20 Nov RECOVERING FROM CONTROL, PERFECTIONISM, AND APPROVAL-SEEKING
This is a transcript of a testimony given at re:generation, a 12-step recovery program. It’s longer than our usual stories, so we’ve provided an audio version. Whether you read or listen, the illustrations shown below will be helpful!
My name is Amanda. I have a new life in Christ and I’m recovering from control, perfectionism, and approval-seeking.
There’s an illustration I keep seeing at my church.
It’s a timeline, starting with the point of conversion. The top line says “increasing awareness of God’s holiness,” and the bottom line says “increasing awareness of my sin.” When both sides are growing in their respective directions, the cross continues to grow in significance to the believer. This is my journey to the cross.
As long as I can remember, Christianity has been a major part of my life. I’m a Pastor’s kid, so most of my childhood was spent at church. When I wasn’t there, I was at my Christian school, or maybe a youth conference or mission trip. DC Talk, Newsboys, and Point of Grace provided the soundtrack to my early days. I would have called myself a “Jesus Freak,” proudly sporting my WWJD bracelet everywhere I went. I didn’t know it, but I can see now that the motivation behind those actions was to win the approval of my parents, teachers, youth group leaders, and friends.
When I got to Texas Tech, I continued that pattern of approval-seeking. But now, instead of parents, it was peers. Instead of teachers, it was liberal professors. Instead of youth group leaders, it was frat boys. So I played the part, and partied my way through college without regret.
I met Nick during that time, and we got married right after I graduated. I quickly moved into this new life stage with plans for a big house, new car, and the perfect family. See the pattern repeating? That was my game. Get to the next level, achieve status, gain approval, move on. I never slowed down enough to see the damage that was happening in the wake of my hustle.
God was faithful to answer the prayers of my parents, and Nick and I found a church home as soon as we moved to Dallas. I joined a class called Equipped Disciple, where I was encouraged to read my Bible every day, and held accountable to memorize scripture for the first time in years. God got my attention with 1 John 2:3 “This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commands. The one who says, “I have come to know him,” and yet doesn’t keep his commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” I realized this faith I thought I had in my back pocket was not faith at all. It was just a part I had played to gain approval. I had never turned from sin or allowed God to sit on the throne of my heart. My actions were proof of my true beliefs – that MY way was better than His. When I saw the condition of my heart, I prayed, asking God to forgive me for my years of ignoring Him despite everything I knew about Him. I told Him I accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to take the penalty for my sin. He became real to me that day. He became my Friend, my Shepherd, and my Hope. My journey to the cross had begun.
God started chiseling away at my worldly, selfish desires, and giving me an eternal perspective. I quit my job, we started a family, and downsized our house. It was during this time that Nick surprised me by coming home early one afternoon to read me a letter he had written. He was on his knees, crying as he admitted to visiting a prostitute the night before, and a life-long addiction to pornography that had led him to that point. I was in complete shock. But God wasn’t. He had been preparing me for that moment through my daily time with Him. I hugged Nick, and told him I forgave him. But forgiveness is not a one-time decision. It’s an on-going choice. Those first few months were not easy. I had a 1-year-old son, and was 6 weeks pregnant with our daughter, so most days, I didn’t know if I was sick from this news or my pregnancy. More confessions and relapses kept coming as Nick worked through his recovery, and each one felt like a huge step backwards. I felt like I had lost everything. But to this day, I have never felt more close to the Lord than during that time. God was all I had, and I learned that He was all I’d ever need. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
This was really the first time my perfect little life plan went off-course. I felt entitled to a “good” life since I had finally started making “good” choices. I thought if I could have more control over my circumstances, bad things might not happen again. I also wanted to control this embarrassing news. I never wanted anyone to know about this shameful secret in our marriage. Remember, I ran on approval! This would not work well for the perfect family image I was crafting.
Over time, this desire for control and perfection started affecting other relationships in my life as well. I had been growing in knowledge of the Bible, but began to act more like a pharisee than Jesus. I had big convictions for myself, and I was starting to let them seep out as high standards for other people. I was completely lacking in grace and compassion. My mind would race at night, justifying my harsh criticism as tough love. I was starting to become anxious, and that’s the opposite of what Jesus says will happen when we’re walking with Him. I was back at the approval game, grasping at control, never settling for less than perfection.
That’s when I knew I needed Re:Generation – a recovery ministry offered at my church that helps people work through addictions, as well as destructive habits and attitudes. This ministry was the avenue God used to restore my husband, and I knew I was now the one who desperately needed a change.
During that time, my life would have looked like this:
God had shown Himself to me in really meaningful ways. But I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what He had saved me from. I tend to move on to new things without looking back, and that’s what I had done with my sin. It was time to grow in awareness of my sin.
God used my idol of perfectionism to get me here. Re:Generation is where you go when life is broken, so I checked myself into the shop for some tweaks! What I wasn’t expecting was the amount of repairing I actually needed. I needed a heart transplant. That selfish pattern of life had made my heart hard as a rock.
I remember reading early on in the curriculum to be careful not to blow past questions just because you know the “right” answer, but to look at your actions to determine your true beliefs. I kept that reminder in mind throughout this whole process, and it led me to some deep realizations. I found that every sin struggle can be traced back to a lack of trust in God. When I control, I’m not trusting God’s power, when I look to people for approval, I’m not trusting His love, when I grasp at perfection, I’m not trusting His plan.
It was my 30th birthday when I was finishing up with Step 4, Inventory, so Nick and I took a trip to the beach to celebrate. Unfortunately for Nick, he came down with a bad case of viral pink eye. So I drove while he slept. I was lost in thought, overwhelmed with remorse after listing out my lifetime of sins in inventory. Somewhere along I-20, I prayed along with a Shane and Shane song, “Lord, come wrestle me and win.” I didn’t want to continue doing life in the same way.
When we got back home, that crazy case of pink eye quickly spread to our son, then took us girls down soon after. We were quarantined to our house for an entire month. No school, no church, no work. Just time. We weren’t in much pain, we just couldn’t come close to other humans! So I had an entire month to “think about what I had done” as my parents used to say. I’m an extrovert, I hate being stuck at home, so I felt like a prisoner! I told my mentor it felt like I was under God’s thumb, and He wouldn’t let up. It felt like punishment for this list of sins I had finally admitted to. But then I realized He was answering my prayer. He was wrestling me down, causing me to face the ugliness of my sin – something I had been refusing to do my whole life.
On Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus’ death on the cross, I couldn’t stand the weight of my sin anymore. I felt so unworthy, I crawled back into bed mid-morning, drowning in tears. I texted my mentor and a close friend, letting them know that I needed prayer, but didn’t give any more details than that. The verses they sent back were exactly what I needed to hear. Hebrews 12:6-7 says “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.” and Romans 8:1 says “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
I couldn’t believe it, but God wasn’t mad at me! Yes, He wanted me to face my sin, but not to condemn me, but to prove how much He loved me! Without the full awareness of my sin, I couldn’t see the magnitude of His grace. I felt a huge weight lifting off my shoulders as I released this lifetime of sin to the foot of the cross. I couldn’t stop thanking Him for His forgiveness. Easter morning has never felt more meaningful. I accepted His forgiveness for my sins that I was now so painfully aware of, and I was filled with a newfound joy. We celebrated Resurrection Sunday at home, disinfecting all the eggs immediately after the hunt, but it was an Easter I will never forget. The cross had grown in significance to me that weekend, and I was full of awe and reverence for my good, good Father who loves me.
As soon as I accepted God’s grace for myself, I couldn’t fathom holding onto bitterness in those friendships that I mentioned earlier. I decided to make amends to these friends as soon as the doctor would allow me to leave the house. We got the green light from the doctor the very next day. (The timing of that is not lost on me!) So I set up the meetings. I brought a list of sins from my inventory that had affected them, and apologized for how I had hurt them. I felt the freedom Romans 8 mentions when they extended forgiveness to me.
Since this was the first time I had been honest about my sin, Step 6 Repent, was so important for me. I wrote out David’s repentance prayer, Psalm 51, and prayed it over and over again. I’ve heard it said “we can’t change what we can’t name,” so I was very specific about the way each sin struggle shows up in my life while writing my repentance plans. The most effective task for me as an approval-seeker was confession. I confessed to my mentor every time I had a critical thought toward someone else. I dreaded sending those confession texts so much that I went to war against those thoughts! I quoted scripture, stood firm against Satan’s lies, and begged God to renew my mind.
I didn’t think my thought-life was something that could ever change, but like Jesus says in Matthew 19:26, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Just like He promised the nation of Israel in Ezekiel 36, God removed my heart of stone and gave me a heart of flesh.
Before re:gen, I saw the Bible and the Christian life as a big to-do list. I loved how clear-cut the commands were, and I measured my success by my performance. But now that I have been softened by the discipline of The Father, I’m not striving to achieve for my faith. I’m resting in God’s grace. That’s it. Anything I DO is just a response to what He’s already done for me. He gave me the desire to seek Him. He brought me through hard times, (and I know more are coming.) He gave me a thirst for His Word. And through re:gen, He showed me my brokenness and need for His grace.
That month stuck at home taught me the importance of physical rest, and why God built it into the rhythm of our lives. I resonate with David in Psalm 18:19 when he says “He brought me out to a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” He rescued me from the hustle. I slowed the pace of my life down by saying “no” to busyness and striving, so that I can spend more time with Him and the people He has placed in my life to love.
All of my sin struggles kept me in fear of failure, hiding any perceived flaws from being exposed. But like it says in 1 Corinthians 12:9 “[God’s] grace is sufficient, for [His] power is made perfect in weakness.” So like Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” With that verse in mind, I wrote out the story of our marriage struggles and shared it online in order to shatter that perfect family image I had been faking. The response from family and friends was overwhelming. Nick and I have gotten to talk with countless couples who are in the middle of similar trials in their relationships. God has turned our darkest times into a light that points people to Himself, but it required me to give up that old approval game and trust God’s opinion to be the only one I value. What the enemy meant to harm us, God meant for good!
I was reading in 1 Samuel 7, where God fights a battle for Israel, and defeats their enemy in a really powerful way. Samuel sets up an Ebenezer stone to remember God’s faithfulness through that battle. I considered the story I had shared online as my own Ebenezer, and as I read this section of Scripture, I heard this question repeating in my head: “why just my story?” So for the next week, I prayed and told everyone I knew about this idea to start an online ministry for sharing stories. It turns out that God was sparking similar passions in some of my friends’ hearts, and within days, four friends and I started a ministry called Ebenezer Collective. We give people a platform to share stories of God’s faithfulness despite difficult circumstances. God has used this ministry to encourage authenticity on social media, allowing His power to shine through our weaknesses.
God continues to surprise me with this new heart of mine! Now that I have a more complete picture of the cross in light of my brokenness, I am full of love for others. Instead of criticizing, I feel compassion. Instead of glossing over my sin and acting like it isn’t there, I can admit when I’ve done wrong, and ask forgiveness. It’s all 12 steps in tandem, on a regular basis, in every relationship. My kids are getting such a better picture of the gospel now that I can identify and own my sin. I want to be able to tell them to follow my example as I follow Christ. I know that just like me, they’ll struggle with sin, but when they bring it to God, He will be compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
My community group girls practice step 5, confess on a weekly basis. We vulnerably share our struggles, and admit our latest sins every time we meet. It’s James 5:16 in action: “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Our group can attest to the truth of that verse. We have found freedom from sin struggles since bringing them into the light. It used to be my biggest fear to let others see any of my weaknesses, but now I look forward to exposing them! Confession drains sin of its’ power, and drives the enemy away. I can’t imagine ever going back to sugar-coating my sin.
I will always have a desire for control, approval, and perfection. But now I can see them coming from a mile away, and take those desires to God. With His help, I can trust His power, love, and plan instead of my own.
Just like the illustration shows, it requires a growing awareness of our sin just as much as a growing awareness of His holiness to grasp the magnitude of the cross. I have found that those two lines grow at different times, at different rates for every believer. Our whole lives will be spent traveling that path to a bigger cross together. Now I know the importance of patience, encouragement, grace, and love as I walk this path with others.
I love how John describes love in 1 John. In 3:14, he says “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters.” And 4:18 says “there is no fear in love, instead, perfect love drives out fear.” Those years I spent striving for approval were lived out of a place of fear. That fear of man was the exact thing that prevented me from loving others. Now that God has freed me from that fear, I can finally see past myself and into the lives in need of God’s love all around me.
All throughout the Old Testament, I see the phrase “so that they will know that I am the Lord.” I believe that everything God brings into our lives is for that purpose. To grow the significance of the cross in our lives, in hopes that we will come to know that HE is the Lord. The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. When we endure hard times, we have the choice. Are you willing to be melted, refined, and purified? He can remove hard hearts. When we let His perfect love drive out fear, we’re set free to love like He does!
My name is Amanda. I have a new life in Christ and because of Him I am learning to walk in freedom from control, perfectionism, and approval-seeking.