Illustration by Barbara Jenjaroentham (@barbsiegraphy)
Written by Karen Kwek, Singapore
A lifelong scribbler, Karen enjoys the company of friends, a great cup of tea and seeing the gospel transform hearts and lives. She worked as a book editor until she and her husband traded peace and quiet for parenthood. It seemed a good idea at the time.
“I’m really stressed,” my friend Anna* sighed, slumping into her seat opposite me at the café. “I need to do well during this probation period, but at the rate my department head keeps criticizing me, I don’t think I’m gonna make the cut.”
Anna, in her twenties, started work in the education sector last year. She’s good at what she does and really helps her students, so I was a little surprised that things were not going smoothly. “Is it personal?” I asked. “Is he just out to get you?”
Anna shook her head. “No, he’s just as strict with the other new staff. And he has a point—we can’t afford to make mistakes. But it feels like I’m being judged all the time. Like I need to prove myself. I’ll be really upset if I’m not confirmed!”
I could relate to Anna. When faced with challenging circumstances, I tend to fret that I might mess up. If I take up the challenge, I pray and do my best, but I still feel a degree of anxiety. And I’d be thrilled if someone who could do the job better would put me out of my misery. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy self-doubt, is there? Isn’t it only natural?
Re-thinking “good enough”
It’s easy to see why Anna felt inadequate; the external pressures of her job and her boss’s demands were real. In our student or working lives, we are usually assessed according to certain criteria and standards. Doing our jobs well means having a certain amount of knowledge and competence, whatever our field. In my country (Singapore), the competitive education system attunes students to this kind of rigorous assessment from an early age, handing out grades that seem either to open the door to further opportunities or to put up barriers, saying to a child, “You’re good enough” or “You’re not”. We become alert to the perceived cost of failure, and hence self-doubt, at an early age.
Secondly, our culture is two-faced about achievement. On the one hand, we prize success. On the other, we are suspicious about self-promotion and have been warned not to let success go to our heads, so we learn to be self-effacing. “I’m not good enough”, even when records seem to show otherwise, can become our knee-jerk reaction to praise or recognition. We want to believe it’s the healthy antidote to pride or boasting. But is it?
We may have grown up with certain assumptions and cultural biases, but God challenges Christians to look at the world through new lenses because we now belong to Christ (Romans 12:2). Here are a few reasons why self-doubt, or a fear of inadequacy, may not be a valid way for Christians to respond to difficulties or a competitive environment:
1. “Good enough” is arbitrary
The world we live in often assigns a ranking or hierarchical value to objectively neutral human characteristics. In God’s perspective, these spectrums of difference are real but equal. For instance, rich and poor, tall and short, beautiful and plain, young and old—such characteristics are points of difference on a morally equal, horizontal scale. Being tall, rich, young and/or beautiful does not make anyone better than someone else who is short, poor, old and/or plain. Yet our world persists in making those distinctions, rewarding some traits over others. Such a warped value system gives rise to racism, sexism and other kinds of prejudice against those who are merely different from, not inferior to, us.
In his letter, the apostle James reminds believers that God has a different standard and expects us to love all people equally (James 2:1-8) because all of us are sinners alike, who have received grace, before God. His standard is therefore the only one that matters, and He has judged us “good enough”, because Jesus died to save us.
2. “Good enough” is fleeting
The second problem with basing our idea of “good enough” on human achievement and approval is that “good enough” lasts only as long as the next hurdle.
A few weeks after my conversation with Anna, she told me that she had not been among the five employees offered a contract at her workplace. She was hurt and disappointed. She felt like she hadn’t measured up, hadn’t been “good enough” for that institution. “If you’d been confirmed and given a contract, would you have been satisfied?” I asked her. “Of course,” she enthused, before adding, “At least…until the next round of appraisals…”
The world’s favour is fickle indeed. If we put our hopes in being “good enough” for the world, our security will always be threatened by someone “better”, or become subject to the world’s changing standards and trends.
3. “Not good enough” is not truly humble
It may seem humble for me to refuse a challenge or decline taking on something that I have been asked to do because I don’t think I can do it well. Sure, real limitations exist, and there are times when saying no is not about being humble but merely wise about those limitations, such as when I choose not to join the next record-chasing Mount Everest team, or when I decide against driving because I’ve had a few glasses of wine.
But much more often, when I worry about not being good enough to serve God in some way that is needed, I’m not really being humble but the opposite: it’s still all about me relying on my own effort rather than depending on God and what He can do through and despite me. It is me looking not at God but at myself through the world’s judging eyes and being afraid that the world will expect “more”.
At times like this, I think of Moses in Exodus 3-4, of how his self-consciousness about his “[slowness] of speech and tongue” made him beg God to “send someone else”. God’s anger burned against Moses then, because his “not good enough” stemmed from a fear of human judgement and an inability to trust God with his weaknesses. This kind of “not good enough” is false humility, a form of pride.
Is there a better way?
1. Recognize that we are worth much more to God than any grade or verdict assigned by the world
When we’re tempted to think we’re not good enough, it’s worth asking whose standards we aspire to. Romans 5:6-8 reminds us that we truly aren’t good enough—we are sinners who fall short of God’s standards, and yet “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
If in Christ God has approved of us, then we should ask, in any situation, whether we are being assessed for the qualities God cares about. This is usually not the case in our schools and jobs, so it means that while we still have to negotiate the hurdles of exams and appraisals, we can see them for what they are: a gauge of our level of knowledge or practical skills at a certain point in time, rather than tests that determine our eternal worth or significance.
2. Not “how well” but “how loving”
If we find ourselves overwhelmed by the pressure to “do well”, maybe pursuing something (a desired grade, job, lifestyle or image) has become more important to us than trusting God to place us where we can serve Him. Anna realized this when she started looking for her second (and current) teaching job. “I was devastated about being let go, until I realized that my obsession with keeping the job had been blinding me to the busy, stressed-out, competitive person I was becoming.”
Perhaps we should be less concerned about “passing” or “failing” than about depending on God’s help, in our circumstances, to be a loving neighbor to others. In other words, who I am as a believer—loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, self-controlled – matters more to God than whether I am in one school or another, one profession or another.
True humility also teaches us that we won’t always succeed in the world’s eyes or get what we want. And that is fine. If God wants something else for us, are we humble enough to accept that He knows best?
3. Not about us
Ultimately, Christ came to set us free from the tyranny of our selves. Constantly thinking “I’m not good enough”, or even always wondering whether we are, takes our focus away from the power and purposes of God. Anna confessed that after she realized that she had not trusted God enough, she then felt guilty for “disappointing God”. This is yet another form of not feeling good enough! It’s important to know that we have full forgiveness in Christ when we confess our sins to God—He is big enough, and Christ’s work on the cross is sufficient; it’s not about us.
In his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, pastor and writer Timothy Keller observes that “the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. … True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”
And so, I am learning that our correct perspective is at the foot of the cross, gazing at our Savior. As the apostle Paul puts it,
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. (Romans 12:3-6a)
Rather than our achievements, abilities or the world’s approval, Paul says faith is the measure of how we should think of ourselves. This is hugely significant because faith is never about us; it is a gift of God, so that no one can boast. Paul goes on to say that in Christ we are all different because we are designed to serve one another. These verses are strikingly matter-of-fact. Paul’s saying: God made us and saved us, and we’re His now; there’s Kingdom work to be done, so let’s just get on with being what He made us, without comparing ourselves to others or trying to be what we’re not.
I find it so encouraging that the New Testament writers ultimately remember Moses not in terms of his weaknesses but as one “powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22) and “faithful in all God’s house” (Hebrews 3:2), because he faithfully did as God asked. What do we make of his transformation from timidity in Exodus 2–3? God was working powerfully in and through him, despite his fears! Always thinking I’m not good enough is a hard habit to break, but I pray for God’s truth – that it’s about Him, and He powerfully helps me love others—to move me out of self-regard to action.
Are you prone to feeling inadequate, too? Will you let God’s words comfort, encourage and inspire you?