I’ve been obsessed with being good and performing all of my life.
Hello, my name is Christine. I’m a goodness addict.
I was born with a list in my hand, or at least that’s how early I imagine it started. I came by it honestly—my mom’s response to everything my sister and I needed as children, whether shampoo from the store or help with a school project, was always, “Make a list!”
So I did. I made list after list—of library books for summer reading, of boys that I liked, of songs to record from the radio on my tape recorder, of necessities to pack for overnight camp, of must-haves in my future husband, even of outfits for the first month of eighth grade so as not to repeat and make a fashion faux pas of infinite proportion.
I don’t just make lists. I am that person, the one who adds a task to a list just to experience the satisfaction of crossing it off, the one who makes lists for my lists.
I’m a perfectionist.
There was a time when I would have said that with pride, but not anymore. Perfectionism has not been a friend to me. Sure, my house is organized and my budget spreadsheet is up-to-date, but when perfectionism is applied to the spiritual needs of the heart, it’s called legalism. And legalism is a fancy word for an obsession with goodness. It’s a belief that good things come from God to those who are good. And it’s a belief that you can actually be good enough to get to God on your own.
I became a Christian at age eight. From that point, or more accurately from the point in middle school when I started having “quiet times” according to my youth minister’s instructions, until my late twenties, I spent the majority of my Christian life striving—striving for perfection, for God’s favor, for the approval of others, and for the joy and freedom that the Bible spoke of yet completely eluded me.
At an early age, I fell for perfectionism’s lie that I could be good enough to win God’s heart and the approval of others. I sought joy, peace, and love through being good and, instead, found myself miserably enslaved to my own unattainable standards.
This was my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian: If I do good things, then God is pleased. If I do things wrong, then he is angry. This is actually the basis of every religion on earth except Christianity, this idea of a scale where the good must outweigh the bad in order to be right with God. I had religion down pat, but the religion I practiced wasn’t true and biblical Christianity. On the outside I appeared to be a good Christian, but on the inside I felt unlovable and was riddled with guilt about my inability to please God.
Unfortunately for me, a large part of a goodness obsession is an addiction to self. Goodness is evaluated by activity, completed tasks, responses from others, and results. It requires a focus on appearance and image and maintaining some semblance of religious behavior. Goodness required that I control my environment with military precision, hide my weaknesses, and compare myself with others or my own arbitrary standards. Goodness fed both my pride and my self-condemnation and kept me relationally isolated.
The other part of a goodness addiction, I discovered in my twenties, is a faulty understanding of who God is and what he expects from His children. I only saw God through perfectionism’s filter. He was gray. He had no patience for my mistakes, forever glaring at me with a scowl on His face. He sighed a lot. If I was extra-good, He might manage to crack a smile. He was one-dimensional, disengaged, unaffectionate, and I absolutely feared him.
I knew nothing about grace.
I knew nothing about forgiveness.
I knew nothing about the true gospel, because a goodness addiction completely overtakes the heart and mind, leaving no room for truth. It enslaves and cannibalizes itself. It becomes an all-encompassing religion, closing tightly around one’s soul. It led me down paths of depression and despair.
And it became my gospel.
I lived according to that gospel–what I now call the goodness gospel–for far too long, precisely because I didn’t know the true gospel’s reach. I believed that faith was effective for salvation but only self-effort could produce my sanctification. Now I know differently. God has taken me on a ten-year exploration of grace and sanctification and faith, and I am not the girl I once was. I live in the freedom that Christ was won for me.
Now that I know differently, I also have eyes to see the goodness gospel covertly worming its way into hearts of believers, and I see its destructive effects.
In the Christian culture, there seems to be great confusion and even pressure that we women feel about what we should be doing and why we should be doing it. The confusion touches decisions about education, family, eating and drinking, work, hobbies, community involvement, and even whether one should volunteer when the sign-up sheet is passed around again at church.
The pressure grows when choices are wrapped in spiritual or more-spiritual terms. We see it everywhere: Do something great! Follow your dreams! Make a difference for the kingdom! Be missional and in community! For the gospel-confused, that too often translates into: I’m not doing enough, what I’m doing isn’t making a difference, and I’ve got to create my own and my neighbor’s own and my children’s own and everyone’s own life transformation.
From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel is a book for women like I was, who long to please God but fear they never will. It’s for the woman drowning in self-condemnation, the woman afraid to be vulnerable with others because she’s so fully aware of her imperfections, and the woman who craves but can’t seem to grasp the freedom and joy that Jesus promised His followers.
Instead of asking “What does God want from us?”, From Good to Grace asks, “What does God want for us?” The book illustrates how we confuse being good and trying hard–the goodness gospel–with the true gospel, which is really about receiving the grace and love that Jesus offers us and responding with our lives by the Holy Spirit’s help. It’s my prayer that through it you discover it’s possible to know God’s love, live in peace and freedom, and serve others with great joy. Because God has something so much greater for you than trying to be good enough.
This post is an excerpt from the first chapter of the From Good to Grace. You can read the entire chapter here. Purchase your copy today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christianbook.com, or iTunes and discover the gospel’s reach in your own life.
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Published March 11, 2015