The Next Faithful Step
“When are they going to find out?”
Scott Cormode, Fuller Theological Seminary
Fear is a theological problem—and that fear often prevents us from learning because it makes us reluctant to admit our weaknesses. Let me illustrate what I mean. I was really nervous during my first year of graduate school. Although I was really proud of the fact that I got accepted at an Ivy League university, I kept wondering when they were going to find out that they had made a mistake. I was sure that I wasn’t good enough. And you what, I wasn’t good enough. None of us were. None of us could claim to have an Ivy League education going into the program. The school’s reputation was built on how they molded the students they got and not on their ability to locate can’t-miss students who did not need to be educated in the first place. But all through my first year at Yale, I kept wondering, “When are they going to find out?” I was sure they were going to discover that I did not belong and that they were going to kick me out. So what did I do? I tried to hide my weaknesses. I spoke boldly, even when I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I pretended I knew what people meant when they referenced ideas I’d never heard before. And, worst of all, I resented it when someone told me I was wrong. I was scared and I tried to cover it up by hiding from my weaknesses. The logic I employed was something like, “If I admit I am wrong, I will lose credibility. And if I lose credibility, they will make me leave. So I can’t let anyone know when I am wrong.” This experience became a paradigm for me because it is such a common temptation. My wife and I use they phrase, “when are they going to find out,” as a short-hand for this anxiety about being in over your head. But how is that a theological problem?
My fear had a theological cause and produced a spiritual effect. I believed I was at Yale because God had called me, just as you probably believe that God called you to your present place of ministry. Yet when I encountered difficulty, I asked myself, “What if God called me to the wrong place?” My worry that I did not belong at Yale was tantamount to saying, “I’m not really sure that God called me to this place” or believing that, perhaps, God was mistaken in calling me there. Naming that theological fear can be quite freeing. I have a long litany of moments where God showed that God will be faithful to me. So it becomes embarrassingly absurd for me to ask at this point whether or not God can be trusted. That means that every time that I feel the when-will-they-find-out fear welling up in me, I remind myself that I am in the place where God has called me. And, since I am in that place, it really does not matter whether or not I look bad by admitting I am wrong. God invited me to this place and a little embarrassment is not going to change that. So I might as well pursue this vocation with all the vigor it deserves.
If the theological cause of my fear is that perhaps God put me in the wrong place, then the spiritual effect is no less insidious. I want so much for God to like me that I often try to do things for God rather than to allow God to do them through me. The implication of that logic, of course, is that if I admit my weakness perhaps God will find out about it and stop liking me—or perhaps the people to whom I am called will find out that I am not perfect and they will stop liking me. I put it that way because the absurdity of the argument is obvious. God knows my weaknesses for more intimately than I ever will—and loves me despite those failings. And pretending to be perfect in front of the people to whom I am called is just another way of casting myself as God, who alone is perfect. Either way, I have a huge investment in maintaining a fiction—a fiction that no else believes anyway.
There are, thus, two fears at the heart of our unwillingness to admit our weaknesses. We fear that God has not really called us. And we fear that we will lose the love of God and the respect of other people if we let anyone see our failings.