“I’ll be the exception to the rule.”
This is the kind of thinking that has stolen my joy. For years.
- “Planting a church in France is hard. It’s known as the missionary graveyard.” Surely not! (But oh it was, and we were not the exception to the rule. We came home early. Our time there broke us).
- “The publishing industry is fickle, and it’s hard to sell books.” Surely not! (But oh it’s proven to be true. I did not break out. I did not have bestsellers. I was no exception. I was average, a midlist author.)
- “Aging is difficult and not for the faint of heart.” Surely not! (But oh, it has been, and I am no exception to the ravages of an aging body.
When we think we’re the exception, we set ourselves up for even deeper disappointment. And at the root of that thinking is a little (big, actually) trait called pride. We revel in our specialness, our ability to buck the system, to be different. This is deeply rooted in our American identity. We gravitate toward the hero who defies all expectations and rules and comes out victorious, the glorious exception to the rule.
It’s not wrong to want to do well. It’s not evil to want to overcome a difficult obstacle. But in my experience, the heart of the matter is the how.
How, exactly, are we going to become the exception to the rule? Through grit and determination, but not often through reliance on the Spirit within.
Let’s look at my three non-exceptions:
- France: No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried to thrive, no matter how many prayers and tears and questions, I could not overcome a culture, rampant spiritual warfare, our team dynamics, our children not thriving in French schools, or even set free my own depression. So many factors outside of myself pushed against all that grit. Had I gone into the situation more open handed and less determined to be the exception, perhaps all that churning would’ve dissipated. Perhaps if I had lowered my expectations, I wouldn’t have been so broken by everything. Most everything I did there felt like a failure, and I can only recall one positive memory.
- Publishing: Here’s where my work ethic betrayed me. Unfortunately the publishing industry has no always-works formula. I went in thinking I could be the exception to the rule by working harder than anyone else, and that sales would be the reward for all that excessive (obsessive?) labor. But Hard Work + Good Writing did NOT = success. Most success in this industry (as well as a lot of artistic endeavors) is fickle and unknowable. And just when you think you’ve figured out a formula, the “formula” changes as fast as an instagram algorithm.
- Aging: Guess what? We all get older and die. I have spent many years hoping to the exception to a rule that doesn’t exist. 100% of humanity decays and sleeps in the grave. No amount of exercise, “right” eating, and wellness practices can prevent the inevitable. None of us will be the exception to the rule.
The verse the Lord brought to mind as I thought about this problem of mine comes from James 4:13-16. I particularly like how the Message renders it:
And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, “Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.” You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.” As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil.
There’s humility in James’ words. Not, “I’ll be the exception to the rule,” but “Lord willing, I’ll do my best and leave the results in his capable hands.”
Oh to be LESS grandiose, friends!
And maybe if we lived with less pride, with less exceptionalism, we’d begin to approach each day not with a demand to be the best, but with a heart to be content in where we are today and a strong realization that God holds the outcomes.
I’m better able to say planting a church in France was hard, and it looked an awful lot like failure. (No grandiose story of God bringing in the masses, just plain obedience in a hard and sometimes untenable situation.)
I’m more comfortable in coaching authors to hear from God, do what he says, and leave the results in his hands. That breakout? It may or may not happen. And if it doesn’t, He still loves and adores you, and his plan is perfect, and it may involve the kind of success no one sees.
I’m settling into the process of aging, finally uncovering my naive thinking that I can “beat” the aging algorithm. I can take care of myself, but that’s no guarantee of anti-aging. Instead, I can ask the Lord to please grow me in soul beauty every day and grant me a heart of wisdom–the things that follow me into eternity. I shudder to think of how many hours I’ve spent fretting about appearance, and how little that effort translates into kingdom reward.
So perhaps it’s time to let go of exceptional thinking.
Maybe it’s better to shake hands with an average, faithful life.
We are not the heroes of our stories anyway. Jesus is.