When Peter Greer and I spoke recently [See my Interview with Peter Greer of Hope International] about his book The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good we touched on a topic that has come up a lot recently. I call it “Identity Withdrawal.”
Incredibly well-written, Peter’s book manages to find that special combination of being soul-searchingly simple yet disturbingly convicting. If you are a ministry leader or just think that you are involved in doing anything good, you should buy it now. I found his chapter “Who Am I When I’m Not Me?” to be a most uncomfortable one. And that’s a good thing.
Peter’s point is that often we get our identity, who we are, so wrapped up in what we do that when what we do goes away, we don’t really know who we are. Hence my moniker of Identity Withdrawal. The best way I can describe it is to say that it feels like a painful relationship ending. Like breaking up.
Breaking Up with Doing Good
When I shared this idea recently with a friend who serves in a well-known ministry here in Atlanta, I was surprised to hear he knew exactly what I was talking about. As the ministry has grown, he has been less involved in areas that he had been a big part of before. Even though he knows the change is a good thing – both for himself and the organization – it’s still so hard to say goodbye to cherished roles and responsibilities. And it’s humbling to see others getting it done without so much as a polite notification in his directions or even a byline of credit.
Last year when I stepped away from serving as a Christian school principal after a dozen years there, I confess I felt some of that same identity withdrawal. What do you mean you don’t need me? How could you possibly survive without me?
But here’s what makes it so crazy: I didn’t want to be there. I knew God was calling me to something different that would be a better fit for my strengths in His Kingdom. Yet it still bothered me that I had to let go of what had been mine for so long.
Maybe that was the problem. I thought of it as mine.
Why Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Now that I’ve had some time to get perspective on my own selfish thoughts, I can pinpoint a few reasons why we feel the way we do when breaking up with doing good. See if you can identify with any of these causes for identity withdrawal:
- Control. I want it. I want to approve every memo, authorize every new program, and give my consent to every activity. I confess that wanting control is a big issue with me. At the root of this desire is my own selfish thinking that I can run things better than God. Not the best place for a FaithWalker to be in. When our hands grip God’s work too tightly, He has no choice but to lovingly pry our fingers off His work. And even when we know it’s for our own good, it still hurts. [ See my post The Secret to Living by Faith. ]
- Responsibility. One of the worst feelings in the world surely must be the sinking feeling I get when I open my Gmail app on my iPhone and see: “You have no new mail. Have a nice day!” I want to scream, “How could I possibly have a nice day if no one needs me?!” (Leave a comment if you’ve felt this way so I know I’m not alone.) I want to feel wanted. I think we all do. It’s part of our divine DNA to be connected to others, to feel we have a responsibility to fulfill as part of a community. But responsibility, like any good things, can quickly become a tyrant who demands ever more service in exchange for the cheap thrill of a full in-box.
- Being picked. No one wants to be the last person picked or, worst of all, the person who doesn’t get picked at all. So I think we all enjoy letting people know that we did, in fact, get picked to be part of something good. Pay attention next time you introduce yourself or hear others introduce themselves, and you might see what I mean. But what would not being picked do to our identity? Would it shatter our world to learn tomorrow that we had been unpicked? In the words of Seth Godin, we should learn to pick ourselves. Better yet, pick ourselves in light of the reality that Christ has already picked us to be recipients of His grace – and nothing else matters.
- Pride. I like telling people how busy I am. I like seeing their eyes glaze over as they shake their heads and gasp, “How do you get it all done?” I used to like it more when I was younger and actually had the energy to stay up later and do more. It’s sickening, I know. But there are a lot of us ministry leaders who secretly enjoy being very busy doing good for others while our own relationships with God and with our families wither. In short, we fail to protect what empowers us.
- Insecurity. Often our busyness covers the reality that inside we’re all a bunch of scared little kids afraid of looking stupid. It’s not so much that we’re afraid of failing as we are terrified of the laughter that we’re so sure will follow. The truth, however, is perhaps even more painful for our pride. It’s far more likely no one will laugh at all because no one is even paying as much attention to us as we’d like to think. But that’s hardly helpful to our self-esteem now is it?
- My space. No, not the social site (if it’s even still around). But each of us longs to identify a piece of reality that we can call our own. Call it our “creation real estate,” if you will, or our place in the world for those who enjoy a good cliché. Like most desires, this one’s not all bad. God’s first instructions to us after Creation was to take possession of it on his behalf. But even that command can be corrupted by our selfish desires. As Tim Keller has put it:
Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry ~ Tim Keller
Go ahead. Let me know if I’m the only one who has ever struggled to break up with doing good. Leave a comment, maniacal laugh, or word of agreement with your story below.