Tommy Tucker is ten years old. He stares down at the desktop. His heart is racing; his palms are sweaty. Miss Beaumont is calling up each pupil, one by one, to “go over” their homework. It’s his turn next.
“Tucker!” The teacher’s voice booms out around the classroom.
Tommy gets up and walks down slowly towards Miss Beaumont’s huge oak desk. When he arrives, he looks up at the bespectacled woman, whose hair is tied neatly into a bun on the back of her head. She takes off her glasses and lets them dangle down on a gold chain. She peers at him, her brow furrowed. She doesn’t look happy.
“Twelve out of twenty, Tommy. I’m disappointed in you.”
Tommy mutters something about trying harder next time and wanders back to his desk. When he sits down, he looks down at his maths homework. Alongside the mark, Miss Beaumont has written in bold red letters:
COULD DO BETTER.
Could do better.
I wonder if there is a part of you that relates to Tommy Tucker. It is such a common experience, isn’t it? Either a parent or a teacher whom you disappointed. Or an expectation that you failed to meet – either created by yourself or by authority figures in your life. Wounds of this kind go very deep. So deep, in fact, that we can find ourselves in denial, pretending that we’ve “got over it now.”
Sadly, could-do-better thinking leads to several serious problems in the life of the believer. For leaders, these effects spread far and wide, since they set the tone in their communities.
This is the most common response to could-do-better. Just work more. Try harder. Do more. If I just work harder, then I’m doing better. Given that my church seems to evaluate my performance by how much I’m doing, I will simply work harder. Perhaps then they (and my very own Miss Beaumont) will be satisfied with me.
Well, you know what we at Living Leadership think of that. Not much. We were founded to help leaders find rest and healthy rhythms in their lives. Our primary goal is to help leaders experience the grace of God and the joy of the Lord. We aim to help leaders avoid burnout by drawing their strength directly from the Lord. Workaholism not only leads to burnout, it signals wrong thinking. It’s both a failure to understand grace, and a motivation for ministry that is misguided. This is quite apart from the reality that leaders who work long hours are often those who don’t delegate. They’re always hoping that their own Miss Beaumont will one day say, “Well done, Tommy. Good work!” Except that day never comes. Because they could always be working harder.
Could-do-better tells you that if you perform well, you will be affirmed, and maybe even loved. It is Pharisaic in origin, and therefore, it is antithetical to the gospel of grace. Could-do-better in church inevitably leads to people-pleasing, one of the most crippling attributes of a leader. People-pleasing requires strict law-keeping (both cultural and moral laws) and worse than that, it ensures that a leader is essentially a follower, not a leader. Weak and fearful. Not bold and brave. People pleasers follow the signals coming from the people, and they keep the people happy by giving them what they want.
Since when did this bold, beautiful, wonderful faith become a timid, risk-averse, image-protecting project? Church history might help a little. It didn’t take long before the courageous, grace-filled believers lost their way. Legalism quickly replaced grace; control replaced freedom; power replaced service. But we don’t live in those early years of the church. We live now, post-1517.
People-pleasing creeps in through the back door when a noble aspiration morphs into something quite different. Without our noticing it, “I’m here to serve my community” quickly turns into “I’m here to please the people.” Driven by could-do-better, I prioritise what people want, because out there in the pews, they all start looking like Miss Beaumonts. And it’s important to please her. If I pleased her, then . . . she would approve of me. Maybe she would even love me.
So we play it safe. We never take risks. We work out what the people want and we give it to them. Over and over again. The wild, free animal that is Aslan becomes a kitten we place in a cage. It’s worth remembering C.S. Lewis’ timeless words in the mouth of Mr. Beaver:
'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.
Perhaps the saddest and most heart-rending truth about people pleasers is that they will never find true joy. Not only because they’re driven by fear and a lie, but because they are divorced from the true source of joy. Lacking faith in the ability of God to guide them, leaders turn back to their followers, hoping that if they can please them, they will find peace, and God will be satisfied.
Poor Pastor Tommy. Poor Rev. Tucker.
So what’s the answer?
Grace is an otherworldly concept. It is so far removed from our human experience that even though it is central to our worldview, and our relationship to God, its truth often eludes us. We can explain it, but living it out often defeats us. We get the theory, but we don’t internalise it. The other day, I had a chat with a lovely young woman in church. She confessed that keeping the rules was really important to her. I asked her how she squared this with grace, and in truth, she couldn’t. Rule-keeping was so ingrained that it was impossible for her to let it go.
And when you think about it, it’s not surprising. Our entire human experience tells us that we don’t receive unless we perform in some way. Eat your peas, then TV. Pass the exam, receive the certificate. Work hard, get the promotion. And then God comes along and tells us that he’ll give us a completely new life (and a life to come) for which we are required to pay absolutely nothing at all. Zero. Not a thing. Just accept with open hands and heart.
“No, hold on,” says could-do-better Tommy. I’m still called to live a good life, am I not? Well, yes, that’s true, but it sounds like you’ve linked the two. And God never, ever, does that. He never, ever requires virtue as a payment for grace. Never. Ever. Grace is free. Always. Or it isn’t grace.
The thing is, if you’ve lived inside a could-do-better mindset most of your life, how does this even make sense? Most of us have our theological ducks in a row, but the design – all in a row – it’s so often “out there,” not “in here, deep in my heart.” In response, we preach about grace, but inside, we cling to could-do-better. We try to meet others’ expectations. We work harder. We value appearance over grace.
Today, as you read these words, I wonder how God is speaking to you? If there is even a tiny piece of Tommy Tucker inside you, are you prepared to let him go? Are you able to turn to your own Miss Beaumont and say, “Thank you, but no, I don’t owe you anything. I don’t live for you.” But most importantly, will you take some time this week to breathe in the wonder of God’s grace.
Freely given. Every day. Not just once. Every day.
Will you give yourself permission to receive grace deep into your spirit?
You don’t owe anything. It’s all paid up. Just enjoy God’s unwavering favour, which never fails, never stalls, never fades. And let go of could-do-better. You will never work hard enough, so stop trying. You will never please all the people, so stop trying. Instead, live inside grace until it pours out of you, and saturates all you do and say.
May the Lord bless you richly as you serve him this week.