SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Partners with God: The Achiever’s Trap (Part I of II)

November 3, 2014 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Life

Dear Father John, if we are supposed to be partners with God, why do I feel like I have to do so much of the work? My husband gets by with doing next to nothing. I have a sense that neither of us is right and we need to find some balance. Can you help?

DIFFERENT PERSONALITIES TEND to react to [the] truth about our partnership with God in different ways. If carried to the extreme, these reactions can lead to a lack of interior balance, inhibiting the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21) that we are called to begin experiencing even as we travel along our pilgrimage in this fallen world. Each of us needs to develop an awareness of how these tendencies show up in our own case, so as to gradually develop a healthy sense of balance while our interior freedom matures. [We're going to examine both of the personality types you mentioned. Today, we will look what achievers like yourself share in common.]

The Achiever’s Trap

LobsterTrapHigh achievers and perfectionists will tend to overemphasize the 1 percent that is our part. They can interpret the parable of the sower and the seed, and other parables of the kingdom, as threats. They tend to think that if they are not doing their absolute best at every moment, God won’t be pleased and won’t be able to send his grace. They feel that God is watching closely over them, but more analytically than lovingly. They can fall into subconsciously perceiving God as if he were a judge in a gymnastics competition, paying special attention and taking a perverse delight in all the flaws, all the shortcomings, of their Christian performance. They forget what God himself has told us about his unconditional love, a love that doesn't have to be earned: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jeremiah 31:3, RSV).

If this tendency is given free rein, the spiritual life can gradually become twisted and oppressive. The sweet and jubilant fascination that accompanied the soul’s first personal encounters with the Lord gets worn down by fear, tension, and pressure, which are for the most part self-imposed. The deep, rich satisfaction that came from discovering the ultimate meaning of life (living in communion with God) and redirecting one’s actions and desires toward that meaning, fades and almost disappears. The Christian quest for holiness comes to be felt as a stifling shackle and an exhaustive, unfair burden.

Unpleasant Repercussions

This path of overemphasizing our own efforts can have various eventual outcomes; the self-imposed pressure cooker can explode in a variety of directions. It can leave the soul brittle, harsh, and dry. This creates Christians who are pious but not holy, who are cold and judgmental and holier-than-thou. On the other hand, it can lead a person to rebel against God, to come to the conclusion that Christianity is nothing more than a spiritual and emotional prison constructed out of controlling lists of sadistic, inhuman obligations. The constant disappointment of not living up to unrealistic, self-imposed standards of performance can also lead to seemingly perennial discouragement, and even depression, paralyzing the soul or sparking addictions.

The Antidote

The tendency to overemphasize our own efforts needs to be balanced out by frequent contemplation of God’s goodness, of his undying commitment to always be there with his 99 percent, and of his delight in our slightest efforts to put forth our 1 percent.

The achiever or perfectionist needs to think frequently and intentionally about all God has done through the ages, and all he continues to do, to further his loving plan of salvation. These individuals need to think frequently and intentionally of all God has done and continues to do to further their own individual stories of salvation. Like St. Paul, they need to renew their confidence in God, the senior partner of our Christian quest:

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus…. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work. (Philippians 1:6; 2:13)

In Part II, we will look at the lull of mediocrity.

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Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.


Art: Lobster Trap, Hartmut Inerle, 12 August 2005, CC by SA, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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