Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of the Imposter Syndrome

Have you heard of the “imposter syndrome”?  It is a term coined by psychologists in the late 1970s to describe high-achieving individuals who were marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.  It is really another chain of fear.  Let me describe how this fear manifests itself in our spiritual life.

Depending on the church you grew up in, your family of origin dynamic, or even your present day experience in a community of believers, we generally develop some standard in our lives that we feel we must live up to in order to be accepted by the community.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I like standards.  I like encouraging each other to pursue holiness.  There is nothing wrong with helping each other move forward into a maturing Christian life.

The subtle way this can go awry is when we rely on keeping the standard as the basis for our acceptance with God and our community.  We so often put the cart before the horse.  Even if we don’t say it out loud, our attitude is, “You keep the standard, you arrive at some level of righteous living, and we will accept you.”  But true spiritual community is just the other way around.

True Jesus-following community starts with, “I will shower you with love, acceptance, and forgiveness no matter where you are in your Christian walk.  And because I love you, I will invest my friendship with you in ways that help both of us move toward Christian maturity.”  The love and acceptance come first.

This kind of community frees us from the fear of the impostor syndrome.  When we rely on others’ opinions of us for our spiritual self-worth, we live in fear of “being discovered”.  We live in fear of those around us finding out we are not all we were cracked up to be.  We have flaws. We have besetting sins.  We have personality disorders.  We are not perfect.

But when your opinion about yourself comes from what God has already done for you through His grace, then this is what you learn.  You are deeply loved, completely forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted, and complete in Christ.  And the sheer beauty of grace is that we are not any of those things because we deserved it or earned it by our merit.  No, we are all of those things because God gave them to us.  Just receiving and not earning is such a freeing experience.

You are loved because God loves you.  You are forgiven because God forgave you.  You are pleasing to God because He made you righteous.  You are acceptable to God because He paid the price for your sins.  Nothing else is required to gain His acceptance.  Christ already paid the price.  And you are complete in Christ.

So dismantle the chain of the fear of being “found out”.  The more I discover about you and the more you discover about me will be the building blocks to a friendship that moves both of us forward into experiencing all that Christ promised in a life set free.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Fear

Another chain that shackles our living free experience is the chain of fear.  We live in an anxious age.  I honestly don’t know when in my lifetime I have felt such angst about every single topic that comes up in conversation or in the news.  Think about these issues; marriage, family life, health, immigration, the well-being of children, politics, clean water, violence, climate change … and we could go on and on.

We all have ideas of how to respond to these political and social issues and it discourages us when the answers we see in the world around us show not only a pervasive immorality, but an outright complete lack of common sense.  Instead of moral or even common sense solutions, we are bombarded by extreme positions, moral confusion, complete dysfunction, scarcity, and intimidation by those in power.  It stirs up fear.

Into this confusion and anxiety, Jesus says, “Do not fear, do not be anxious.”  And He gives us this promise, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).  The antidote to fear is the peace of Christ.  The answer to fear is courage; the courage to trust His constant presence and ultimate power to make things right.  The remedy for fear is our faith in the promises of God.

“And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  Christ’s promise and Christ’s presence drive out fear.  We sometimes struggle to experience that presence today because to be honest it is not always easy to sense the Holy Spirit inside.  It is a little bit of a mysterious connection.  It requires us to stretch our faith muscles and believe what we cannot see.  But in the world to come, when our present world has been overcome for good, we will see and grasp God’s presence in the most real way possible.

But until then, we have the promise that Christ has now, in the present tense, overcome the world.  And through our connection to Christ, as our Savior and Brother, we can overcome the world, and the fear that comes with it.  It is not a physical victory – our personal world and the larger world may still be falling apart around us – but we are promised a spiritual victory of experiencing the peace of Christ inside.

So throw off the chain of fear.  Do not allow yourself to become immobilized by the sheer volume of moral confusion in our world.  Love, serve, and encourage those Christ has brought into your life.  Demonstrate to those around you what a life set free looks like; a life set free from fear, worry, and anxiety.  Because despite all the pompous declarations of the world – and political or social victories they celebrate – deep inside, the peace of Christ is the desire of every heart.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Guilt

Moving now from shame to guilt, let’s review.  Guilt is, “I have done something wrong.”  Shame is, “I am something wrong.”  Shame is never who we are after our conversion to Christ.  Guilty, on the other hand, is who we are when we sin.

Understanding guilt is an important piece of understanding our salvation.  In a legal (from a moral standpoint) sense, prior to Christ, we are all guilty.  We are sinners in Adam and we are sinners in our actions.  We are guilty on both counts.  But Christ took our guilt upon Himself when He died on a cross in our place.  The concept of substitution – Christ dying in our place – is at the heart of the gospel’s message of redemption.  Christ died for our sins.

The beauty of the love, grace, and mercy of God is that all the guilt related to our sins goes away when we embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).  “Having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14).

Your sins, in a legal sense, are forgiven; past, present, and future.  So what if I sin today?  Is the penalty covered?  Are there no consequences?  When we sin today, the legal penalty of that sin is already taken care of.  But in the area of our daily practice of holiness and of living into our new freedom in Christ, there is guilt and consequence when we sin.

Since sin is not compatible with our new identity in Christ, not fitting with the Holy Spirit who now lives inside, sin breaks our fellowship with God.  It also breaks our fellowship with God’s family, our brothers and sisters in Christ.  So when we sin, we are truly guilty.

But God has given us a way to restore that fellowship through confession and repentance.  “If we confess our sins (acts committed, not our sin nature), God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (those ways we are not living into our identity in Christ).  God’s cleansing is removing the hindrances to living the fruits of the Spirit that we already possess but are stunted by sin.

Think of it this way.  By virtue of our spiritual DNA – the Holy Spirit living inside – we are destined to produce the fruit of the Spirit as outlined in Galatians 5; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  This is who we are.  But just as a fruit tree can be stunted and produce bad fruit or no fruit due to disease, so we can produce bad fruit or no fruit due to sin.  Our “fruit” production can be damaged by sin.  When we confess our sins, God is faithful to heal the disease of sin.

So if we are truly guilty when we sin, how does guilt become a chain?  Guilt becomes a chain when we forget God’s two great promises regarding our guilt.  The first promise, in a justification sense, your sins are forgiven forever.  The second promise, in a sanctification sense, you can be forgiven your present sins, be restored to fellowship, and infused with power to overcome sin.

When we fail to believe those promises, we are under the chain of guilt.  When we aren’t really sure if God’s forgiveness is complete; for example, am I still paying the price for attending a séance as a teenager or for wishing my classmate dead when they cheated me out of my first place award or … you fill in the blank from your past.  These sound crazy, but trust me, when we fail to believe and embrace and live into all of God’s promises regarding our forgiven guilt, we can be hamstrung by some crazy ideas.  Let the chain of guilt go.  Confess any sins of the present and move on in the grace, freedom, and joy of who you are in Christ.  There is no more “paying for your sins” to be done.  By God’s grace, by His free gift, you are forgiven.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Shame

As we consider the shame side of the pride/shame cycle, let’s turn to Hebrews chapter 12.  “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).  One of my favorite phrases about what Christ has done for us is “despising the shame”.

Death on a Roman cross was the epitome of shame.  A naked man publicly put to death on a stick of wood.  Its cruelty and shame would have us turn away in horror.  But instead of turning away, we are called to “fix our eyes” on our dying Savior.  And when we do, we see the suffering Son of God rejecting the shame put upon Him.

Jesus did not accept the shame of a cruel death on a cross.  Jesus did not embrace or believe the shame.  Jesus refused the shame.  What Satan meant for shame, God turned into glory; the glory of the Lamb of God “enduring the cross” for the “joy set before Him” of bringing us to salvation.  Jesus rejected the shame.  Jesus despised the shame.  Jesus threw aside the chain of shame.

Can I encourage you to do the same?  How many of us are caught in the pride/shame cycle feeling the pain and shame when we disappoint God, ourselves, or those around us?  How many of us carry labels from today or our past meant to induce shame?  How many of us believe, accept, embrace, and live into those labels of shame; even those labels from years ago?  How many of us still hear the words of shame from the authorities in our lives and feel them haunting us to this very day?

Perhaps a parent expressed a constant disappointment in you; an incessant drumbeat of you are not good enough.  Maybe an employer or teacher in your teen-age years told you that you would never amount to anything.  Or an unwise spiritual leader in your life called you out as a stubborn child, a slow learner, or disobedient.  Maybe an unappreciative spouse has let you know in no uncertain terms that you have let them down.  Whatever the shame you carry from your past or present; reject it, destroy it, send it packing, do not accept the shame.

Does that mean we have no guilt for our past and present actions?  What about our contribution to those labels?  After all, maybe we were stubborn, selfish, unresponsive to correction, and earned the shame we received?

At this point it is critical to understand the difference between guilt and shame.  I have written a previous post here that goes into great detail about the distinction.  Yes, you and I are guilty.  You and I have done things in our past and present that were wrong.  You and I have sinned.  And when we sin, we are to confess our sins and we will be forgiven of our sins.  Guilt is, “you have done something wrong.”  This is a true statement.  Shame is, “you are something wrong.”  This is not true or correct.  Do you see the difference?  Guilt refers to our actions.  Shame addresses our identity.  And shame is meant to leave you in a hopeless state, feeling and believing you are worthless.

When you embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ, your sins were forgiven and your identity changed.  Your “you are something wrong” was done away with forever.  You were set free in Christ from the shame of your past or present never to go back to that identity again.  By the resurrection power of Christ who lives in you, the shame you were labeled with is no more.  You have been set free from its power in your life.  You are free to let it go.

When we sin we have true guilt to deal with because “we have done something wrong”.  But never listen to Satan’s accusations from your past or present that “you are something wrong”.  It is just not true.  Christ walked through that shameful death for the purpose of redeeming each of us back to God’s presence as proof of the worth He places on us.

Now I recognize that this advice is a short answer to a what can be a very complex problem.  Please talk to a trusted friend or counselor if shame is crippling your experience of the joy of your new life in Christ.  But Jesus’ example leads the way to an important starting point.  Jesus shows us, by rejecting the cruelest shame a man could experience, that shame is not who you are.  You are holy.  You are righteous.  You are wonderfully redeemed.  And that redemption has removed your shame.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Pride

A dangerous side effect of legalism – reducing the Christian life to a set of rules – is pride.  Paul says as much in Colossians 2:18 calling the rule-promoters “inflated without cause by their fleshly mind.”  An inflated ego is a hallmark of legalism.  And it is driven by the flesh, not by the Spirit.

When we set up a rule-following system as the picture of Christianity, we almost always fall into a comparison mode that has no spiritual value.  How am I doing today compared to yesterday?  How am I doing at keeping the rules compared to person A, B, or C?  Are my community’s rules more godly than the church down the street?  Do you ever feel these comparisons?

These comparisons are fueled by pride.  They are motivated by a need to find my identity and worth in my performance.  When I am doing well in meeting the standard that I have set up for myself and others, I feel a sense of pride in my accomplishment.  When I feel like I am “measuring up”, I tend to become critical and judgmental of others who are missing the mark in my view.  Far from being a positive, this pride is a red flag that I am operating in the flesh, as Paul refers to it, rather than in the Spirit.  In my flesh-driven pride I am effectively saying, “My worth and righteousness are found in Christ plus my rules.”

The flip side is also true.  When I do not perform well, I am overcome by a sense of shame.  “How could I have performed so poorly?  How could I be such a terrible person?”  When we put both sides together, we find that legalism puts us in a never ending cycle of pride and shame based on our performance and comparison with others.  We always can find someone who is “doing better” or “doing worse” than us, leading us invariably into feelings of pride or shame.  We will address the shame side of the pride/shame cycle next time, but for now let’s come back to the pride.

We destroy pride by understanding how unworthy our human efforts were in our receiving the gift of the gospel and how worthless they now are in living out the gospel.  When we embrace the gospel message [the good news of a life set free], not just in our once-for-all salvation decision, but also as a way of life, we learn that our worth and acceptance by God has nothing to do with our performance.

When we seek to “prove ourselves” or “justify ourselves” by showing God (and others) that we are good enough, we are not living into the grace of the gospel message.  We have been justified by faith in what Christ has already done.  And God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s work, not our own.  There is nothing you can do to make yourself more acceptable to God.  Hear me on this, never more acceptable to God than the first moment of your new birth.

I think a useful term here is “functional trust”.  We have the appropriate Bible knowledge to say our trust is fully in Christ.  But on a functional level of how we live our lives, are we trusting the work of Christ or in our performance to earn God’s daily grace?  Living the gospel is transferring our trust – intellectually and functionally – away from ourselves and resting it in Christ.

So throw off the chain of pride by living into all of Christ’s promise of a life set free.  If you see a performance-based prideful effort in your walk with the Lord, confess it to Him, and see His life breathe a sweet joy into His instructions.  One of the greatest freedoms Christ is offering is the freedom from pride; the freedom from always having to protect our image.  A life set free is not about our accomplishment.  It is about Jesus’ accomplishment on our behalf.  This is living the gospel.