The Gospel for the Overachiever

Monday, May 20, 2019
A woman looking stressed at her computer

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an overachiever.

It was in Ms. Metzger’s 3rd grade class, the year we were relegated to the portables out behind the school. We had been studying early settlers, and the craft to accompany our learning was a small square of cross-stitch on plastic canvas. We had two design choices, a heart or a star. I approached Ms. Metzger with confidence to inform her that I wasn’t going to make a heart or a star, I was going to make a duck in the rain with an umbrella. She asked me if I had cross stitched before. No, I answered, but I get the gist of it, and I have seen my grandmother do it.

Ms. Metzger was doubtful. She told me that my vision was likely too difficult, and that while she wouldn’t forbid it, she would strongly suggest that I stick to a heart or a star. Of course, I didn’t take her suggestion.
If anything, her doubt that I could complete my intricate vision was all the more motivation to do so. I worked on that duck for days. Carefully making stitches and then taking them out and making them again, figuring it out as I went. I obsessed, I brought my project to the dinner table, I stitched into the night with my blunt needle under my bedspread. But I completed it. To my memory it actually looked pretty duck-with-an-umbrella-in-the-rain like and I got my usual A+ on the assignment.

Eventually we all come to the end of ourselves.

I have always been the type to jump into things with both feet and excel at them. In fact, if I don’t expect to excel at something, I am unlikely to attempt it. I am a doer; I get things done and score bonus points where I can. When I became a Christian, I didn’t cease to be an overachiever, I didn’t give up my striving and learn to rest in God, I just turned my striving towards more pious looking activities.

Right now, I am in a slower season, a season of receiving more than I can give. I am not excelling at much. For reasons having to do with health and family, I don’t have the seemingly endless capacity I once did. I am just trying to get through each day in one piece. At times I feel useless because I don’t have a to-do list full of scratched-off tasks at the end of the day. As a result, I struggle to know my worth. Can you relate?

Eventually, we all get slowed down by something; sickness, burnout, mental illness, aging, family. Perhaps times like this are an opportunity for you and I to find our worth in Christ alone. To lay down our striving and rest in the God who calls us His own. To discover our worth and value in the God who made us, and not the things we accomplish.

The gospel for the overachiever.

This season is forcing me to admit that I have never been at ease with myself when I am standing still.

I must be moving, creating, producing in order to like the person in the mirror. But maybe by admitting this, I can begin to accept God’s acceptance of me. The fact that being forced to slow down could cause an identity crisis would suggest that I was actually in desperate need of an identity crisis.

 I need to know who I am as a child of God, after all my strengths and abilities, productivity and functionality is stripped away.

If our worth were really based on what we can achieve, our ministry goals, our family contributions, our creative achievements, and we found ourselves in a season where our productivity and functioning are challenged, then we would be in big trouble. It starts to feel like the bottom is falling out. But if our worth has never rested in who we are and in what we do, but in who He is and what He has done for us, then this season is one of falling into the arms of grace. This season of under performing becomes precious and vital for the overachiever to understand who we are.

The good news was never that we could earn God’s love. If someone could successfully spend their whole life striving to do more, to be more, kicking ass and taking names, then the gospel, that God has another way, would scarcely be good news. But to those of us who are weary from the striving, who have tested that way of trying to earn our worth and have fallen short, the gospel, that God has redeemed the human experience, that he reigns, that he alone defines us, is very very good news.

We are human beings, not human doings. 

I would never intentionally hold someone else to my own perfectionist ideal. To create and achieve and give beyond their God given capacity in their current moment. I would never tell someone who is struggling that they are worth less because they are accomplishing less.

But, real talk? I tell myself this everyday. And isn’t that pride? That I think for some reason I must excel more than others, achieve better? In my striving as an overachiever, I become the pharisee, trying to be good enough, and do well enough, to not need Jesus, to not need God’s grace. I end up with an internal landscape that says grace might be good enough for you, but I am going to do it on my own, thank you very much. And although I don’t mean to, I put myself above all others who must rely on the grace of God.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with doing. There is certainly nothing wrong with doing lots for the Kingdom of God. But when that doing becomes core to my identity, I’ve created a golden calf out of my strengths and abilities. God knows how many hours we have in our day. He knows our frailty. And while He does ask us to give selflessly of ourselves, He never calls us to give until we crumble or burnout. He doesn’t call us to give anything He hasn’t already given us.

There is hope for the overachiever.

Friend, with the heavy heart and exhausted arms from carrying a world full of expectations. With the perfectionist tendencies that drive you to a feeling of anguished unworthiness. You who wear busyness as a shield. We are torn from the same cloth.

But God invites us to come to him naked and with empty hands, to step into the sacredness of our being. The answer to my emptiness and yours is not more gold stars next to our names, but the faithful surrender of our ambitions, our striving for perfection, our fear of not being enough. Let us stop working for God’s love and just accept that it is.

For those of us who have spent our whole lives running desperately from one task to another and are now running out of breath, the gift of God is that we have to eventually come to the end of ourselves and finally become ready for the good news. The gospel, that God’s way is not our way.

Being an overachiever is how I control the world around me. It has been, from childhood, how I earned praise and accolades from teachers and parents. Achieving has been how I avoid criticism that might buckle me at the knees. It is how I make sure that things are done according to my timeline and my vision. Overachieving sometimes looks like productivity and discipline, but really, for me, and perhaps for you, it is fear and selfishness. This is a tough truth.

In my weakness, in my season of rest, I come face to face with the God who accepts me as I am and in Him, in His strength and His timing, all good work is achieved. To Him be the glory.

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