Imposter Syndrome

Mark 9:14-29
March 1, 2020   
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

In the popular comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes,” six year old Calvin often worries that there might be monsters living under his bed so in one strip, Calvin and his pet tiger Hobbes decide that the best defense is offense.  That night before turning off the lights they throw scraps of food and other garbage under the bed hoping that it will appease the hunger of any monsters living there.  Bill Watterson, the cartoonist who drew Calvin and Hobbes, admitted that Calvin’s actions were symbolic for his own feelings at the time.

“I was going through a creative drought,” he said, “and so I put my feelings into the strip.  I was Calvin, drawing garbage to appease a hungry public.” (1)

“Calvin and Hobbes” fans might be surprised to discover that Bill Watterson went through dry spells and periods of doubt.  Watterson won numerous awards for his strip and his work was and is still praised today for its consistent quality, so whatever dry periods Watterson experienced weren’t obvious in the final product.  Nevertheless, Watterson’s self-doubt is shared by many artists and writers who liken the creative effort to being on an emotional roller coaster: one minute you feel inspired and excited by your work, and the next you are certain that you are nothing more than a hack.  This experience is common enough that in 1978, two psychologists even gave these feelings a name; they called it “imposter syndrome.”  Imposter syndrome, they said, is a feeling of inadequacy that persists despite a person’s success.  It is the fear that all of the accolades you have received are built on a house of sand that might crumble at any time when the real “you” is revealed.  Even the great poet Maya Angelou struggled with imposter syndrome.  She said, “Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great.  I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now.  I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” (2) 

Though creative types might be more prone to imposter syndrome than others, it also affects athletes, business people, executives, and yes, even academics.  Those of you who are teachers can probably remember a moment, especially early in your career, when in spite of all of your degrees and training, you stood in the classroom nervously thinking, “What if my students discover that I really don’t know as much about this subject as they think I know?”  Imposter syndrome is, as its name suggests, the worry that in spite of your hard work and your best efforts and your past successes, you will turn out in the end to be nothing more than a fake, a poser, claiming to be something you really aren’t.  

Though few may admit it, I think many Christians are prone to imposter syndrome.  If someone were to ask you, “Are you a Christian?” what would you say?  By most people’s definition, a Christian is a person who goes to a Christian church and professes faith in Christ.  By your presence here this morning, you are demonstrating that the gospel is important to you and that you are trying to organize your life around the teachings and person of Jesus.  By all standard definitions, you are a Christian.  Nevertheless, if someone were to ask you, “Are you a Christian?” I suspect many of you would hesitate because you would be internally weighing your life.  

“Do I really practice kindness consistently enough to claim the name Christian?” you might wonder.  “Am I really a Christian if I rarely experience the presence of God?  What if sometimes my prayers feel like I’m just going through the motions; can I still call myself a Christian?  How can I claim the name Christian if there are days when I seriously doubt Christ’s promise that love will win over hate, or when my sins weigh so heavily upon me that I cannot accept there is forgiveness for me, or when, if I am to be absolutely honest I sometimes wonder if there is a God at all?  Am I just an imposter, claiming to be a Christian while keeping hidden away from everyone the storm of doubt swallowing my soul?”

After Mother Teresa died, her diaries revealed that this paragon of faith and discipleship experienced in her own words “‘dryness,’ ‘darkness,’ ‘loneliness’ and ‘[mental] torture,’ [and was sometimes driven even] to doubt the existence of heaven and … God.”  She confessed in her letters to confidants that she often felt like a hypocrite.  (3) Mother Teresa suffered from classic imposter syndrome.    

In verse 24 of the ninth chapter of Mark, the father of a sick child expresses the agony of Christian imposter syndrome when he cries out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 

“I do believe,” we cry out.  “I have staked my life on the reality of God and the possibility of resurrection, on the promise that love will triumph over evil, on the hope that I can know strength through Christ.  Why then am I filled with such doubt? God, help my unbelief!”

This passage in the gospel of Mark can be a profound comfort to us as we hear our own struggle expressed in the words of the father: just knowing we are not alone in our doubts can relieve the guilt we feel about them.  There is more here for us, though, than simply comfort: there is also a prescription for our distress because regardless of what internal struggles and fears that father may have had, he still came to Jesus.  His heart was filled with doubt but his feet still brought him to Jesus.  And Jesus’ measure of the man’s faith was not grounded in what was going on in the man’s head but by what his feet were doing.  Mother Teresa may have gone through long periods of dark despair but she continued to give her life to Christ’s work on behalf of the poor of India.  She said essentially, “God, I don’t even know if you exist, but I choose to act as if you do.  I don’t know if I believe that love can make a difference, but I will choose to live as if it does.”  Faith isn’t about what goes on in your head, or even what is happening in your heart; it is about where you direct your feet to take you.  Faith is standing before Christ and saying, “I don’t understand everything you say, Jesus, and I don’t even know what I believe on any given day, but I’m choosing to come and walk by your side because it’s the place I need to be.”  

Christians often mistakenly think that it is our beliefs that make us Christian, but beliefs can stay in our head and never affect a single thing about how we spend our days.  Ultimately, what makes a person and what shapes a life is their choices.  Think about who you are today:  you are the person you are because of the paths you have chosen to walk to get here.  You are who you are because of the choice you made when you settled on a career, or the next choice you made to change that career or because of who you chose to marry, or who you chose not to marry.  Not only did those kinds of choices affect your physical circumstances but they have changed who you have become as a person by strengthening certain gifts, moderating personality traits, and by teaching you lessons you would not have learned if you had taken a different path.  Our choices shape us as surely as water carves out the river basin from the stone.

Faith is not what is going on in your head; it is the path on which you choose to direct your feet.  Being a Christian means that even when you wonder if the gospel promise makes any sense or if grace and love really do any good, you will choose to walk with Jesus.  By choosing to walk with Christ, to take his name upon you as a Christian, you are simply saying that you will persist in following the path of love that Christ has laid before you even when the shadows of doubts and despair fall upon you.  You will not shape your life by the beliefs or the unbeliefs that crowd your head and heart but by where you direct your feet to take you; on a walk with Jesus.  And I pray that one day, each of us may look back on these days and say, “Because of that choice, I have lived the life I wanted to live; I have become the person I longed to be.” (4)


Footnotes:

1. This is a paraphrase from memory. 
2. http://mpowir.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Download-IP-in-High-Achieving-Women.pdf
3. https://time.com/4126238/mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith/
4. a quote from Robert Fulghum