The Problem of Exceptional Thinking

Jul 3, 2023Archive

“I’ll be the exception to the rule.” 

This is the kind of thinking that has stolen my joy. For years.

Some examples:

  • “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.


  1. Pamela Laws

    I think that once I acknowledged how much fear drives what we think and do, I was able to understand true humility. Given all that human beings create as fear, the only hope we have is unconditional surrender to God The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The only real power is, I believe, God’s True Pure Love. I’m 76 years old, and I have learned to stay on my knees in prayer even while I’m standing. The advantage of age in later years is that I can look back and literally see the evidence of God’s presence when I thought I was “running the show.” Fsilures were blessings. Unkind people were guideposts. Sorrow was but preparation to be grateful for every breath. I believe that when Christ taught “Only God is good,” He was not only acknowledging our imperfection but our fear of them, helping us to choose our own guidance or His. Choosing Mat be a lifelong process rather than a moment ?

    • Mary DeMuth

      This is beautifully written and full of truth. Thank you.

  2. Edwina E Cowgill

    As my life changes, unexpectedly or expected, I am learning to accept and adjust. I don’t think we are accepting to be “less than,” but rather to be who God created us to be!

    • Mary DeMuth

      Well said, Edwina.

      • Marlene Salcher

        Love this, Mary and so true. I’ve come to believe success as God sees it is His working in me and through me. He once told me a few things I so needed to hear:
        I told you I would use you if you let go of control.
        I’m doing something different with you and you will come to understand in latter days.
        You’re not going to be afraid anymore and once, “Don’t be afraid. I will take care of you.” And He has done this so many times.
        Oh how much this girl needed Him and to be taught and still do.
        God bless you too.

  3. Kathy Nickerson

    Thank you for writing this post. I’ve been learning this lesson and hadn’t been able to name it. You brought clarity today.

    • Mary DeMuth

      I’m glad it brought clarity, Kathy.

  4. Tracey

    WOW! This is definitely a topic that needed to be brought into the open! I was part of a global ministry that gossiped about me and shunned me when I stepped back under instruction from the Lord!! I see HIS Hand , purpose and blessings on what He wants me to do… It saddened me greatly to think after the years I put in they treated me like that.. told me it probably was not the Lord .. sent me a * how to accept Jesus devotional!!!
    BOTTOm LINE-I need to do what the Lord wants me to do… I must be obedient to Him. One person said OHHH How can you walk away from such a BIG thing. My answer was / what the Lord is giving me is big, I am for His perspective not anyone elses! So have forgiven them and so blessed to be walking this wonderful and humbling path He has given me….. Thank You Mary, for bringing this out in the open. It needs to be ….. Many blessings!!!

    • Mary DeMuth

      I’m so sorry for what you walked through, Tracey. But I love that you continue to follow Jesus in spite of it all.

  5. Sarah Kornegay

    Reading this brings peace and freedom. Thank you!

    • Sara

      What good words for my soul, thank you! Scripture is filled with accounts of the Lord using ordinary, average people to achieve great things for His glory. They only become exceptional as their stories are told to future generations. May we never despise the ordinary among us, or in us!! ❤️

  6. Cynthia Hester

    Thank you for sharing what God is teaching you. I’m reminded anew to follow the Spirit’s leading and not to carry the burden of expecting results.

    • Mary

      Such a good way to think of it, Cynthia~

    • Grace

      Mary, this is SO TIMELY! I’m working on an art project and I need to be reminded that it’s not by might or by my power but by His Spirit….. Zech 4:6. Thank you for this wonderful insight. It’s encouraged me so much!!!

      • Mary DeMuth

        Grace, I’m so glad it encouraged you.

  7. Kelley Mathews

    Love you, friend! Thanks for writing these thoughts for all to learn from. You are one exception to the rule, you know: you’re a loyal friend.

    • Mary

      Ah, thank you friend!

  8. Tom Lyons

    You have spoken encouragement to my very average to failing life. Most of my expectations have been disappointed. My efforts have always been sincerely motivated by a desire to do God’s will. Yet, being raised by an “exceptional” pastor with an emphasis on “better than…” it has taken a lifetime to discover the joy of little things and contentment in, as you say, faithfulness to the Lord. Thanks!

    • Mary

      I’m so sorry you had to walk through that, but grateful you are learning the secret of contentment.