“Imposter syndrome” is a feeling people get when they believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative IN SPITE OF evidence of high achievement in their lives or careers. They feel like phonies, like their success, in many cases really high levels of success, is a fluke. People dealing with this “imposter syndrome” are highly motivated to achieve, they also live in fear of being “found out” or exposed as frauds. But while they feel like imposters, fakes, phonies, lucky people who aren’t really all that gifted, the truth is they really are gifted and are very much the real deal.
Maya Angelou, who won three Grammys and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, knew this feeling well. She shared that, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” Now remember, she’d won three Grammys and had been nominated for a Pulitzer and a Tony. But she still questioned her success. She still felt like a phony. Marketing expert Seth Godin, even after publishing a dozen best sellers, confessed in his book The Icarus Deception that he still feels like a fraud.[i] People who deal with imposter syndrome aren’t frauds at all. But they’ve convinced themselves that they’re lucky, not talented. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re frauds. “I’m not really as good as they think I am. They’re going to find out how ‘not good’ I really am eventually.”
But I don’t think this kind of thinking is restricted to our careers. We struggle with the same kind of thinking in our journeys with Christ. The problem here is that we know very well the parts of us that other people don’t see, can’t see. We know our thoughts. The things we’d like to say but hopefully don’t. The things we do that no one sees. And then we come here to worship, and we feel like frauds.
Most of you know that I’m a therapist and I have a small private practice working with troubled families, troubled marriages, and troubled people on the side. And I work out of my office here at the church. It’s just easier that way. And late last fall, a mother scheduled an appointment with me for her and her teenage child who was dealing with some typical teenage stuff. The mom is a Christian, but the child isn’t. We met and the session went fairly well as far as intake sessions go. I usually just try to get to know my client and get our relationship off on the right foot. They scheduled a follow-up with just the teenager and then left. But about two days later, the mom called to tell me that the teenager was not at all comfortable meeting in a church or with someone who is also a pastor. That’s fine. It happens sometimes. No big deal. But then she said this: “I think your holy presence was just too intimidating.” I was like, “What holy presence?” I can promise you Becky is back there laughing right now. So are Sterling and Aubrey. They’ll be the first to tell you, I exude a lot of things, but holiness isn’t one of them. That sentence says way more about that person’s view of pastors than of me. They didn’t know me at all, outside of our 50 minute session.
And I can tell you that there are plenty of times when I come to worship and feel like a fraud. Those times when Becky and I have had an argument, or I’ve had a parenting fail, or I’ve really blown it somewhere, let my temper get the best of me. And I don’t feel like I deserve to be here, much less leading and preaching. But the truth is that we are all welcome here. We all DO belong, pastor and parishioner alike, not because of our efforts or our inherent goodness, thank God!, but because of what God has done for us in Christ. Sadly, in the one place where everyone should feel loved and beautiful and forgiven, most of us sit here with our chins on our chest feeling shame. So today, as we continue our journey through the first part of Romans, look at Romans 1:14-17.
This passage really gets at the heart of Romans. Everything Paul says here he revisits in greater detail later in the letter. In fact, many consider Vv. 16-17 to be the theme verses for the entire letter. And there are two words here that we absolutely have to understand if we’re going to understand what Paul is saying here and throughout Romans, and if we’re going to understand and build our lives on what God has done for us in Christ. And both are words that are completely misunderstood by all of us. The first word is righteous, righteousness. Look at V. 17. Righteousness is not something that you and I have inherently, it is not something we can attain, and it has nothing to do with how we act. When we think about a righteous person, we tend to think of a good person, someone who does more good things than bad, and that’s how most of us try to live the Christian life. To us, being a Christian is going to church and doing our very best to make sure that the good outweighs the bad in our lives. That’s what being a Christian is to most people today. And that view of life in Christ is completely unbiblical and ungodly. It’s a lie.
Righteousness has nothing to do with your behavior. In fact, it has nothing to do with you and I at all. Righteousness begins and ends with God. Righteousness is God’s attribute, not ours. It is God’s activity, not ours. And it is God’s achievement, not ours. First of all, God IS righteous. That means that God is right. When Jesus said, “I am the truth,” he was saying much the same thing. Both get at being in their very nature that which lines up with ultimate reality. God IS ultimate reality. God IS truth. All claims to truth, to reality, must align with who God is and what God has done.
Every year when our 4H kids unload their market pigs at the fair, the first thing every pig does is go across a scale. And the weight of that pig, in that moment as it stands on the scale, is the official ending weight for that 4Her’s project. Pigs are shown and then sold according to weight, and all pigs must come in between 225 and 315 lbs. Pigs that are over or under weight can be shown in showmanship, but they may not be shown in the market show and they may not be sold in the auction. And when someone’s pig doesn’t “make weight,” the first thing they do is question the accuracy of the scale. So a lot goes into making sure the scales used at the fair for all market projects are regularly certified. That means that someone from the state comes in and sets a certified weight, say 50 lbs, on the scale and adjusts the scale to read that exact weight. And then they test it over and over with several weights. What are they doing? They’re making sure that the weights the scale reads during unloading are as close to perfectly accurate as is possible. The scale must read in a way that lines up with reality. Two hundred lbs. on the scale MUST be 200 real lbs. If that isn’t the case, everything the scale does is off. And God is the righteous one, the standard by which all truth, all rightness, is measured. Righteousness is an inherent attribute of God. It is who God is.
Righteousness is also an activity of God. It is what God does. God declares us righteous because of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross and the empty tomb are God’s righteous activity declaring us righteous. And this is what we MUST understand: righteous is our standing before God, not our internal moral transformation. Righteous is not something we can become over time as we work on our lives. Righteous is something we are before God because God declares it. And God declares it based not on our trying to make the good outweigh the bad in our lives, but because of the work of Christ on the cross.
In a courtroom, when a judge or jury pronounces someone “not-guilty,” they really aren’t saying anything about whether the person actually committed the crime or not. What they’re saying is based on the work of the attorneys for the prosecution and the defense, this is the best pronouncement we can make. And based on the evidence presented by both sides and the arguments and counter-arguments made, this is what we think happened. And the system is designed to get as close to the truth, to rightness, to justice, as a human system can. But when the judge says “Not guilty. You are free to go,” in the eyes of the law, that person is not guilty, even if, by some chance, they did in fact commit the crime. They are declared not guilty, and therefore they are not guilty. There will be no punishment. A proclamation has been made. So God looks at the guilt of the human heart, and because of the work of Christ on the cross, declares you and I “not guilty.” That is our standing, our position, but not necessarily yet our internal transformation. We are righteous because God says we are righteous. It is God’s activity. Thirdly, righteousness is God’s achievement. He accomplished it in Christ on the cross. We do not, in fact we cannot, accomplish it for ourselves. God acts, and we receive. Amazing grace.
We must understand what righteousness is. The second word is faith. We must understand what faith is. Ever since the Renaissance and the intellectual enlightenment it represents, we’ve viewed faith as a system of truths to be believed. And by “belief,” we mean “agree with.” Faith has become a completely intellectual exercise. And what that view of faith has created is a people who do whatever they want, live however they want, but agree with a set of propositions about who God is and what God has done. We don’t base our lives on that reality. We just agree that it exists. And that has led to a powerless, impotent body of Christ.
Faith is so much more than that. It does involve the mind. There IS an intellectual component to faith. But faith isn’t just an intellectual exercise. Faith is quite simply this: it is our receiving what God gives to us. He declares us righteous because of Christ, so we receive it. But HOW do we receive it? By accepting that it is true, and thus building our lives on its truth. It’s that complex, and that simple. It is exploring God’s trustworthiness in the past and understanding what God says about who I can be in Christ. So faith in Christ isn’t blind faith. Faith in Christ looks at the evidence for truth, for Jesus actually being who and what he says he is, for the Bible being as reliable as it claims to be. That’s what The Alpha Course is all about. It’s examining the evidence for faith in community with others on the same journey. But then, finding the foundation solid, agreeing that it is true, we begin to build our lives on the truth of who God is, what God does, and what God gives to us.
Think about it like this. Right now, Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest person in the world. He’s worth about $112 BILLION dollars. By the way, Jeff Bezos is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Amazon.com. So imagine that you get an email from someone claiming to be Jeff Bezos saying that if you send him your bank account information, he’ll transfer $5 million into your account. Would you act on it? Please don’t. You’ll find your bank account empty. It’s a scam, right. But lets say that Jeff Bezos is your brother, and he sends you a quick email saying, “Hey bro, I’ve got that $5 million I promised you ready to transfer. I just need your account information make the transfer.” Would you send it then? Of course you would! Why? Because you know he loves you and he’s good for it. And then when you go to whatever ridiculously expensive store you’re planning to go to, you pull out your bank card and make the purchase with confidence, knowing that the money is there because your brother loves you.
In the ancient world, the teacher knew that the student had learned not based on a test score, but because the student’s behavior changed according to what he or she had learned. Until behavior changed to bring life in line with the truth learned, it was assumed that the truth had not yet been learned. And all along, we as followers of Christ have been treating faith like an exam, hoping we can regurgitate all the right answers at the right time. All the while Jesus has been inviting us to actually build our lives completely on him. We accept God’s offer of righteous standing before him by believing what God says, receiving his offer, and then living in that truth. That’s faith. And then the Holy Spirit goes to work in our lives in conjunction with our own minds and wills and begins the process of transforming us so that we begin to look like what God has declared we already are. And so Paul quotes from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Anybody here ever gone sky diving? There was a time in my life when I thought that might be fun. That time has passed for me. I’m perfectly happy letting the trained pilot land the plane. Much of the world looks upon the adrenaline junkies who jump out of “perfectly good airplanes” as crazy, but jumping from 25,000 feet without a parachute or wingsuit? That would just be suicide, right? Not anymore. Luke Aikins recently jumped out of an airplane at 25,000 feet without any kind of parachute, landing neatly in a square 100-foot by 100-foot net set up to catch him. He landed at a terminal velocity of 120 mph. Utterly crazy and even stupid, right? The guy has a wife and a four-year-old son.
But there is another angle to this story. Aikins was clear that this stunt involved a ridiculous amount of training. For starters, the 42-year-old has over 18,000 jumps to his name. Then according to CNN, “He prepared for the stunt by doing dozens of jumps – each, naturally, wearing a parachute – aiming at a 100 square foot target, opening his chute at the last possible moment. In his practice jumps he would pull the cord at 1,000 feet, something he had to get special permission to do. He said in the runup to the jump that he had consistently been hitting a much smaller target, giving him greater leeway with the full-sized net.
As Aikins said, “Whenever people attempt to push the limits of what’s considered humanly possible, they’re invariably described as crazy. I’m here to show you that if we approach it the right way and we test it and we prove that it’s good to go, we can do things that we don’t think are possible.” Okay, so the guy still might be insane, but he does have a good point: Proper training will get you to places you never thought possible.
Hebrews 11:1 says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t mean that faith is blind. If Jeff Bezos has promised to give me $5 million, and he’s my brother, chances are I’ve never seen the money. I’ve probably never seen his bank accounts and investment accounts and all of that. But I’ve seen him. And I’ve seen the evidence in how he lives. I know who he is and what he does. I know him. And so even though I’ve never seen the money, I know it’s there. I know that he’s good for it. I know that when I need it, it will be there. Not because I haven’t looked. I have. And what I’ve seen gives me confidence that what I haven’t seen yet will be there to catch me. I know that God is good for it. No imposters. You are declared righteous by God. He has done all that is necessary to make that a reality. Your job and mine is to believe it, receive it, and build our lives on it. Next week we’ll look at these same two verses again, at the three times Paul says “I am …” in part 2 of this sermon. Let us pray.
[i] Carl Richards, “Learning to Deal with the Imposter Syndrome,” The New York Times (10-26-15)