Humility is a rare virtue among the accomplished. It is also rare among the spiritually converted. There seems to be built deep into our psyche the desire to be all that we believe others want us to be. When we are faced with a demanding boss or parent, we often find ourselves pedalling harder than ever to win their approval. When we rise up in stature among our peers, we find ourselves growing ever more cautious and fearful because we do not wish to lose the regard that they have for us. Insidiously, our anxiety to perform and retain the approval of others extend even to ourselves and – ironically – God himself.
There are many who at some point in their lives have had a powerful spiritual conversion experience. This encounter with God’s love is usually experienced as a great liberation from the sins that had bound us. For a short while – perhaps weeks, even months, we feel powerful, graced, and determined to live a whole new life that reflects our newfound commitment to Christ. But imperceptibly, and usually almost immediately, we begin to allow ourselves to be bound by a different set of chains – the chains of “what a disciple ought to be like”. Slowly but surely, our new life in Christ becomes one filled with duties and responsibilities that overtake our capacity to love and be loved, and before we know it, we have lost our joy.
I had the (mis)fortune to be a ‘student celebrity’ since I was 12 years old. Due to being Head Prefect in both primary and secondary school, my name was better-known than my person. It was not uncommon for stories about me to spread far beyond my knowledge, and for people to have formed an impression of me – both positive and negative – without having ever personally encountered me. On top of the impressions among my peers, I struggled with what I felt to be the sky-high expectations of teachers and elders who seemed to think I was far more intelligent and capable than I felt I was. Amidst all this was a dreaded fear that I would disappoint them one day when they found out that I was never as good as they believed me to be.
Fast-forward 20 years or so and I found myself in a parallel predicament when I served full-time in parish ministry. Having appeared on the scene initially as an outsider and unknown, I had quickly lost the freedom of my anonymity. Once again I found that my name carried with it certain expectations, and that more people have heard of me than had met me, and that impressions had been formed that were both positive and negative which quite often had very little basis on fact. I found myself challenged to live up to the ‘myth of Ann Yeong’ and becoming increasingly burdened and unhappy because instead of getting to know the real me, I was focused on trying to become the persona that I felt others believed me to be. If I was praised, I felt the need to live up to the praise. If I was criticised, I was driven to change the criticism to approval. The endeavour was doomed to fail from the start, for how could a flesh-and-blood human being ever succeed in becoming the product of human imagination and projection? More importantly, how could I be happy being thus cut-off from the delight that God had in me, just as I was?
Then one fateful week, something happened that helped me step off the pedestal that I had unwittingly allowed myself to be placed on. Twice that week, in separate incidents, I was given credit for a wonderful project that I had not been involved with by people who hardly knew me (but who had heard much about me). My attempts to clear the air and deny credit were made out to be modesty, and the praise that was heaped upon my head remained. I realised that in some people’s eyes, I was way holier than I actually was, so much so that they would attribute good work that was beyond me to me, even when there was zero basis in fact. The absurdity and humour of it all hit me and in that moment, I felt God speak to me:
“The way others assess you will always be influenced by what they want to believe about you. Why do you allow opinions based so little in truth affect you? Only I can show you the truth about yourself, and I never cease to delight in you.”
In a new and powerful way, God was inviting me to step off the pedestal and to grow real roots in His love instead. It was an invitation to step out in freedom so that the choices I make reflect the real me instead of the persona I felt bound to through the expectations of others. There may be many people who think they know me, but through no fault of their own, they often see my usefulness instead of my real worth. And I know now that I am not the sum of my usefulness – not even my usefulness to God’s Kingdom. The roots I have put down in God’s love tell me that I am the sum of my Father’s love for me, and it is a love that is not ashamed of my incompleteness, sinfulness, immaturity and failures.
These roots are young, and the pull of the pedestal is ever present. But I have confidence that God who has begun this work of humility in me will see it through. How I long for the total freedom of knowing exactly who I am and how loved I am right here, right now. I love to be able to laugh at myself and to agree with others about the ways I am hopeless and totally incapable. For if I know and love myself as God knows and loves me, I may disappoint the whole world, but I shall never lose my joy!