“I quit!” I told my husband. “I’m leaving our church. This church no longer brings me life. It brings me death. I am going to another church.”
I had been imagining this very moment for months. Since my husband was the Senior Pastor of our church, this was no small decision. For years, I made feeble attempts to get him to pay attention, to see my tiredness and frustrations. Finally, I was finished.
“You can’t do that!” Pete replied, visibly upset. “That’s ridiculous.” I remained silent, determined not to cave in to his anger. “What about the kids? Where are they going to go? It’s impractical! Listen, just one more year and things will smooth out.” I could see his anxiety rising as he came up with more and more reasons why my quitting was a bad idea. “What about God? Didn’t He call both of us to this? Look at all the good things He is doing. People’s lives are being changed!”
Who could argue with that? Pete had been pulling out the God card since the beginning of our marriage. For years, I felt brushed off and ignored by Pete, and I did not care anymore. I had finally hit bottom. With Pete pouring so much of his life into the church, I felt like a single parent raising our four young girls alone.
Only a few months earlier, I had told Pete, “You know, if we separated, my life would be easier because then you would at least have to take the kids on the weekends and I would get a break.” I meant it, but it was still only a fantasy, an empty threat. My need to be what other people wanted and expected me to be was far too great to actually allow me to stand up for myself.
While I had been a committed Christian for many years, my primary identity was defined not by God’s love for me but by what others thought of me. This negatively impacted every area of my life – marriage, parenting, friendships, leadership, even my hopes and dreams. But now I had lost the fear of what others might think or say. There was no longer anything else left to lose. I had given so much of myself away that I no longer recognized myself. Gone was the creative, outgoing, fun, assertive Geri. Now I was sullen, depressed, tired, and angry.
Our church was growing and exciting things were happening in people’s lives, but it came at a too high cost – a cost I no longer wanted to pay. There was something desperately wrong with winning the whole world for Christ at the cost of losing my own soul.
I complained to Pete about my unhappiness and blamed him for my misery. To make matters worse, I felt ashamed and guilty about it all. After all, weren’t good pastors’ wives supposed to be cooperative and content? Still, I got to the point where I was so miserable that I did not care what anybody thought of me. I no longer cared if people saw me as a “bad pastor’s wife” or a “bad Christian.” I wanted out.
It has been said that a person who has nothing left to lose becomes the most powerful person on earth. I was now that person. I started attending another church the next week. As I look back, I am deeply sad and embarrassed it took me so long to finally take action. The fear of what others might think paralyzed me for years.
Quitting the church was only the first small step toward true freedom in Christ. The problem, I would learn, was not ultimately the church, Pete, the congestion of New York City, or our four young children. The hard truth was that the primary problem was me. Monumental things inside of me needed to change.
Looking to Others to Tell Me “I’m Okay”
For the first nine years of our marriage, I conformed and accommodated myself to Pete’s desires. I quickly dismissed my desire to go back to school because it clashed with Pete’s already overloaded schedule. I avoided “hot button” topics I suspected might arouse tension in our marriage. I was unable to tolerate the discomfort and pain of Pete’s pouting or, worse yet, his anger toward me. What was I to do? Wouldn’t he be miserable if I started to be my own person?
Yet, I soon realized this issue went much deeper and wider than my relationship with Pete. Unhealthy patterns of self sacrifice and accommodation overflowed into every area of my life – in friendships, church, parenting, and my family of origin.
Like most people, I enjoy it when people tell me, either verbally or nonverbally, that I am okay. This is a good thing. I enjoy being supported and accepted by Pete and others. The problem comes when validation from others becomes something one must have. Sadly, I needed it; I had to have it in order to feel good about myself. In other words, I was okay with myself as long as I felt others were okay with me.
Four Reasons to Stop Living for the Approval of Others
If we do not break through our need for the approval of others, our growth is seriously stunted. We cannot mature into spiritual adulthood. A wall is erected that stands between us and the beautiful future God has for us. We settle for the pseudo comfort of being okay with ourselves based on others being okay with us.
1. You Violate Your Own Integrity
You violate your integrity when what you believe is no longer what you live. You ignore values that you hold dearly. A wall exists between what goes on inside of you and what you express to others. Who you are “on stage” before others is not who you are “off stage” when you are by yourself.
2. What Or Whom You Love Is at Stake
You realize that if you continue your present course and behavior, you will lose someone or something dear to you. This may be your spouse, family, career, future, or even yourself. To make a change feels awful, but to stay where you are is even worse.
3. The Pain Of Your Present Situation Is So Great You Have To Make A Change
Some of us have such a huge tolerance for pain that it takes an explosion to get us to move. One attractive, highly educated, young woman I know went in and out of an abusive relationship because she was so familiar with such treatment from her family of origin. The pain eventually led her to leave the relationship completely. As she began to receive Christ’s love, her identity was remolded, and she was able to value herself the way Christ does.
4. The Fear That Things Will Stay The Same Is Greater Than The Fear That Things Will Change
The notion of changing our situation can easily overwhelm us. There comes a point, however, when the thought of remaining in certain circumstances another one, five, ten, or thirty years is more terrifying than risking change. At times, this serves as a clear message from God to get off the road you are on. Change becomes less scary than the prospect of remaining where you are.
This fear was a contributing factor that finally propelled me into changing my situation. The fear that things would never change in our church or our marriage became greater than my fear of quitting the church and risking the displeasure of others. My dread that life could remain like this for the next twenty years moved me to finally say, “No more!”
Two Practical Steps
When it comes to quitting the approval of others, progress is best made with two daily practices: reflecting on the movements of your heart and reflecting on the love of God. For example, to reflect on the movements of your heart, think back on your recent interactions with people. What did you say to position yourself so that others would think well of you? What might you have done differently? Ask God to help you be aware of the temptation to adjust your behavior or words for someone’s approval.
The second daily practice is to contemplate the love of God. I spend time regularly in Scripture, in silence and solitude, receiving the love of God, allowing it to permeate and change every cell in my body. This has proven foundational to slowly dissipate the fear of what others think. The principle is simple: the more you ground your identity in the love of God, the less you need the approval of people for your sense of lovability.
And when you are willing to quit caring what others think, you take a giant step to discover the Holy Spirit’s power to break into your life and birth that which is new and beautiful.
Geri Scazzero, along with her husband Peter, is a Teaching Pastor and Director of marriage ministry at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York City. She is also the author of I Quit (Zondervan 2010). Together with her husband, Pete, they are cofounders of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a groundbreaking ministry that integrates emotional health and contemplative spirituality to pastors, leaders, and local churches. Check out their website at www.emotionallyhealthy.org.