I'm sure the warning signs were there. But I was moving at such a fast pace, I missed them all until the day I woke up totally burned out, with no idea how I got there. Difficult questions ran through my head: Was this what life was supposed to look like? How had things gone so awry? It wasn't exactly a midlife crisis, but something was terribly wrong.
My life wasn't that different from a million other women. College, marriage, a child, a career. Somewhere along the way, though, I started feeling as though I were living someone else's life.
I needed time to think—to tally what I knew for sure, what I needed to hang onto, and needed to discard. As I sorted things out, I realized there were truths about living an abundant life I'd totally misunderstood. Here is what I learned:
You Have to Run Your Own Race
Our culture constantly evaluates whether we're "successful" by measuring everything from our bank account to our IQ to how many miles we can run without full cardiac arrest. The benchmark isn't how well we do, but how well we do compared to everyone else.
So whenever I used to read Hebrews 12:1, "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us," I'd picture myself running alongside my sisters in Christ, constantly trying to gauge how I was doing. Was I spiritual enough? Was my home sufficiently organized? How did my appearance stack up? I especially worried about how I was doing as a mom and wife. I wanted to know if I was "holding my own."
One day I had to drop off something at the home of a woman I didn't know. While chatting, she showed me around her house. She'd covered her children's beds with quilts she'd made from scraps of their old clothes, filled with embroidered squares that depicted events in each child's life. Her refrigerator displayed a star-filled chart that indicated how many Bible verses her kids had memorized. In the backyard, each child had his own vegetable garden.
I felt like throwing up.
When I got back in my car, I started to cry. God, this race business is a drag. If this is what it takes to be a good mom, I concede defeat. I can't measure up! I hope you have a Plan B!
The next morning, I revisited Hebrews 12:1, and the Holy Spirit illuminated something I'd been missing: We're to run the race marked out for us.
It was as though a 500-pound weight fell off my shoulders. I didn't have to measure up to other moms. I didn't have to take on an assignment someone else thought I should—especially when it didn't fit my skills and talents.
Years ago I was asked to help plan a women's conference. Because I had a job in the business world, they assigned me the task of managing the event's budget. I'm sure the conference planners thought the match was brilliant. But I was miserable. It wasn't that I didn't know how to do the assigned tasks—paying bills and producing voluminous reports of mind-numbing information. The problem was the assignment didn't use my strengths or involve anything I loved to do. I'm a people person. My heart soars when I can lead, inspire, teach, and influence others. My assignment was painful because I wasn't running my race.
Of course, life always includes a certain number of things we don't enjoy (in my case, God didn't give me the "loves housecleaning" gene!). But if we're running our race most of the time, we'll feel a level of satisfaction and purpose that makes the hard parts easier to bear.
You Can't Do It All
I'd rather eat chalk than admit I can't do something. It isn't because I'm brimming with self-confidence. It's our culture. Everywhere we turn we're told there are no limits to what we can do.
The truth is, we can't do it all.
My girlfriend Beth figured this out before I did. She loves kids. When Mr. Right never came along, she decided to become a single mom and eventually adopted four kids.
"I had this grandiose idea of how I was going to parent," Beth says. "With my first child, Robby, I held onto my lofty goals. When Preston came along, I thought, Uh, oh. Let's rethink this. By the time Kent joined the family, I was making changes on the fly. I'm still adjusting."
Beth says she's abandoned any hope her house will look "picked up" for more than 10 minutes. She no longer folds underwear—if it makes it into the correct drawer, she's happy. And instead of hauling a laundry basket from room to room, she's placed a basket in each child's room for them to transport. Every little bit helps.
Acknowledging our limitations means letting go of an unrealistic ideal, setting boundaries, saying "no" more often, and prioritizing what's left.
In Luke 10:41, Martha—upset about too much to do—asked Jesus to instruct her sister, Mary, to help with food preparation. Jesus replies, "Martha you are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary and Mary has chosen the better thing" (CEV)—time with him.
God doesn't expect us to do it all. Only a few things are necessary. Do you know your few things? Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses, your spiritual gifts, your natural talents and skills. What makes your heart dance? What do you do that other people repeatedly affirm in you? How would your spouse or best friend describe the way God "wired" you?
You Can't Make Life Behave
I used to think I'd be happy if I could get my weight down to a certain magic number. Or if my husband could get promoted so we could afford a bigger house. I defined happiness as manipulating circumstances into perfect alignment, then yelling, "Okay, nobody move!" Then we would live happily every after in a freeze-framed perfect world.
Seven years ago, I found out I couldn't make life behave. Within a few months' time, several unexpected events threatened to unglue me. My husband—the love of my life—decided he didn't want to be married anymore. I had to undergo several surgeries due to a rash of serious health problems. I was self-employed, and two of my major clients unexpectedly cancelled their contracts, leaving me in financial jeopardy. Every area of my life was falling apart.
That's when I found control doesn't deliver what it promises. Disappointment and exhaustion were the only fruits of micromanaging my world. Disappointment—because control couldn't restore what had been lost, insulate me from heartache, or guarantee my safety and security. Exhaustion—because I learned it's tough doing God's job when I'm not God!
Although I was stripped of everything I leaned on for security and success—relationships, health, financial stability—God taught me I still had him, and I could be secure in that.
Let's face it—safety, stability, and peace of mind don't come from trying to control life's unpredictable circumstances. They come from being anchored to Someone who doesn't change. As Scripture tells us, "I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6) and "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).
Security comes from putting ourselves into the hands of the One who really knows how to be in charge. God says, "Give control a rest. Your life is safer in my hands than anywhere else."
These three lessons aren't the only ones I've learned. But putting them into practice has altered how I live. I've accepted my pear-shaped body (and the futility of finding a suit where the skirt and jacket both fit). I serve in two ministries at my church that are a good match to my gifts, and often say "no" to other opportunities. I block out chunks of time for solitude. These changes—which take constant vigilance to maintain—have increased my peace and contentment significantly.
Of course, the most important lesson I've learned is that God loves me—really loves me. He doesn't love me because he's forced to; he chooses to love me. I matter more to him than anything else in all creation. It was as if he's saying to me, When you made a commitment to me, I made a commitment to you, and I love the chance to prove it.
Second Corinthians 4:7-9 explains what that relationship is supposed to look like. "We are like clay jars in which the treasure is stored. The real power comes from God and not from us. We often suffer. But we are never crushed. God is with us" (CEV).
It's that knowledge of God's great love that gives me the confidence I need to make tough choices. And it's freed me from worry about whether I measure up to anyone else's standards—except his.
Verla Wallace is an author, speaker, and spiritual life coach. You may contact her through her blog, Pilgrim on the Loose, at www.pilgrimontheloose.com, or at email@example.com.
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