Remember that first-day-on-the-job feeling?
If you are anything like me, you are convinced that sometime during that first week it will be obvious how little you know, that your manager will call you into the office to say that you just don’t measure up and it’s not going to work out. That even if you make it past that first week, your coworkers will surely see that you just can’t keep up with them.
Maybe, like me, you still have moments of feeling of inadequate after being successful on the job for years – even when your “brain” knows that you are perfectly capable.
Did you know that feelings of inadequacy are so common that they have a name? Impostor Syndrome. Yes, apparently, even the most capable of people feel like frauds, and decades of research have been dedicated to helping people, and women in particular, overcome these irrational feelings of inadequacy.
The current research is all about how to own your accomplishments and recognize your personal skills – very good advice for people who have worked hard and honed a skill and forged a career path. It’s valuable to take a step back, look at yourself objectively, and say “hey, these are my strengths, I can DO this.”
Even as servants within the church it can be valuable to recognize where one’s talents are.
Remember where we got that word? “Talents?”
The Bible! You probably remember the story (Matthew 25:14-30):
Once there was a wealthy merchant with three servants. He had to go on a trip, so he gave some money to his servants to manage while he was away. He gave the first servant 5 coins (talents), the second servant 2 coins, and the third servant 1 coin. He expected them to give him the money and any earnings when he returned.
The first two servants invested and doubled their money. The third servant buried his money underground and returned it. The Master was thrilled with the work the first two did, but he took the coin from the third and gave it to the one that already had 10.
Church tradition has always understood this parable to be about how we should use the abilities we have been given in service to God – and that is why we now associate the word “talent” with natural abilities.
But didn’t you ever wonder… why didn’t that third servant put the coin in the bank? Was it really that big a deal? The answer he gives is rather odd:
“Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” (ESV).
Clearly he was AFRAID. But afraid of what?
Of failing! He was suffering from inadequacy. In his mind, nothing he could do would ever be as good as what these other “sowers” had done… he was sure to fall short. And it’s true that he wasn’t “as good” as the other two servants – they had more talents to begin with. So rather than fall short or demonstrate his existing inadequacy, he didn’t even try.
He had “impostor syndrome” – and he let it win.
And the master wasn’t just disappointed. He didn’t look at the servant with sad, gentle eyes and say “I so wish you would have tried.” He was angry! He scolded him for his laziness and then took away what he had given him.
You know who else let his impostor syndrome win?
Moses. Remember the burning bush story and how God told Moses to go confront the Pharaoh? Remember that Moses argued with God about his inadequacy? Moses “won” that argument… and lost. Even after God reassured Moses that He would be with him, Moses told God he just couldn’t do the public speaking. And guess what… God was ANGRY with him. And He took the job away and gave it to Aaron (Exodus 4: 13-16)
A little known man named Barak also let it stand in the way. God told him to fight the enemy, but he refused unless the judge Deborah accompanied him to battle. And Deborah told him that because he failed to take the lead, he wouldn’t get to kill the bad guy – a woman would. (ouch!) (Judges 4:8-9)
The psychologists can give it a name and make it sound socially acceptable, but in the end, it is simply pride – a fear of failing in front of other people, a need to look good and accomplished, and a failure to trust that God really will help us do what He tells us to do.
You see, God has already shown that He will help us deal with our inadequacy.
God didn’t get upset with Moses for having doubts. He wasn’t upset when David sang that he felt like God had abandoned Him. He listened patiently while Elijah complained about feeling alone. God understands our need to talk to Him about our deep-seated emotions and fears, and He listens while we do that.
God addresses our fears.
Every time David approached God with his fears, by the end of the Psalm he was praising God for His power, might, and faithfulness. When Elijah was fearful God assured him he wasn’t alone (I Kings 19:9-18). When Gideon was afraid and asked for a sign, God granted two signs (Judges 6). When Cain feared for his life, God granted him protection (Genesis 4:13-16).
God is not some impatient dictator commanding us to go no matter what we feel – He hears our fears and then gives us a reason not to be afraid.
God’s solution to fear is always Himself
David always realigned His emotions by turning His eyes to the Lord. God addressed Elijah’s feelings of inadequacy by having him listen for God’s voice after a storm (I Kings 19:9-18). Paul told Timothy that our spirit of confidence comes from the Holy Spirit (II Timothy 1:7). Paul also said that where he was weak, God’s strength was all the more obvious (II Corinthians 12:9).
So if our eyes are on who God is, we can relax in His strength and stop panicking about where we might fail.
Because God doesn’t need our skills or abilities.
When God decides something needs to happen, it will happen, whether the person he works through has the ability or not. Consider Saul, before he was a king. He had nothing in his favor besides a tall stature and a pretty face. But God used him to win major battles against the enemies in the land, battles that He wanted won (I Samuel 11).
Or consider my prior examples: God was going to have someone speak to Pharaoh – if not Moses, then Aaron. In the parable of the talents the master didn’t give up on the talent that had been buried. He just gave it to someone who had already shown himself to be a willing servant.
If we really believe God is all-powerful, we certainly must believe that He doesn’t NEED any of us.
But He wants us.
He chooses to work through people, and He asks us to be His servants (not coworkers! servants. People whose very lives belong to Him.). He calls to us like he did to Peter and John (Luke 5:1-11), saying He wants our lives – and He has a plan for what we will get to do next.
And we can be assured that He will use us in the way that brings us joy, which means it will naturally fit our skills and abilities, even if those skills are limited or weak.
Consider Paul, who looked back on his life with joy (Philippians) God could have used Paul as a deacon, like Stephen. He could have used him as a preacher in one church, like Timothy. But instead, God stretched Paul’s talents to the utmost, using his brilliant mind first to persuade nonJewish people to pray to a Jewish carpenter and then to build the vast majority of the theology of Christianity.
So when we don’t step forward, we cheat ourselves of extraordinary joy – and we are daring to face His anger. But certainly His plan will still happen regardless.
And we don’t get to “pick and choose” our talents.
The master distributed the talents – both which ones and how many. We are born with some abilities, our childhood experiences teach us skills and lead us to other interests, and our education, work, and adult lives provide us with more abilities. Sometimes they are limited. Our personal skills may not match up to another person’s. But those skills are still God’s, and we need to use them.
Most of my life, if someone were to ask me what my talents were I would have said something like “I sing a bit, and I can teach a class on occasion. I can play piano, but only if you don’t have someone better.” I never considered my writing or knowledge of Scripture to be talents.
It’s just that, frankly, there are SO MANY more qualified people. Where I am a good writer, others have been writing daily for decades. Where I am experienced leading a small ministry team, others are pastors. Where I have a decent knowledge of Scripture, I’m not trained like our pastors and missionaries are.
See how easy it is to just dismiss a skill? Imposter Syndrome raises its head among Christians on a daily basis and we decide to let someone “more qualified” take the lead while we live our quiet little lives.
But that is disobedience – and it robs us of our joy.
I made some decisions this year that were scary – like volunteering to lead a music team at church when I haven’t done something like that in over 10 years, my piano is only passable, and leadership is scary.
Or like deciding to write this blog and be open with the world and try to offer some insight even though the Christian writing world is saturated with contributions from highly skilled and educated writers – and even though James tells us that being a teacher is a HUGE responsibility. (Note that our talents have wide-use. Do not think only of the local church.)
I don’t know why I should do these things when there are others who are more qualified (have 5 talents instead of 1), but that’s not the point, is it? What matters is that I must put every talent to use to serve God, and He showed me this, and so I must do it. I may be inadequate, but obeying God has NEVER been about our own adequacy. It has always been about His strength.
Because the Biblical answer to impostor syndrome is to accept that we are all impostors. (I Timothy 1:15-16)
We are impostors… but we have been invited to join Him, to be adopted so that we will be impostors no longer (Matthew 22:1-14). And since He is the Master, and we are the servants, whatever talents He gives us to invest, we invest, no matter how poorly we think we are doing, and we will let him be the strong one (Philippians 4:13).
So the only real value that exists in looking at our own abilities is to identify where we might have some small skill we aren’t yet putting to use for God.
Because in the end, He will work His intention in the world, He will change lives, He will be glorified – and it’s up to us whether we get to be part of the adventure or not.
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