Christian imposters?

Image of disguise glasses. Creative Commons image courtesy of Kate Ter Haar on Flickr:

Image copyright (c) 2013 by Kate Ter Haar, made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/katerha/8347212476

In the past few months, I’ve noticed increasingly regular mentions, in various places, of the concept of ‘imposter syndrome’ as a common problem within academia – especially for postgraduates or early-career researchers. I’m sure many reading this will already have come across the term, or have experienced something of it themselves, but if you haven’t, it’s fairly self-explanatory: it’s the feeling that behind the polished exterior you’re secretly a fraud; that you’ve got to where you are by blind luck, which is bound to run out soon; that one of these days you’ll be exposed as a phoney, and lose your place in the community that you so value.

These confidence-sapping thought processes are fuelled by the increasing opportunities that contemporary, digitally-connected life provides both to compare ourselves to those around us, and to stage-manage our own images so that such comparisons are never fair. Moreover, once this mind-set has been established, it can easily become a vicious circle: working hard and achieving highly only serves to provide you with a new set of unrealistic standards against which to measure yourself. The often achievement-driven culture of the academy (where people are too often encouraged to measure their own value by their most recent publication or grant award) only makes it all worse.  So I thought it might be worth considering how this common problem might relate to life as a Christian in this environment. What difference does knowing Jesus make? What difference can our words and actions make for others suffering in this way? Three truths seem vital here, corresponding to three dimensions of the syndrome itself.

  • There is no condemnation for those in Jesus. Comparing our own achievements (or any other aspect of our lives) with those of our peers can easily leave us feeling like frauds; yet the truth of the matter is that when we take on Jesus’ life, we are clothed in his identity and victories – our lives are no longer our own, and all comparisons are rendered void.
  • We need not worry about being ‘found out’; we are already fully known. We have no secrets from God; he knows the best and the worst of us, and he chose to redeem us when we were at our worst. We don’t need to fear the rejection (or crave the approval) of those around us; we have a Father who accepts us by grace, and is constantly making us more like Him.
  • Our value comes from our Caller, not our achievements. It is God who has invested us with value, by making and then dying for us. It’s great to work hard doing what is good, but we don’t need to become trapped by the lie that our achievements are what give us the right to exist. In his brilliant little book Ordering Your Private World, George MacDonald highlights the importance of being ‘not driven but called’; both identities spur us on to action and accomplishment, but the second sees it not as a precondition but a consequence of our acceptance in Jesus.

Hopefully these truths will help give perspective when we feel like frauds. They also free us from the need to present ourselves as more accomplished, more perfect, than we really are – something which will greatly help those around us who also feel the same way. Moreover, this freedom and openness also provides a firm foundation when it comes to actually doing our work, day by day – it allows us to seek and give advice without embarrassment, be honest about and learn from our mistakes, and not use self-deprecation or false modesty as an excuse for retreating from our responsibilities.

In a sense, all Christians are imposters – we are clothed in the unearned status of Jesus, called to live as exiles and strangers, waiting for a new life that is yet to come. But in Christ we also have great authority to embody His truth and love in our communities – and that includes academia. And when God calls us, He also equips us: whatever situation we find ourselves in, as we rely on Him we can grow in our confidence and ability to do the job that is set before us.

Comments

Thank you for this, Mark. It's certainly a feeling I've been dealing with in my first year of doctoral study, and it's made especially hard by the amount of fatalism around about the prospects of a successful academic career! I love the MacDonald phrase 'not driven but called': what freedom there can be in not constantly looking over our shoulders and panicking about the expectations we fear we can't meet, but instead looking ahead to the Goal of our faith, who has already accepted us.

I liked this in the acknowledgements to Paul Lim's book on Richard Baxter (revised from his Cambridge PhD thesis): “Lastly my wife and trusted friend, Mikyung Kim, often reminded me of the great reality that my ultimate significance before the One was by grace, not by grade.”

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