Nothing Personal

Her eyes were on the prize and she wanted my help.

Tricia (not her real name) was 14 when she asked me to advise her on a special project. She wanted to work toward a national honor awarded by the U.S. Congress to young people who set and achieve challenging personal goals. Eagerly, I signed up.

As Tricia's advisor, I'd help her set and achieve goals in volunteer service, physical fitness, expedition/exploration, and personal development. The materials she gave me said committed advisors played an "important role in a young person's pursuit" of the award, and would "guide participants through the goal-setting process," "help them realize their potential," "encourage," and "stay in touch" with candidates as they worked along. According to the award's website, my guidance would "be remembered long after" Tricia met her goals and earned her medal.

Yeah, right.

Feeling Used

After our initial excited chat about how great and challenging and dynamic and interesting and encouraging and fulfilling the journey would be, I waited. Tricia called only when she needed my signature. She mailed me packets of forms with Post-Its pointing to the lines where I was supposed to sign. I signed and mailed the forms along, but I had almost no personal contact with Tricia. For six years.

Tricia is now entering her senior year of college and has nearly fulfilled the award's requirements. I received an email from her recently saying she was home on break and that she'd drop by with the final set of forms for me to sign.

When the doorbell rang, my husband announced, "It's Tricia!"

I was upstairs working, and by the time I shut down my computer and pushed back my chair, Tricia had vanished. With her car idling in the driveway, she'd shoved a large envelope into my husband's hand and dashed away. I didn't even get to say hello.

I opened the envelope. More forms, along with receipts and photographs proving Tricia had organized a camping expedition with her family. In the photos everyone was smiling. Not me. I felt used, insulted, foolish, hurt, and taken for granted. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. This wasn't what I'd signed up for.

I had not played an "important role" in Tricia's pursuit of this award. I hadn't guided her through the goal-setting process. I hadn't helped her realize her potential. I had not encouraged her, met with her, or stayed in touch as she worked along. Tricia would not remember my guidance long after she earned her medal. How could she? How could she possibly remember something I never gave her because she never asked for it?

My husband said not to take it so hard. "I'm sure it's nothing personal."

"Exactly," I said. "That's what bothers me. It was nothing personal!"

My six years as Tricia's advisor could have been so much more, so much better, so much richer—if there had been something personal.

With sickening clarity I realized I was getting a tiny taste of how Jesus must feel when I reduce him to a mere formality, a means to an end. When I ignore his personhood and neglect our relationship. When I relegate my "Wonderful Counselor" to the sidelines and don't seek his guidance. When I make him a passive observer of my best-laid plans and refuse to ask for his input. When I chase my own goals without asking what his goals are for me. When I use his name simply for show and expect his stamp of approval—his blessing—on a life of my own making. He has every right to feel insulted, foolish, taken for granted, used, hurt.

The Prize

Jesus warned that on Judgment Day, "Not everyone who calls out to me, 'Lord! Lord!' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven… . On Judgment Day, many will say to me, 'Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.' But I will reply, 'I never knew you'" (Matthew 7:21-23).

I never knew you. Chilling words I hope never to hear.

God forbid that I'd link my identity to Jesus, and then pursue a life of my own design, detached from and devoid of him. And God forgive me for the times I've kept him at a distance and missed out on what could have been so much more, so much better, so much richer.

On "that day"—and on this day—I don't want Jesus to define our relationship as "nothing personal." When I finally meet Jesus face-to-face, I hope to see recognition in his eyes. I hope to hear him say, "I know you! I know you because I guided you. I helped you. I encouraged you. You came to me, and I met with you. You stayed in touch with me as you worked along."

Like Tricia, my eyes are definitely on the prize. Not an award from the U.S. Congress, but "the crown of righteousness" promised to all who profess faith in Christ, and "which the Lord … will give me on the day of his return" (2 Timothy 4:8). But I admit there are times when I, like Tricia, crave the crown but not the counsel.

Asaph got it right. In Psalm 73:23-24 he wrote, "You hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, leading me to a glorious destiny." Notice the progression. Relationship comes first and forms the basis for God's guiding counsel. The prize—the "glory"—comes last. "Those who are far from you will perish," Asaph continued. "But as for me, it is good to be near God" (Psalm 73:27-28, NIV).

Me too. It's how it is supposed to be.

I signed Tricia's final set of forms. She fulfilled the requirements as far as I could tell. But before I sealed and mailed the envelope, I wrote a very difficult sentence in the Advisor's Comments section: "I had no contact or conversation with the candidate other than when she required my signature."

Sorry, Tricia.

I never knew you.

It was nothing personal.

Erin Bunting is a writer, actor, speaker, artist, and athlete. She holds degrees in journalism, theater arts, and English.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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