Have you ever heard of “Imposter Syndrome”? It’s a very real problem for many people: they are unable to accept their accomplishments as something they have earned and they have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. It’s prevalent among professionals like doctors, lawyers, and pastors.
If they are successful, they attribute it to luck, timing, or the ability to fool others into thinking they are more intelligent and capable than they are. Actors Tom Hanks and Emma Watson suffer from it, as does writer and producer Chuck Lorre – who brought us Big Bang Theory and Dharma & Greg. America’s Poet Laureate, Maya Angelou, also wrestled with feeling undeserving of her success.
Clearly, these people have no talent, right? Wrong.
They are all very talented, but have a fear of inadequacy – a fear of not being up to the task or not worthy of the title they carry or the awards they win. Here in the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 5, verses 1-11, we see imposter syndrome in full force.:
Simon – who was later nicknamed Peter – had heard all that Jesus taught the people on the shore, because Jesus was in his boat. He was a captive audience. And after hearing what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God’s being at hand, Jesus then gave Simon the catch of his career.
His boat was about to sink. Then his fellow fisherman – probably including James and John – almost went down with their boats as they helped to haul in all the fish.
At this moment, Simon realizes that Jesus was not just talking about the Kingdom of God’s being close – He was the fulfillment of His own words. The Kingdom of God was – at least for a short while – right in Simon’s boat. And Simon was overwhelmed with the fear of inadequacy.
“Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” Although Simon had not known Jesus long enough to understand that He was the Messiah, he did realize that Jesus was closely connected to God – how else could He perform such a miracle? And being in the presence of a holy man, he was all the more aware of his own sinfulness. He felt unworthy of the honor of having such a person in his boat.
Let’s think about fishermen in first-century Palestine. They were not as low on the socio-economic ladder as shepherds – but only a rung or two above. Obviously, they reeked of fish, and they were a rough bunch; I’m sure their vocabulary and their jokes were pretty coarse, to say the least.
I will never forget the year between high school and college, when I worked for a contractor. Bob was a Navy veteran of both World War Two and Korea. You’ve heard the expression to “swear like a sailor”? Double that for Bob. He could string cuss words together, use nouns as adjectives and verbs as nouns – and most of those words were directed at me. I would never tell any of you his favorite name for me – I could be defrocked for using it.
Now picture Bob, driving to a jobsite in his pickup truck – and Jesus hitches a ride with him. Along the way, Jesus multiplies the 2x4s strapped to the rack until the truck’s springs can’t take any more. Imagine what Bob would say – probably something that began with the word “Holy” – and then realize that was a bad thing to say.
But Jesus does not chide Simon for not being a pillar of the community. Instead, He tells Simon not to be afraid and then gives him a job to do.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t disagree with Simon when he says he is unworthy. Basically Jesus says, “Yes, you are unworthy, but even so, do not be afraid.” It would not be until after Jesus’ resurrection that Simon – renamed Peter – would understand that Jesus made him worthy. As Jesus makes us worthy. He shares with us His righteousness – demonstrated in His death on the cross. Even if we don’t understand how that works, we should heed Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid.”
The mission Jesus entrusts to Simon is to fish for people, to share the good news. This unworthy man, regardless of his own inadequacies, is being given a mission to spread the Gospel. Any doubt that Simon might have about his ability to do that should have been answered by the miracle: Even though he was an experienced fisherman, he was at the mercy of the schools of fish, the weather, the water temperature, and so on. But Jesus filled his boat and the rest of the boats in the fleet with fish. Surely, if Jesus wanted Peter to fish for people, Jesus would give him success.
So why do we hide behind our own inadequacies? We use them as excuses to turn a deaf ear to the calling of God. “I can’t be an elder.” “I can’t be a deacon.” “I can’t teach Sunday School.” “I can’t preach.” “I can’t pray with people.”
What we are really saying is, “I’m not good enough.” But is any of us good enough on our own? Of course not. But when Jesus shares His righteousness with us, we become good enough. We become perfect candidates for the job.
“But I don’t have the skills or experience or training.” Let’s switch this around: remember when you were looking for your first job? You were probably asked what experience you had. If you didn’t have any, you probably thought, “How else am I supposed to get experience if no one will give me my first job.”
How do surgeons, lawyers, architects, pastors, or fishermen get skills, experience, and training? Maybe some comes from school or from parents or other mentors, but most of it comes from doing the work.
“But what if no one responds favorably?” As we saw with Simon, Jesus will provide as much success as He wants us to have. So we should not be afraid to answer His call to service.
One more aspect of our fear of inadequacy. Sometimes we try to mask those feelings as humility, but C.S. Lewis corrects our definition of humility. He wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but think of yourself less.” Did you catch the difference?
When we focus on how we don’t measure up, our focus is on the wrong person: our focus is on ourselves. We should focus instead on Jesus and His love and grace and power working in and through us. If He could take Simon Peter and use Him to start His Church, just imagine what He can do with you!