Bill & Milbre Burch, at the time of their wedding, just before his deployment, 1943
God used my father to teach me two powerful, but painful lessons. My father was not a man of the church. I never heard him express faith in God. That doesn't mean he was not part of God's plan. I’ve come to see how God uses people as part of His plan, even when they are unaware. My father was a workaholic. He started the company when I was 9 months old. “I’m doing this for your mother and you kids,” he would say about the business, as if it made up for a father’s absence. I don’t remember tossing a football or baseball with my father. When he was around, he mostly seemed like a grump.
“You’re not good enough,” was the unspoken lesson he taught me. The most emotion he could ever express was, “I love you anyway.” Sentiments expressed with the tone of a disappointed father. I spent nearly fifty years trying to prove my father wrong. It was a decade after his death before I admitted the Godly truth embedded in both these proclamations.
My father was a tough man. Raised by his grandmother on the mean streets of Oakland after his mother died and his father left. He raced motorcycles, and boxed Golden Gloves as a teen. He went into World War II as an enlisted man, got a battlefield commission and mustered out as an officer. He was a perfectionist, expecting the impossible from himself and everyone around him.
Many men of his generation felt the role of fathers was to teach the children that it’s a cold, cruel world out there, and you’d better be tough if you’re going to survive. Mothers had the role of nurturing and loving, and were often viewed as ‘spoiling the kids’ by dad. I resented being challenged by my father because it was not accompanied by love. Jesus always mixed the loving invitation of being in community with the Father with the challenge of turning away from sin and back towards God.
So, I entered my career as a striver, trying to prove something. Sadly, no amount of positive results would change the inner voice saying, “You’re not good enough.” In my striving, I drove others around me to strive harder. I was still striving when started my EMBA in 1996. I was one of the three candidates in the program without an undergraduate degree. I really had something to prove in that setting. In one of my first classes, I learned about the Impostor Phenomenon. It described me to a tee.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:
The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. It is not an officially recognized psychological disorder, but has been the subject of numerous books and articles by psychologists and educators. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Just finding a diagnosis did not bring a cure, however, and once I made A’s the first couple of courses, I found my self striving through the whole program for a perfect score. In 2000, I took a course with Robert Fritz called, Fundamentals of Structural Thinking. I learned that weekend that I had been driven by obligation my entire life. I was so intrigued that I enrolled in their Structural Consulting Certification Program.
The next year, I was in a practice structural consulting session when Rosalind Fritz asked me the most powerful questions I had ever encountered. In being consulted by another wannabe consultant, I said, “I’m a little frustrated trying to work with our Bishop to create a leadership program. Rosalind cut in, “Gregg, I don’t get frustrated.” She went on, “Let me get this straight. You’ve made an offer to help the Bishop on leadership matters, right?” I nodded yes. She asked, “Is he free to say no?”
At that point, my gut started churning. “I’m not sure,” I said, “maybe not.” She followed with this simple question, “What’s that about?” I thought for a minute, and then said, “You know, I always thought I was trying to prove myself to my father, but he’s been dead for ten years. I think I’m trying to prove myself to God.”
“Is that how your religion works?” she came back. Now, my goose was cooked. I suddenly realized that I had been striving my whole adult life to do something completely contrary to my Lutheran theology of ‘Salvation by Grace by Faith.’ I was onto myself. I had been living in complete contradiction to my beliefs. My unconscious structure had driven behavior despite everything I thought I believed. I understand now that God had no interest in propping up the idea that I could prove myself to Him. Indeed, Fritz helped me see, I am not good enough.
Structural consulting let me see that which had been hidden from my view for almost 50 years. Now, I see the belief that I am not good enough as a truth that God used my father to plant deep in my subconscious. God would awaken me from the myth of disproving this truth decades later. And, now I see “I love you anyway,” not as the disappointed expression of my earthly father, but as the forgiving embrace of unconditional love from God the Father.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on spiritual formation in the company of young men. I see a lot of striving in my young friends. I revel in the truth of these two painful but important lessons. I thought I was trying to prove myself to my father, found out I was trying to prove myself to God. And, I thank God for unconditional love expressed as “I love you anyway.”
In the midst of the striving I see around me, I say to my friends, “I’m just a sinner. I could never be good enough. Any good you see in me is the grace of the Father. All I can do is ask the Holy Spirit for the strength this day to turn from my selfish ways.” A number are turning to me for structural consults as I slowly gain some mastery of this practice. Some are coming to the realization that I discovered, trying to prove something to God.
If you would like to learn more about how identity structures like perfectionism, fear of failure, self contempt, and not good enough are an obstacle to your spiritual growth, read the post Does your Identity Limit Spiritual Growth here. If you would like to talk about a structural consult, contact me.