For the Days When Your Best Efforts Still Come Up Short

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It was one of those mornings when I coiled up like a viper and struck with venomous precision.

No one ever notices all I do to make sure you have what you need. But you sure notice when it’s not there and I’m sick of it.

And I am. Sick of it that is.

Do you ever feel there’s not an ounce of gratitude for the groceries and the meals and the special breakfast bars and the laundry and the third pair of new eyeglasses in three months? But there’s a truckload of ingratitude when this or that daily expectation is not met?

Motherhood, this life of 24 / 7 service, is not the most natural of fits for me. I’ve said it before and I’m reminded of it especially now. I’m no good at the mundane everyday, I’m not really very task oriented, and I tend to panic a little bit around needy people. Even though I’ve given birth to three of them.

I was talking with a friend recently who reminds me every time I see her that she’s here to help with packing or unpacking or childcare or anything. She told me how she loves being needed and I told her how lovely that is and that I am the exact opposite. And I do know how awful that sounds, in case you’re wondering.

I’m not a complete ogre. Give me a sick child and I’m all in. I’ve got one home this week as a matter of fact. If you’re down and out and the prescription is a latte or the perfect gift, I’m all over it. A last-minute costume for a school project? I can come up with something in five minutes. That time one kid threw up all over himself and the car seat and the van and we literally hosed everything down, kid included, in the sketchy stall of a West Virginia car wash? I was on it. Grace Under Pressure, much to everyone’s shock.

It’s the day-in, day-out of lunches and homework supervision and helping find lost shoes and painstakingly teaching the art of contact lens installation and loving that moody one over there, hostility and all. It’s the painstaking family calendar updates and procuring the ever-needed supply of breakfast bars. Give me these things every single day, these simple tasks that are somehow so very difficult and draining for me and the ugly truth is this: I feel like all the world should notice and put a medal around my neck and a laurel wreath upon my head.

It hit me this morning that I’m the only one who’s really mindful of my many contributions. Everyone else takes it for granted, how the food magically appears in the pantry and on the dinner table. They only notice when I’ve messed up.

They come by it honestly. I pay more attention to their mess-ups than I pay to their successes. And I pay more attention to my own mess-ups too.

There’s been plenty of it lately. Plen-ty.

When life presses in hard on all sides and for an extended season —

When hope dissolves into disappointment

When grief is a daily visitor —

When adolescence reveals just how clueless you really are as a parent —

When expenses snowball —

When calendars have no margin even though that goes against everything you believe in —

When self-care seems laughable —

When meaningful time with your spouse is non-existent —

When a tire blows out on the way to the rescheduled orthodontist appointment and you locked your keys in the van on the way to the first one —

When you are weary and overwhelmed every single day —

When so many things are pressing in on all sides, other stuff gets pushed out. I lose my ability to keep all the plates spinning without some of them crashing to the floor. I also lose a bit of my mental and emotional health. I don’t sleep, I can’t remember easy things, I’m edgy and angry, and I cry every day.

So when I had all the things ready for my daughter’s 14th birthday dinner on Monday but realized, as I began the cooking, that I had miscalculated how much whipping cream I needed for the alfredo sauce and my husband had to go to the store during our son’s basketball practice to get more and looked for 30 minutes but the store was out of it and then had to stop somewhere else on the way home from practice, with two tired and hungry boys, and we sat down at 8:30 on a school night to celebrate her birthday — well, all I could think about was how I’d failed again and put everyone else out because of my absent-mindedness.

And then the next night, when we had a banquet to attend and we arrived and no one was there and I realized I’d messed up the location and we finally got to the right place forty minutes late and I broke down crying on the way {and perhaps cussing} because I’d screwed everything up again, just one night later, despite such intentional effort to get it right.

I could tell you story after story like this, one smashed plate after another.

Which explains, a little bit, why I lost it this morning and became a vicious snake mom. One kid was out of special bars and it’s obviously my fault and just like that, another plate hit the floor and shards of shame went everywhere.

It’s felt like a long season of this. Sadly, shame is the default pit I return to again and again. And every time, it pains me to dig down to the root and pull out the truth.

Self-righteousness — in the form of perfectionism, comparison, and striving — deceives my vulnerable heart and drives me toward a standard that’s both impossible and idolatrous.

When I’m obsessed with not measuring up to my own standards or the standards of others, it’s because I’ve forgotten the Gospel of Grace.

And so I crawl to the foot of the cross again and confess that all of this striving and obsessing is actually sin. It’s pride that masquerades as shame. It’s selfishness that’s cloaked in works and plate-spinning with precision so that I can feel better about myself. It’s self-righteousness that’s hiding under a veil of false humility.

I’m riddled with shame and insecurity when I’ve forgotten who actually makes me secure.

Saturday I was reading through Galatians and read this as if for the first time:

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 

Apparently I am so foolish. When I’m preoccupied with my own disapproval or in others’ disapproval of me, it’s because I’ve bought into the lie that it’s my job to perfect myself, to get it right, to figure it out, to quit screwing up in such embarrassing ways.

I long for the “freedom of self-forgetfulness.”

This little book stays on my nightstand but I haven’t cracked it open in a while. Obviously. This morning I opened it up and read this:

The performance never gets the ultimate verdict. But in Christianity, the verdict can give you the performance…How can that be?

Because Jesus Christ went on trial instead. Jesus went into the courtroom. He was on trial. It was an unjust trial in a kangaroo court — but He did not complain. Like a lamb before the shearers, He was silent. He was struck, beaten, put to death.

Why? As our substitute. He took the condemnation we deserve; He faced the trial that should be ours so that we do not have to face any more trials. So I simply need to ask God to accept me because of what the Lord Jesus has done. Then, the only person whose opinion counts looks at me and He finds me more valuable than all the jewels in the earth.

This means I can walk with bare feet across the shards of my own shame and shortcomings without a lasting scratch because Jesus took my wounds upon himself.

This means I kneel humbly and with freedom, asking for forgiveness right there in the middle of the mess, knowing what the answer with be. Because it’s the answer that’s always been and always will be.

It may seem like too abstract an consolation, one that seems far off from the gritty realities of our daily exhaustion and mess-ups. But it’s not far-off because He’s not far-off. He’s near.

Jesus came, in the flesh, to be with us. And He is still here, in the Spirit and by his Word, to be with us, to counsel us, to comfort us, to make us more like Him. We are not being perfected by our own efforts, fierce though they may be; we are being perfected by the indwelling presence of Christ.

It’s a messy perfection. It takes a lifetime. The journey is marked by pitfalls and potholes and more detours than we prefer.

If you’re up to your ankles in busted-up plates today, if you’re insecure and not-enough, despite your best efforts or even your slack efforts, come to Him. It’s a short trip because He’s already here, waiting with love and forgiveness and so much grace.

The verdict is in and it’s the best news out there: You are more valuable than you dare to imagine and you can rest in the strong and secure arms of your Savior.

For those who are in Him, his work for us is done. There’s nothing we can do that adds to it or shores it up.

And while his work in us is incomplete, we hold fast to the freeing truth that what was begun by the Spirit is being perfected by the Spirit and not by our bootstrapped efforts to get it right.

So you can walk through your days, loving your people, doing your thing, getting it right and getting it wrong, all the while revisiting and resting in the good and precious news that we don’t anxiously look to ourselves or to anyone else for verdicts or validation.

Though we come up short, there is One who stands in the gap, completing us in our lack, strengthening us in our weakness, and comforting our restless hearts with his presence.



Favorite Resources {the ones I return to again and again}

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy by Timothy Keller

The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out by Brennan Manning

Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life by Emily P. Freeman


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  1. Mom says

    Writing and the Word . . . great way to de-fang the viper! Thanks again for teaching us through your transparency. Love you, dear girl!

  2. Susan says

    I know this wasn’t your main point, but I am also reminded of how I treat God the way our kids treat us: ignoring Him when things are going my way, but railing against Him when I don’t get what I want. Even motherhood with all of its daily grind can reflect His character. And God’s daily grind is sustaining and holding all things together. So thankful God’s response is different from my own!

  3. Lynn says

    Thank you this is what I needed. I feel this exact way, trying to get it right, never giving my self grace, and never letting God in.

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