Growing up, my teachers would say the measure of a person’s worth is based on character. After all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right? Well, that depends on whom you ask and who your influences are.
Working as a journalist in New York City throughout my 20s, I was exposed to different kinds of work cultures. Over time, I began to peel back the curtain and see the not-so-glamorous sides of companies that appeared to be doing so well.
The missing ingredient was character. No matter how experienced a manager was or how much a company was valued at, no one was holding anyone accountable for their character. And that affects leadership and change. There is no substitute for hard work that cultivates authenticity and develops character.
Now entering my 30s as an instructor and adviser, I’m teaching my college students that they have a choice to be influenced or be an influencer. In a media-saturated culture, it’s hard to not conform to the patterns of this world. But the reality is, we were created to freely and completely live out our true identity, not slave away putting on a false self, fueled by pride. Here are three forms pride that stunt our character and spiritual growth.
Most Millennials and Gen Zers I have built relationships with crumble at the sight of conflict. It seems we’re afraid of crisis and confrontation. As an adviser overseeing 25 college students, I’m familiar with the fear of failure that paralyzes some students into giving up or doing absolutely nothing.
Yet, there is no greater moment than during a hardship to walk onto the battlefield, assess the damage, take responsibility for our share and walk away without seeking collateral. These things take a lot of courage!
In the book “Leadership Starts with You,” Tim Milburn said character is forged over time and usually shows up in moments of crisis and conflict.
“Character doesn’t seem all that important when the team is winning and everyone is getting paid and getting along. But when a crisis shows up, we start to find out what you’re made of.”
So when that moment arrives to find out what we’re made of, we don’t have time to recite Bible verses in hopes that they will miraculously pluck us out of harm’s way. The only way out of the crisis is through. It is in that moment when we stand before the metaphorical giant in our lives that the armor of God equips us with everything we need to wage war. Nothing is hidden. Everything comes to light. The crisis will reveal our character.
I’ve implemented a new practice to help my student leaders be courageous. I teach them to identify their core strengths and step outside their comfort zone within those areas. I share with them that the “imposter syndrome”, which is a psychological fear people have of being exposed as a fraud, is normal.
“Failing” is a natural part of growth.
After I help them identify their core strengths, they are more comfortable “failing” on their own because they understand that they’re learning how to exercise a muscle that was dormant, not non-existent.
At the same time, I encourage my student leaders to share with one another what disciplines they struggle with the most. Some of them choose to share, while others become an island. I noticed that those who asked for feedback were the ones who grew the most in their authentic selves, whereas those who cowered were too busy putting on their false selves to leave any room for real progress in their personal growth.
My pastor preached a sermon recently that stuck with me. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about how two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
Here we see the Pharisee approaching God with his righteous deeds, hoping for just recognition that he holds his end of the bargain in his faith. We know this because he weaves a works-based bow on top of his prideful prayer.
Meanwhile, the tax collector stood at a distance and wouldn’t even look up. Instead, he beat his chest and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Then Jesus says, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
My pastor then asked us to think about whom we related to more – the Pharisee or tax collector. Most people would say they’re like the timid tax collector. Yet, he challenged us to think about whether we’re like the prideful Pharisee.
Underneath the pride is a form of anger that reacts when we see those who don’t seem as “godly” or “hardworking” as us receiving God’s justification. The truth is, we all have a bit of the Pharisee in us. Have you ever been passed up for a promotion or raise when you’ve worked so hard for it? Has a friend or family member been showered with provision and favor upon his or her life? How do you feel when you aren’t the center? Be honest with yourself.
Anger, jealousy and judgment deflect to other people’s imperfections and don’t reflect the Author and Perfecter of our faith who fearfully and wonderfully created us in His image. Meanwhile, laying down our pride at the foot of the cross and honoring the finished work of Christ allows us to surrender our pride and posture our hearts as sinners saved by grace through God’s mercy.
God is gracious in showing all of humanity common grace. He is infinitely gracious in showing us His specific grace and mercy over us. That means we get to bring Jesus the emotional baggage of our past that carries shame and break free from destructive habits that keep us from living genuinely joy-filled lives.
What is shame? In Brené Brown’s book “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You are”, she defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and are unworthy of love and belonging.”
This is a form of pride that says, “I am so messed up that if you truly got to know me – the real me – you would not come near me or want me in your life.”
Is this how you think Jesus sees you? In John 8:7-11, we get to look deeply into the Father’s eyes of love when teachers of the law and Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus. The rightful consequence, according to the Mosaic Law, was to stone her. But when they asked Jesus for His take, He chooses a restorative approach that freed her from shame.
He says, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” One by one, the accusers slip away. All of a sudden, the woman who committed adultery is no longer surrounded by her accusers. Instead Jesus asks, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?’ ‘No, Lord,’ she said. And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I. Go and sin no more.’”
Shame creates a wall between us and others, and between us and God. It prevents us from embracing our imperfections that bring connection, courage and compassion.
One way to claim our worthiness is to share our stories of shame with trusted people.
In Peter Scazzero’s book “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality”, he shares that in order to transition into a mature adult, we must get rid of defense mechanisms and honestly look at what is true.
When we stop trying to protect ourselves from pain and start to share our stories, we experience freedom from shame.
Once we have heard of Christ and been taught in Him, we must put off the old self and put on the new self. That requires intentionally shedding all of our past.
Bring your shame and trade them for joy that celebrates Christ’s work in your life.