Good Imposters

I learned a new phrase—“Marriage imposter syndrome.” I’m very familiar with the last two words, but not in the context of marriage. When explained to me, though, I understood the concept perfectly.

“It’s when you wonder who let someone your age make such an adult decision as getting married.” (Reader, it doesn’t matter what age you actually are.)

I remember that devastating crash of doubt the day after I got married. I assumed I was the only one who’d ever felt it. It’s not great to begin married life believing you’re an awful wife for momentarily thinking you might have made a terrible mistake. I’m glad we have a name for it now, and we’re letting newly married people know it’s normal.

Imposter syndrome is real in most areas of life. It’s well documented in the workplace, especially affecting high-achieving women. It happens to parents. We wonder—Who let me walk out the hospital with this little creature? I don’t know the first thing about what to do with one of these! It doesn’t let up. We’ll spend the rest of our lives second-guessing our ability to help a child grow into a happy, healthy adult and beyond. Pastors question ourselves on the regular. Christians are sure God loves us, but not at all positive God likes us very much.

Usually, this is hurtful nonsense. But I’m going to flip this thing a little bit.

What if, despite the very real detrimental effects it can have, imposter syndrome isn’t wholly bad? Perhaps a bit of understanding that we’re not able to do all this (whatever “all this” is) on our own is, dare I say, a healthy thing?

Just before the Israelites walked across the border to the Promised land, God, though Moses, had a few words for them.

“The Lord your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you when he made a vow to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant. When you have eaten your fill in this land, be careful not to forget the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 6.10-12, NLT)

In summary? Don’t become entitled fools.

Remember that what you’re able to accomplish is a gift of privilege. That doesn’t mean we’re not pleased and even a bit proud of our accomplishments. It means we always have in all our mirrors, rear and forward facing, a vision of God and others who have positioned us for that accomplishment. We refuse to give in to the audacity that we could stand there on our own, drinking from the cisterns of success and eating from the vineyards of victory, like we put all the pieces into place.

Imposter syndrome, while having its very negative consequences, can remind us that achievements always have more than one contributor. We can lean into it, in the work realm and the spiritual one, to seek out those contributors and collaborate toward stronger, healthier discipleship.

Maybe it’s women who have an angle with exploring when we doubt our capability and believe we need to crowdsource, rather than the men (statistics tell us it’s men) who are certain they are the right person for whatever job they want to do. Some healthy skepticism about ourselves isn’t always a bad thing. Many people have taken it to extremes, and many leaders have taken advantage of parishioners willingness to be gaslit regarding their own wisdom.

It’s not unusual, though, and not always bad, for us to look around at life and wonder who let someone our age make so many adult decisions.

When I officiated at our daughter’s wedding last fall, I asked the guests to stand as they pledged themselves to help the new couple through the joys and sorrows of their relationship and their faith. It’s a sacred pledge, and I wanted them to recognize that. We’re used to thinking of our marriages as “our own business.” Americans are used to thinking of anything that touches their lives in any way as their own business.

In reality, life is a communal event. We’re not any of us old enough to make life’s most important decisions on our own. When God said it wasn’t good for humans to be alone, God was making more of a statement about community than marriage. It wasn’t whole, in order, good for humans to be on their own.

We all need simultaneously to be standing and saying “Yes, I will help you through this thing called life—I will be your people” and also seeking that input from others with all our hearts.

Yes, the church has failed egregiously when we’ve been too intrusive in others’ lives. There is a correction and complement that seeks a self-righteous “I told you so.” We’ve witnessed the delving into someone else’s privacy that cuts wounds with its veneer of holiness. Too often, church leaders have sought to be the authority in believers’ lives without the vulnerable posture of fellow pilgrims. Too often, we’ve been happy to tell others they weren’t qualified to run their own lives, and we were. We need to repent and lament that pride.

The true community of believers—those who will cheer us on us when we’re capable and shore us up when we’re not—has become a unicorn. So rare as to be a rumor one has heard of but doesn’t quite believe in. It wouldn’t be a rumor, though, if it didn’t exist. I’ve seen it. I see it in our church. I see it among online believers. I see it in house churches and small groups of straggling pilgrims who’ve decided they’re not church but are working together toward being something.

I’ve known it in the people who are there for us when we admit we feel like imposters in this world. They tell us—yes, you are. We all are. Every one of us. But it’s okay. We’ll get there, together.

Imposter syndrome isn’t all bad. Let’s let it lead us to our need for others and for God.

Jill Richardson
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