Despite growing up in another country, I am fairly certain that I grew up as a standard “generation me.” I don’t necessarily like generational stereotypes, mainly because the negatives are true of humans, not particular generations. However, our generation did grow up with lots of opportunities to make much of ourselves.
At the Center of it All
I was an athlete and a musician. I played any sport that I could, until I settled on playing soccer throughout my high school career and into college. I was the captain of the soccer team my junior and senior years. I was in every choir that I possibly could be in, including the show choir, which had a Glee-esque flair to it. I lead worship in our youth group and I sang solos in church. On top of it all, I was the pastor’s kid. People would tell me about all my potential and about how great it must be to be the pastor’s son.
Being the pastor’s kid also came with another kind of pressure. I had to constantly behave. People knew that I represented the entire Burkholder family with my actions. Or at least that’s what I thought. If I misbehaved, it could prove costly to my father’s career or our family’s reputation. These weren’t things that were explicitly communicated to me, but they were things that anybody with half of a brain could pick up on.
Throughout all of this, a deceitful and subtle pattern of thought took root in my heart. I began to assume that everywhere that I went and everything that I did, people were watching me. The world sat in silence to see what I would accomplish, what song would I sing next, would I score a goal, would I ruin my testimony and the Burkholder reputation. My value and worth to other people would be determined based upon what I did.
This pattern of thought formed a crippling fear in me of what people thought. If I failed, I assumed everyone would be disappointed. I had to succeed. I had to continue to succeed. I had to live up to what people thought, what people expected. I began to live for the praise of man, because the praise of man meant that I was succeeding.
The Danger of Public Ministry
I have loved the public nature of ministry for all the wrong reasons. Every time that I did something well, people congratulated me. Every time that I was criticized it was a dagger to my ego. I would spend days mulling over the criticism in my head, considering it from all angles, looking for a way to justify my behavior and prove my critic wrong.
Even as I write this, I consider “people love vulnerability and I’m good at being honest.” But then a second thought comes through “what if I’m being too vulnerable? What if people don’t like what they see?” People like me are sometimes called people-pleasers. I don’t know that it accurately represents the issue. I don’t feel the need to always say “yes” to people. I don’t constantly want to do what people want, but I want them to be pleased with me. I do everything that I can to protect a certain image of myself. The moment that image is potentially marred, I must defend myself and prove to people that I am not what they thought I was.
And the really scary thing for those of us who struggle with this is that we are fairly certain that we never measure up. We never measure up because there is always one more person to get to like us; there is always one more criticism to work through. The opportunities to feel the ecstasy of someone’s praise are endless, just as endless as the opportunities to fall into the depths of self-examination at someone’s criticism.
The Emptiness of Man’s Praise
That’s why the line above from “Be Thou My Vision…” is such an important reminder. Man’s praise is empty. I’ve never wrestled with wanting riches. Nevertheless, I have spent much of my life heeding man’s empty praise. I have spent too much of my life on this endless treadmill. It never stops. You always meet someone new; always have another first impression. You always have a conversation where someone says something that sounds like disapproval. You will always desperately long to know what people think about you, and are constantly terrified that they won’t like you. Because, them not liking you or respecting you or accepting you is the most crushing burden you could ever experience.
This year, living in another country, working in a Guatemalan organization, meeting hundreds of new people, has been the year that I have come face to face with this insidious condition that is rotting my soul. And this is the year that I am slowly stepping off the treadmill. It’s not that I have decided to step off of the treadmill, but I have been captivated by another invitation.
You see, there is a love and acceptance that is greater than anything that my heart could ever hope for. Man’s empty praise is a cheap knock-off of this love. My heart was designed to find all of its love, fulfillment, and acceptance in my Father, God. In the midst of the tumultuous hurricane of new conversations, new contacts, and hundreds of people who may or may not like me, I have reached rock bottom.
According to Henri Noewen, the invitation that every believer has received is the invitation to come “home.” Home is the place where everything that we were designed to experience actually exists. Home is the place where all of our longings are actually met, all of our desires are actually fulfilled. Home is intimacy with our loving Father. Home is the Garden of Eden, before the fall. That is what God seeks to restore. That is what, in Christ, we have – perfect intimacy with God, where every need is met and every desire fulfilled in Him.
Man may not always like me. God loves me. Yes, I know all of the theological categories. I know that God hates my sin. I know that my sin is repulsive in His eyes. I know that I deserve destruction and merit eternal damnation.
In the midst of all of that…God loves me. He loves ME! God loves me despite that I have nothing to offer to Him. He loves me in my nothingness. Where man’s praise is empty, God’s love fills. If you are anything like me, you should know that God is offering you the same invitation:
In Christ, you and I are offered everything that man’s praise can never give us. We are offered the love, acceptance, and intimacy that every heart longs for. Coming home is the best decision you will ever make. Because, just like the prodigal, when you come home, you will be met by the loving embrace of your Father.