Good is not enough

Feelings of Inadequacy

Last week, instead of publishing a post about feeling inadequate, I missed my self-imposed weekly deadline. How’s that for timely?

The week before, I heard Dick Gordon, on NPR’s The Story, interview a woman who had worked for many years at a chicken processing plant. Her job was putting stickers on chicken wings to mark their quality – A-grade, B-grade, or X for discards. The chicken wings came by on a conveyor belt, and she put stickers on them.

“That sounds like an easy job,” Gordon said, just as I was thinking the exact same thing. The woman laughed and described the conditions in more detail. She was required to tag 25 wings per minute — about 2 seconds per wing. The conveyor belt never stopped moving during her shift, and her shift might last 7 to 8 hours — maybe longer if the plant had more chickens to process. What I had thought sounded like an easy job, now sounded brutal in its difficulty.

If a job sounds easy, it’s probably because you either don’t know enough about it or don’t care enough to do it well.

Called by God…and Not Good Enough

Several years ago, Darrell Johnson spoke at Regent College on the subject of calling. He had just concluded a study of every person recorded in the Bible as having received a call from God to perform some task. He wanted to discover what they had in common, whether there were any patterns to their calls that he could learn from. As you might expect, they had several things in common, but the first surprised me: they all felt inadaquate.

You might thing that being personally chosen by God for a job would give you some degree of confidence – “surely, if He thinks I can do it, I must do something right” – but the exact opposite was the case.

Moses responded immediately with a protest:

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

He continued to resist with several more questions, questioned his ability to speak well enough:

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

Isaiah despaired when he encountered God:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5)

Jeremiah said he wasn’t old enough:

“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” (Jeremiah 1:6)

Many more examples could be found[1].

Feelings of Inadequacy vs. Reality

From our perspective, it’s hard to understand why they feel so inadequate for the task God has given them. We know each of them as a person who did great things, often in the exact area of their insecurity. It’s so bizarre to read Moses call himself a poor speaker, when we know that he will give some of the greatest orations in the whole Bible.

Second, we know that they have God on their side! It’s God himself choosing them for his work. When Moses argues that he’s not a good enough speaker, God answers him:

Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say. (Exodus 4:11–12)

In trying to explain this common element of insecurity, Johnson wondered if they felt inadequate precisely because they were the right person of the job. They knew exactly what God was asking of them and what it would take for them to be successful. For example, Moses had already attempted to lead a liberation movement among the Israelites – and failed miserably (Exodus 2:11–15). Who better than Moses, who had grown up in Pharaoh’s household, knew the kind of opposition he would face from Pharaoh in trying to free the people of Egypt? Who better than Moses, who had almost been killed as a child for being a Hebrew, would know the risks involved? No wonder he tried to talk God into finding someone else.

Our feelings of inadequacy, then, likely have more to do with our knowledge of the current situation – and our knowledge of the ideal “what could be” scenario – than with our actual ability. The more we know about a challenge, the more daunting the challenge will seem.

As unpleasant as it might be to experience, insecurity is a healthy emotion in the right proportions. If we never feel insecure, it’s probably because we are never trying anything new, or falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect (false confidence bred of ignorance). The psychologist Paul Vitz has said that the lowest self-esteem, and highest insecurity, is found among corporate CEOs, while the highest is found in federal prisons.

So, what can we do about our feelings of inadequacy?

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the call of Moses was his willingness to question God’s decisions. He’s just seen a burning bush, the voice of God tells him he’s been chosen to lead Israel out of slavery, and his response, “Who – me?”
  2. Recognize that your perception may not match reality. Listen to the opinions of trusted friends, as well as the person asking you to do this job. Shortly after starting my current position, I expressed doubt over dinner about whether I could handle the job. My daughter responded with some of the wisest advice I’ve heard:

    Dad, if they didn’t think you could do the job, they wouldn’t have given it to you.

  3. Remember: God is with you. In many cases, God responds to these expressions of insecurity with a reminder that he will be with them, such as his words to Jeremiah:

    Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:8)

Photo: Ben Terrett

  1. Saul went so far as to try hiding to avoid being named as king of Israel, leading to one of the great exchanges in the Bible:

    So they inquired further of the Lord, “Has the man come here yet?” And the Lord said, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the supplies.” (1 Samuel 10:22)  ↩

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