all. (not that my tiny little brain can ever see the whole picture)  I mean that history class for example, I don't even remember the professor's name, but I remember those grades like it was yesterday! You know what, I still graduated, got my teaching certificate and have been teaching Algebra I to ninth graders for many years now. The car that I recently returned was a huge blessing to our family for about 18 months! We had no car payment and no credit hit, it was just a bonus! Most people don't even earn a free car in their job, much less their secondary, part-time job. Not to mention that I am still a part of a great company that allows me to mentor others in Christ's love often and with amazing women that I love. How can any of that be a failure? It would be like teaching our children to ride a bike and when they finally did it on their own, we say, "Yeah, but you crashed seven times today and you had to keep the training wheels on longer than I thought." We would never do that to our kids! God would never do that to his kids, so you shouldn't do it either. You are chosen. You are loved. You are HIS. Failure isn't really an option anymore.

the amazing car that blessed our family for 18 months

Blessed more than I deserve

~ Stephanie

2 Corinthians 12:9

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.