Imposter syndrome is the shadow that haunts my waking hours, obscuring my identity and my sense of purpose.
My experience of safety––at work, in my marriage, in the church––is often beset by shadows of doubt. That sense of dissonance, the feeling of being an outsider in my own narrative, cripples the abundance of life Jesus promises. I peer into the rhythms of my life and think, This was meant for someone else. I feel like a parody of myself.
Henri Nouwen describes the escapism I indulge when I feel like an imposter in my own life, “I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire.”
Nouwen was reflecting on The Return of the Prodigal Son, the painting by Rembrandt. The Rembrandt piece depicts the desperation of our human condition. The prodigal son’s tattered clothes and his frame collapsed at the feet of his father expose the craving for belonging—and the fear that we will never belong—that weighs on so many of us.
In the allegory Hinds’ Feet on High Places, the main protagonist Much-Afraid journeys from the Valley of Humiliation to the High Places of Love, where she will finally be able to rest in true safety.
The Chief Shepherd mysteriously allows two companions to guide her––Sorrow and Suffering, whose close proximity will guide Much-Afraid to the glory of the heights she so desperately desires.
She wonders, “Will he who is so strong and gentle be less faithful and gracious to me, weak and cowardly though I am, when it is so obvious that the thing he delights in most of all is to deliver his followers from all their fears and take them to the High Places?”
When Much-Afraid looks with horror into a desolate valley of loss, her resolve wavers. The fear that so easily grips her holds sway once again. She imagines that the Shepherd who claims to love her has abandoned her and cries out for help. He appears, strong, steadfast, full of more compassion than she has fear. “He lifted her up, supported her by his arm, and with his own hand wiped the tears from her cheeks, then said in his strong, cheery voice . . . ‘No one, not even your own shrinking heart, can pluck you out of my hand.’”
Much-Afraid elsewhere declares with confidence, “‘My Lord is of very tender compassion to them that are afraid.’ As she looked, thankfulness welled up in her heart and the icy hand of fear which had clutched her broke and melted away and joy burst into bloom.”
A friend once told me that though I may not feel like it, goodness and mercy are forever chasing me, blood-bought markers of divine presence and eternal companionship. When I feel like a fraud, God invites me into the astonishing reality of his unrivaled care. Like the experiences of Much-Afraid, it is his voice of assurance that guarantees my identity, secured forever through the cross and resurrection. So even when I look in the mirror and don’t recognize the face staring back at me, it is his everlasting love that echoes louder than self-doubt.
Yes, I fight tooth and nail for the hope of assurance. But I behold the kind intention of a Father who is not dissuaded by my doubting but instead enters into it. For his posture toward me is, as Dane Ortlund says, “not a pointed finger but open arms.”
The Ministry of His Presence
In the presence of the gentle Shepherd, I, like Much-Afraid, become “more alive than ever before to beauty and delight in the world around [me].”
I am truly at home here, in this life and the circumstances that make it, but only because He walks with me. While I may feel like an imposter in my own skin, the value of my finite heart is ensured by a God who dwells in me, walks alongside me, and whose indomitable love guides me to a place of true belonging and safe refuge.
My longing for home is fulfilled by the "with-ness," the companionship of Christ. Though I tie myself down to performance-based perfectionism to keep imposter syndrome at bay, the sustaining grace of divine presence is the only thing that truly brings peace. In this lifetime and the next, the glory of Christ and His calling me Beloved is my soul's true home. And that truth sends imposter syndrome slinking back to the corners––not completely gone, but shaken by a brighter light of assurance and hope.
Cover image by Mario Alvarez.