A few months ago, I was comfortably relaxed on my couch watching one of my favorite YouTube personalities playing Mario Kart online. In a moment of frustration after a couple of experienced players kept winning every race, he referred to them by a term I had never heard before: "try-hards." The word is fairly common in gaming spheres and pretty much means exactly what it sounds like: anyone who puts an unbelievably silly amount of effort into winning. It's also used to reference people in the real world who deliberately try to create a contrived image for themselves without much genuine personality.
Throughout my childhood and college years, I was the epitome of a try-hard (in both senses of the word) who tried to find fulfillment in the most fruitless ways. I was raised in a fairly healthy Christian home, yet I did not grasp the key concept of grace until much later on in life. Instead, I viewed my life and the world around me through the lens of shame. To me, God was this mercurial deity who was waiting to rain curses down on anyone who didn't quite "get it right" and shower blessings on those who checked off all the boxes on the checklist of how to live a good life. I reveled in whatever opportunities I could find to live the most rigidly defined life possible, if only to stay on His good side. I'd latch onto Pharisaical rules that made me feel secure in my spiritual walk.
This attitude trickled down into everything else. I fruitlessly tried to find significance in what I did. Whether it was singing, piano, memorizing Bible verses at AWANA—you name it—I was that overachiever who wanted to go the extra mile, and not always for the best reasons. By the time I became a teenager, my overachieving attitude extended to my relationships. I wanted to meet and know as many people as possible; it was exhausting. By college, being an overachieving people-pleaser was practically a way of life. What's really sad about behavioral habits developed across such a long period of your formative years is that they tend to become the norm as you grow into adulthood.
But then something began to shift.
The irony was that even though I was completely oblivious to how silly this all was, so many people around me saw right through it. Some of them didn't quite know what to say, most likely out of concern that their words could send me even further down the rabbit hole of trying harder and harder. Others were very blunt about what my problem was, though they were unsure how to help me work through it. And then there were those who came alongside me and tossed aside all the achievements, all the facades, all the attempts to impress—and loved me despite those things rather than because of them.
During my freshman year, I'd tried and tried to gain late admission into my school's honors program—something completely unprecedented. Most of my friends were in the program, so I wanted to be there too. But they graciously assured me there was no need to take the same classes or participate in the same activities for them to accept me. They didn't care about those things. They wanted to invite me in anyway. But the voice of shame was ringing craftily in my ears. When you allow it to take hold of you, if you hear negativity from others, you're left with the conclusion that they're right, and you're not good enough. But even if you hear positivity from others, you're left with the conclusion that they couldn't possibly have meant what they said, or that you don't deserve that kind of love, and therefore, you're still not good enough.
And they were right, even though I didn't want to admit it. I felt like I was hitting a brick wall when I tried to encourage my friends who were struggling emotionally—mainly because I often did so in the most shallow ways. I had no concept of personal space or boundaries. My whole world felt crumbled. My natural urge was to find some way to try harder. I knew it was pointless, but I didn't know what I needed. God knew. The people who truly cared helped me pick up my broken pieces and teach me about allowing grace to define my life.
Even still, I struggled to be willing to encourage and support other people again on a regular basis. I felt like I was inadequate, not empathetic enough, not the best listener. The specter of college-age J.B., who had all of those deficiencies, loomed over my life. I was so afraid of hearing another "You can't possibly know what I'm going through, so why don't you shut up!" So I hid from everyone.
In that time, God helped me realize something: I'd been operating under the false assumption that I had to be this unflappable source of strength for all my friends by not having any flaws showing. No wonder I faced the relationships roadblocks I often ran into. I had to come face-to-face with my own emotional struggles, own them, and be vulnerable with those I trusted. It was a process, but I slowly began to let go of my pride.
Years later, I've grown older and moved from my home in Texas to Colorado. I've slowly begun to learn to breathe again. There's still that voice in my head that sometimes tries to tell me, "Nah, you don't have enough life experience or the right words to be able to minister to that person!" But in the midst of that, I've met so many people whom God has granted me the privilege of encouraging, often without even realizing it. Some of them have come back and said some incredibly kind words that have deeply touched me, especially when regarding an area I personally struggled with in the past.
A few months ago, a friend told me she was grateful that I recognized she needed some space alone when we were out on the town with a group. I was so taken aback by that. Just a few years ago, I couldn't imagine anyone saying those words to me. I didn't even realize I was doing it, but it reached her in a meaningful way—all without having to try hard.
I'm not saying all of this to toot my horn, but rather to celebrate what God is doing and the people He's used to do it. I'm so thankful for the people He has sent into my life who have reminded me of what the work He is doing inside me, even though I'm sometimes blind to it. They continually remind me that my life isn't a snapshot but a filmstrip. It's so neat to look back and see my own growth in the midst of the struggles. And there's still much growing to do as life continues.
First, you are loved. God is absolutely crazy about you and desperately wants to know you more. He wants to help you grow. Maybe you've taken steps to begin your spiritual walk, and you've heard people describe the Christian life like a series of boxes to check or a set of structured steps that have to be followed to retain God's favor. Rest assured, He's not about whipping people into submission. He is patient, kind, and all about nurturing you in your growth, not prodding you. That growth is a process that happens at different rates and in different ways for different people. Rest in the place of grace, not shame. One of the biggest comforts I was given during those tumultuous college years was a short book called Tired of Trying to Measure Up by counselor Jeff Van Vonderen. I highly recommend it if you're in a similar place.
Second, if you're in a place of brokenness, be sure to find support. It's important at any point in life but especially when you're feeling emotionally fragile. Being vulnerable toward others is incredibly daunting, especially when so many in our world are not willing to be empathetic toward those they don't understand. But if you can find people you trust who have weathered the storms you're facing and have emerged victorious, you have an opportunity to form a friendship that could transform your life for the better.
Don't be afraid to seek a mentoring relationship with someone in that position, or if you need professional help, to find it as well. There is absolutely no shame in doing so. Do not cope with brokenness by retreating into isolation or splashing it around with other broken people who are meandering without any clear direction. It can feel validating at first, but if it's the only thing you're doing, you can easily compound your own brokenness without realizing it.
Finally, don't be afraid to own your story and what God has done in your life through it. One of the biggest lies you'll ever hear in Christian circles if you have a testimony with tumultuous trials and valleys is simply to "leave the past behind." It's certainly important to be looking forward and focusing on what God is doing in the here and now. But our past scars in the portraits of our lives are not blemishes to be airbrushed over. In the realm of grace, they are opportunities for redemption in God's eyes. You never know just how your story may impact others or help them to take the steps they need to pursue a closer relationship with Christ or invest in relationships they need or their own emotional health.
And that can make a difference for eternity.
J.B. Lewis is a 20-something who loves Christ and is discovering the wonder of true freedom by resting in His grace. He currently works as a marketing specialist at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs and loves studying classical piano, taking portraits, running, and designing puzzles in his spare time. Most of all, he loves spending time with God and the friends He has placed in his life who have walked with him in the latest stage of his journey.