by Elizabeth Wyse Cook
I was so excited! I was old enough to go to the seminar that had changed my parents’ lives! I was a tad bit nervous too; after all, I was a young teenager and this was a big event with hundreds of people attending. I would be expected to act like an adult. But it sounded like a lot of fun as well.
Wide-eyed, I went with my dad through the line to get my workbook. Then we settled into our seats and listened. To me, the material was all brand new. I listened with all of my being, trying to absorb it all (which is of course impossible to do the first time around). I scribbled furiously, trying to keep up with all the notes. When I got behind, my parents let me look at their books so I could catch up. During the break, my parents and others assured me that with this new workbook, taking the notes was easy; a lot was already filled in for us. Back in “the old days” there was no notebook, only paper.
As I listened throughout the week to all that was shared, I began to see one big theme, although I could not have put it into words at the time. If you want good things in life, then you need to do the right things. If you do wrong things, you will have trouble. Yes, that is a very simplified version, but that was the basic message. I certainly didn’t want all the bad things that were described, so I decided to do all the good things that had been talked about. Then my life would be good. And if undeserved bad things did happen to me, then they would somehow turn out to be really good. Isn’t that what God had promised in all the Scriptures that were quoted?
I was a “good girl.” I didn’t like conflict. I was generally very compliant and good-natured. Just before attending this first seminar, I had been beginning to think that I should start making more of my own decisions. After all, I was growing up, wasn’t I? I was starting to long for more freedom and more choices. However, after listening all week to the seminar, I pretty much changed my mind. I definitely needed my parents’ help in making all my choices. I wanted to follow God; I sure didn’t want to be under Satan’s control!
At some point in the week, all those who were attending for the first time were told that we were being prayed for by at least one person who had attended before. I was rather awed at the thought. Someone was actually praying for me during this week? It made me want to be extra sure that I didn’t miss something God wanted to say to me.
In the subsequent years, I attended quite a few seminars. At each one, I learned more. I would go home determined to try harder to live up to all the wonderful things I was learning. I knew I was still failing – a lot. But I was sure that I could make it eventually.
If only I had known. If only I had known that I would never “make it.” If only I had known how damaging trying to be perfect would be to my soul and my relationship with God. If only I had known how much pain that perfectionism would cause me to inflict on others. But I didn’t know. Not for many years. So I kept trying.
I always looked forward to attending various conferences sponsored by the organization. These were not the beginner level stuff that the seminars had. They were for those who had worked hard to implement the things we had learned in the seminars. They were more focused on helping us to be the absolute best so that we would be a light to all those who hadn’t discovered all the wonderful truths that we had.
Conferences were a highlight of the year for me. It was a time to be inspired. A time to meet other people who were similar to me – people who had similar views on what God expected of us. It was a time to wear the uniform and be part of a peer group (the only time that we were allowed to be in a peer group for the most part). It made me feel important to be part of such a large group who were doing great things for God.
Conferences were also exhausting. We would be in sessions all day and evening. There was never quite enough time to sleep or to do much socializing, especially if we had younger children in the family. A few sessions had printed handouts, but often, we just scribbled frantically in our blank notebooks. There really was no time to think or compare notes in detail with others while there. We were always running from one thing to another. But I enjoyed these events immensely! They were a wonderful break from routine.
We heard about what God was doing in various aspects of the organization. It was exciting! Lives were being changed. Problems were being solved. New opportunities in new cities or countries were announced and prayed for. New teachings promised ever more righteousness which would result in more happiness.
Each year, there was a new theme at the conferences. It was the organization’s theme for the year. For years, I felt like I had to keep up with and work on whatever the new theme was. Often, I didn’t feel like I had mastered the last year’s theme yet…or the year before that. There was the mounting pressure of needing to work on multiple things at once. After many years of this, it finally occurred to me that perhaps God’s focus for me in any particular year might be different than the organization’s theme. Perhaps God wanted me to continue thinking about the previous year’s theme. Or (this was really hard to believe), perhaps God had a totally different theme for me. Something not even close to the organization’s theme.
Many years later, I learned that I didn’t have to keep trying harder and harder to do everything right in order to please God. Jesus had already done that for me. There is no way I could ever do enough to please God. But Jesus perfectly pleased His Father. God doesn’t look at my pitiful version of “righteousness” anymore. God now looks at Jesus’ righteousness when He looks at me. And I accept that with a heart full of gratefulness.
I no longer try to be perfect. Instead, I focus on how much Jesus loves me unconditionally. If I’m looking at His smiling face, it is pretty hard to be grumpy with other people. Instead of a multitude of rules covering all areas of life, I now have just two. Love God. Love people. Yes, they are actually much harder to keep than the longer list of outward performance. But they are so much better. Instead of trying to control myself and others, I can just love. I don’t have to get results; I can just love. The change from trying to trusting was not quick. Neither is it complete yet. But God has promised that He will complete the work He has begun in me.
Eliza is a young woman who was burned by legalism, but then discovered that Jesus already kept the law for her. Her desire is to get to know Him better. You can contact her at elizabethwysecook(at)gmail(dot)com. You may remember Eliza from this article by Sarah Posner.