My hands were sweaty as I dialed the number on my phone. I was holding back tears—mouth dry, throat tight—yet I had to go through with this call. Something inside my twenty-three-year-old heart was compelling me to confess, to set the record straight no matter how humiliating it would be.
My silent prayer that no one would pick up went unanswered. I heard my boss’s voice on the other end: “What can I do for you?”
I barely managed to choke out the words. “I need to apologize for something I did at work . . . for something I lied about.”
My boss responded graciously to my confession, but this wasn’t the first white lie I had told to mask my imperfection.
WHITE LIES AND HALF TRUTHS
In college, I once visited my Bible professor to admit to lying on a one-question quiz (“Did you read the assignment?”). Lest you think me virtuous for always fessing up, there were plenty of times I didn’t respond to the pricking of my conscience. I can’t count the number of half-truths and flat-out lies I told my parents to allow them to remain blissfully ignorant about their “perfect” daughter.
In making that phone call, I had followed the formula I was told would work to cure me of my self-promoting ways—good old-fashioned confession (telling the truth about my sin) and repentance (turning 180 degrees in the other direction).
But did it change my habit of people-pleasing and perfectionism?
CONFESSION AND REPENTANCE ARE NOT ENOUGH
It may have been a deterrent, but it was not the turning point you might expect. I don’t remember telling any more outright lies to cover up my mistakes, but I certainly didn’t shake free of my need to appear perfect. I still always put my best face forward. I craved affirmation. I compared myself to others. And crucially, I still thought of myself as a good person.
Why didn’t confession and repentance cure me?
This is a question I wrestled with for years, not just in my own life, but also in the lives of the people God called my husband and I to pastor.
Why did I, and so many others, continue to struggle with the same patterns of sinful behavior, even after multiple humiliating reckonings with God and the people we hurt? Why were so many of the people we served becoming disillusioned with God and the church when “doing the right things” left them basically unchanged?
WORKING HARD IS NOT ENOUGH
For some people with perfectionist tendencies like mine, it takes a really big fall from grace to break free from the stranglehold of performance. They mess up in a public way and then realize their failure was the best gift they’d ever been given.
For me, it took being thrust into a position of leadership. Being the pastor’s wife, the one people looked to as an example, shone the spotlight on my people-pleasing issues. With all those eyes watching me, I felt I had to appear more perfect than ever. On top of that, as a spiritual leader, I was supposed to have answers. How could I help anyone change if I had no clue how to do it myself? It was humbling to admit that years after I’d identified the sin in my heart, I was no closer to expelling it.
After confession and repentance did little to change my heart, my next approach was to try hard to become what I wanted to appear. I wanted to appear spiritual, so I had to become spiritual by developing a daily habit of Bible reading and prayer. I wanted to appear informed, so I had to become informed by reading all the Christian books I could. I wanted to appear hospitable, so I had to become hospitable by hosting playdates and dinner parties.
If I could keep the inside as righteous as the outside, at least I would not be living in hypocrisy. I could save face and maintain my perfect persona without guilt. I made it my mantra to live “from the inside out, not the outside in,” which wouldn’t be a bad idea if the inside was actually good.
But of course, my heart was like everyone else’s—“deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9).
GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM
Eventually God led me down a crooked trail of conversations, books, Scripture study, sermons, and humbling personal failures until I landed upon the solid bedrock of a settled identity in Christ.
You see, the reason I felt I had to hide, protect, and lie was because I had an identity to uphold. My core identity was that of a godly, strong, conscientious woman. If anything challenged that identity, it had to be stuffed away lest I lose the things that made me me.
Where did this identity come from? In large part, it came from the pages of my story.
I was raised in the fishbowl of a pastor’s family and discipled in a works-oriented church where outward performance was praised above all. When I looked back at the chapters of my earliest identity formation, I came to realize that I was conditioned by my religious tribe not to reveal weakness. If I wanted to fit in, I needed my righteousness to be front and center.
It wasn’t that I thought I was perfect. I knew I had issues with people-pleasing, and I felt guilty for all the hiding. But I didn’t know how to attack those sins without losing myself.
PULLING IT UP BY THE ROOT
Confession is a necessary first step in overcoming sin, and forming spiritual habits is necessary for growth. But if I was ever going to break free of my pride and self-protection, I knew I needed more than confession and repentance. I needed more than a strong effort at making the inside match the outside.
In order to change, I was going to have to go back to the pages of my story and allow God to pull up those foundational lies and replace them with the truth of who I really am: a deeply flawed but deeply loved child of God.
I began paying more attention to my gut reactions, motivations, worries, and fears. And I realized how many of them were tied to threats to my identity, forged in the earliest chapters of my story.
Peter Scazzero, in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality says,
“The work of growing in Christ (what theologians call sanctification) does not mean we don’t go back to the past as we press ahead to what God has for us. It actually demands we go back in order to break free from unhealthy and destructive patterns that prevent us from loving ourselves and others as God designed.”
Identifying and letting go of those long-held identity beliefs and learning to trust that what God says about me is true is an ongoing effort, but it has been the only way for me to truly change habits and gain freedom.
NOT WHAT THE WORLD MAKES ME
I still struggle with people-pleasing and perfectionism. Maybe I always will. But when those thoughts come swirling, I now tame them with the remembrance that I am “not what the world makes [me].” I am not the perfect person I am striving to be.
I am God’s Beloved (Rom. 1:7, 9:25; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 John 4:10; Jude 1:1).
I am accepted (Rom. 15:7).
I did nothing to earn his favor and there is nothing I can do to lose it (Rom. 8:31-39).
I do not need to be liked, admired, respected, or affirmed. I can admit weakness. I have nothing to prove, and nothing to hide.
 Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero, Zondervan Press, 2014
 Here and Now: Living in the Spirit by Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006
Christy Rood is a wife of twenty-one years, a mom of two teens and two tweens, and a former (recovering?) church planter in Seattle of fifteen years, now residing in the Raleigh, NC area. Her book, The Story of Self, is set to be published by Gospel-Centered Discipleship in the fall of 2019. You can find her blog at www.christyjrood.com. She is also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.