As I was praying recently about a couple of difficult situations, I wrote in my journal, “I think, ultimately, what I need to know to let both these situations go is that You are pleased with me.”
There is some truth in that. Disappointing people is an inevitable part of being human and a necessary part of discipleship. Even Jesus chose just twelve disciples to receive much of his teaching, and only three close friends to come into his most sacred experiences of transfiguration on the mountaintop and agony in the garden. He left crowds that were pursuing him, and went off by himself to pray. In other words, he shut down the laptop, turned off the phone, and did what he knew he had to do to fulfill his calling. Even when people wanted it otherwise. When I let God’s view of me be my measuring stick, I am not bound by the feelings of guilt and shame and fear that tag along if I disappoint a person who is holding up to me their own, different, measuring stick. In that sense, I need to know that God is pleased with me. When my focus is on Him, I can let my worries about what others might think go.
But sometimes I find myself obsessively trying to figure out if I could have or should have done something differently. Most often that second-guessing comes from unthinkingly assuming that if I’ve disappointed another person, I’ve disappointed God. It sounds ridiculous even to write that. But some part of my heart has grown up believing that if someone is disappointed with me, I must have done something wrong. And if I’ve done something wrong, then obviously God must also be disappointed with me.
I too easily assume that God being pleased with me equates to my getting everything “right” (according to a set of vague rules that live in my head and seem to change depending on what another person wants from me). Perhaps what I need to know is exactly the opposite: that I am still safely held and accepted and loved even when I don’t get everything “right,” or when, despite careful thought and prayer and counsel from others, I don’t even know what’s “right” in a complex situation.
I’ve always assumed it was a good thing to want to please God. Slowly I’ve come to see that there’s a healthy desire to please God, and an unhealthy, obsessive distortion of that desire.
The distorted desire is more than a desire to please God; it’s an obsessive attempt to figure out what he wants in a particular situation so I can be assured of his pleasure and acceptance. It is knuckles clenched around the steering wheel, trying to control every detail of the situation and putting my trust not in his love but in my ability to get things right. It misses the adventure of freely giving my whole self—my limited, broken, beautiful self—to God and seeing where we end up together.
The healthy desire, on the other hand, flows from love. It is open-handed and open-hearted, freeing me to listen and follow, to do my best and leave the outcome to God. It is adventurous, trusting and full of hope—a response to the One who calls:
“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (SS 2:10)
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)