For many years I’ve been haunted by the spectre of underachievement. I’ve been convinced that I should have got more done by now; made more of a difference; that I’ve fallen well short of my potential. I’ve spent large chunks of my life frustrated with myself. It’s a form of perfectionism that has, at times, both motivated me and made me miserable.
Way back in time, when I was a student in London, I was prayed for by someone who gave me a reference from the Bible – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. For those of you who don’t know, this is the passage where Paul talks about his ‘thorn in the flesh’ and how difficult it has made his life. Paul goes on to explain that God didn’t answer his prayer to take this problem away because it kept him grounded in the grace of God and prevented his own personal strength from getting in God’s way. The person who prayed for me made no suggestions as to why they felt that this reference was significant, but I’ve always had it in the back of my mind. In fact, it was the start of a journey that led to me eventually writing my Master’s dissertation on the subject of suffering, though over the years I couldn’t really see how it linked directly to my life.
One of the benefits of getting older, at least in the way that I have gotten older, is that you begin to understand yourself better. I know that I am highly sensitive (i.e. often too sensitive); that I struggle with stress and high pressure situations; that I am introverted to an above-average level; that I don’t adapt well to change and so on. Yet, somehow, I find myself living a life that works against all those things. At some point you have to ask yourself what’s going on.
The truth is, I know full well what my life would have looked like if it weren’t for God. I would have found an easy, low-stress job, and settled down until retirement. I definitely wouldn’t have five children. I would spend every evening and weekend playing video games and eating fast food. I know that’s what I would have been because, even as I write, there’s a part of me that cannot deny how appealing such a life sounds. But, alas, it wasn’t to be.
At some point in the past twelve months, I can’t be sure exactly when, it all began to make sense. My personality, the things that make it so hard for me to do what I feel God has wanted me to do, is my thorn. That’s the thing that has threatened to cripple me, and left me saying – so many times over the years – “God, why did you make me this way if you wanted me to do all these crazy things that you keep asking me to do? Surely you could have picked someone better equipped for this?” The thorn in my flesh is me, it’s who I am. It’s a weakness that constantly seeks to undermine everything I do. I wish I was a different, more dynamic, more robust person, but I am not.
But I also have finally understood the significance of the verses in 2 Corinthians. What was true for Paul is true for me too. A man like me should either be a terminally lazy couch-potato, or have been irredeemably shattered by the cavalcade of stressful situations and ridiculous requests that life has dumped on him. But I am neither of those things, because the words that God spilled onto Paul are also meant for me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I am an atheist’s worst nightmare, because a man like me shouldn’t exist. My life only makes sense if God is true, and as such – just like Paul – the glory becomes His. The house that He has somehow managed to build on such fragile foundations testifies to His skill as an architect, not to my greatness.
And it means that the spectre of underachievement can finally be laid to rest. I am actually an overachiever. I shouldn’t have managed to do half the things that I have done. Every sermon; every page written; every line of poetry is an over-achievement, and what’s insane is that I suspect that God’s not finished with me yet.
“But as for me, I shall always have hope;
I will praise you more and more.”